On the opener of Robbie Fulks’ 1996 album Country Love Songs, he sang, “She liked it fast, she liked it loud, she liked it funky/ She liked everything about me, ‘cept for one thing/ She liked every kind of music but country.” The song was tongue in cheek, making fun of the pernicious idea that country music was something to be looked down upon, that it was somehow inferior to the blandest of rock offerings. Over the last 20 years, Chicago’s Bloodshot Records, that LP’s home, has challenged this ill-conceived belief about all things twangy and Southern by releasing some of the most important alt-country and roots rock efforts of this generation.
Founded by Nan Warshaw, Rob Miller, and Eric Babcock (who left in 1997), the label was born out of a Chicago scene that was oversaturated with post-grunge alternative acts like the Smashing Pumpkins and Urge Overkill. Instead of veering towards that reverb-heavy, arena-ready brand of balls-out rock, Warshaw and co. were looking at a vibrant but underground community of artists raised on traditional American music that couldn’t possibly be mistaken for inoffensive country radio acts. Their first release of 1994’s For a Life of Sin: A Compilation of Insurgent Chicago Country proved to be a finely curated collection that highlighted a burgeoning scene.
With its humble operations beginning in Warshaw’s apartment, the label moved to an Irving Park location in 1999 after it became too big for the small space. Their ethos was always a mix of being musically ambitious and financially conservative, a belief that has led to their long-lasting presence not only in Chicago’s music community but also in the national conversation. While the label’s founders will chalk up their longevity to luck, their catalog is near-unassailable and would be even without a runaway success like Ryan Adams’ 2000 solo debut, Heartbreaker.
Throughout its two decades, Bloodshot has been a host to big names like Adams and Neko Case, revitalized veterans like Alejandro Escovedo, Andre Williams, and The Sadies, and new talent like Lydia Loveless, Old 97’s, Luke Winslow King, and Murder by Death. Its well-rounded approach to all things American music and its scrappy work ethic have made it such an enduring force. To celebrate its 20th anniversary, Bloodshot released a ridiculous, 38-track covers LP of non-label artists taking on some of the canonical offerings of the label’s vast catalog entitled While No One Was Looking: Toasting 20 Years of Bloodshot Records.
Though whittling down well over 200 solid albums into 10 essential offerings was no doubt a Herculean effort, it was also quite fulfilling to revisit and discover the label’s vast oeuvre. Notable omissions include Fulks, label mainstay and punk legend Jon Langford (whose consistency is almost a fault), one-man workhorse Scott H. Biram, Ozark rockers Ha Ha Tonka, reemerged roots-rock troubadour Cory Branan, Michigan cover outfit Detroit Cobras, and countless others. For a label that’s as vital as Bloodshot, these 10 albums that made the cut highlight its diversity, its relentless underdog spirit, and its necessity in a climate that can be cynical and generic.