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.
10. Various Artists – For a Life of Sin: A Compilation of Insurgent Chicago Country
The release that started it all was 1994’s For a Life of Sin: A Compilation of Insurgent Chicago Country. Curated when Chicago’s music scene was populated by post-Nirvana acts like Smashing Pumpkins and Liz Phair, this compilation documented the gritty and rootsy underside that was virtually ignored compared to the burdensome buzz of alt-rock. With a stars-in-the-making lineup that included the Mekons’ Jon Langford, a longtime label collaborator that proved his country rock bona fides, along with Chicago staples The Bottle Rockets, Robbie Fulks, and golden-voiced trio The Sundowners, this disc connected musicians who revered traditional country music and pushed it into directions that were the antithesis to the glossy, contemporary Nashville sound. Not only was it a reflection of an overlooked but thriving scene, the release also marked the Handsome Family’s first recording ever. All in all, For a Life of Sin was a promising look at what the next 20 years would bring: rustic, ramshackle, and furious American music.
9. Luke Winslow King – The Coming Tide
When Luke Winslow King writes music, he dives deep into roots traditions, picking up hints of Delta Blues, folk, country, New Orleans jazz, and gospel. On his debut album, The Coming Tide, the Michigan-born, Emerald City-based musician gives a detailed history lesson of a variety of genres. While all this mixing and matching would cause an otherwise overwhelmed artist to produce a jumbled mess, this LP is seamless in its sequencing and reverent in its homages. Throughout the way, his smoky croon is buoyed by his wife and bandmate Esther Rose, who impeccably complements every arrangement. There’s a full-bodied horn section, upright bass, and jazzy piano chords on nearly every song, and highlights like the bluesy “Keep Your Lamp Trimmed and Burning” and the winsome “I Know She’ll Do Right By Me” rank among the label’s best songs.
8. JC Brooks & the Uptown Sound – Want More
Proving that Bloodshot Records wasn’t just a home for alt-country, JC Brooks & the Uptown Sound’s 2011 sophomore album Want More marked a new era for the label. Trading the pedal steels and banjos for a horn section, raucous big band show, and a soulful frontman, the album was a document of one of Chicago’s best performers and a bold, new direction for the label. Along with fiery originals like “I Got High” and the title track, the album’s best cut is a show-stopping cover of Wilco’s “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart”. Paying homage to one of Chicago’s most revered bands, JC Brooks and co. showed enough flair and creativity to make it their most enduring hit yet. Since then, Bloodshot has signed icons Barrence Whitfield & The Savages, and without JC Brooks, Whitfield’s excellent 2013 comeback LP, Dig Thy Savage Soul, may not have ended up with a home at Bloodshot.
7. Bobby Bare Jr. – From the End of Your Leash
Son of country legend Bobby Bare, Bobby Bare Jr. more than conquered the expectations and molded himself into a bona fide solo artist with 2004’s From the End of Your Leash. More of rocker with a proclivity for roots music than a country crooner, Bare Jr. kicks up the distortion, the guitar solos, and the punchy melodies on the LP. Holding a less refined but more expressive voice than his father, he mournfully croaks on “Don’t Follow Me (I’m Lost)”, slurs on “Let’s Rock and Roll”, and yelps on opener “Strange Bird”. His versatility also suits his subject matter, which can instantly turn from piercingly depressing to lovelorn and darkly comic, sometimes simultaneously. Songs like the hilarious “Borrow Your Girlfriend”, the tongue-in-cheek “Your Favorite Hat”, and the rousing chorus of “Valentine” prove that the album has something for everyone.
6. Lydia Loveless – Somewhere Else
Leading the class of the label’s rising young talent, Lydia Loveless’ third album, Somewhere Else, showed the 23-year-old Columbus, OH, native taking a gargantuan leap forward. Kicking off with the ripping “Really Wanna See You Again”, a drug-fueled romp about trying to reconnect with an ex, the album finds her not holding back any lyrical punches. She’s brash, unfiltered, but uncompromising in not only her emotional honesty but also her finely tuned songwriting. Each track on Somewhere Else is well-crafted and inviting, even with the abrasive sincerity. “Wine Lips” has impulsive, tipsy, and lovestruck immediacy that’s fully illuminated by her formidably twangy pipes. Songs like “Head”, which originally appears to be an ode to sex, actually reveal brilliant levels of angst and melancholy with a narrative about a broken relationship. Here, Loveless proves to be an incredible songwriter and a compelling personality. With songs as strong as these, she needs little else to catapult into true alt-country stardom.
5. Old 97s – Wreck Your Life
After Texas country rockers Old 97’s released their debut album, Hitchhike to Rhome, the buzz from the music community was tangible. With a frontman as charismatic as Rhett Miller singing about the standard topics of girls and booze in a way that was fresh and invigorating, the future was bright for the post-Uncle Tupelo act. So, they signed with the still fledgling Bloodshot and released their sophomore album, Wreck Your Life. The LP highlighted the best parts of the newfound group, like Miller’s captivating storytelling, the swaggering riffs, and their heart-on-your-sleeve meets the devil-may-care attitude. While tracks like “Doreen” and “Victoria” stand among the band’s finest, the effort solidified that the hype was well-deserved. In the wake of Wreck Your Life, which remains a cult favorite amongst die-hard fans, the band would go on to sign with major label Elektra and continue to establish themselves as alt-country mainstays. Without that extra push from the dedicated hands at Bloodshot, who knows what would have happened to Rhett Miller and his band.
4. Justin Townes Earle – Midnight at the Movies
Like his former labelmate Bobby Bare Jr., Justin Townes Earle has always been dogged by comparisons to his country punk pioneer father, Steve Earle. In 2008, he began his career with the Yuma EP and his debut album, The Good Life. His sophomore album, though, Midnight at the Movies, completed the transition from young writer finding his voice to one of the best acts in Americana. From the opening chord progression of the title track, it was clear that the album was a more mature and engaging release. There are introspective family musings on the nostalgic “Mama’s Eyes”, some rustic traditionalism on “They Killed John Henry”, and mean guitar playing all around. The best moment comes when Earle highlights his punk rock bona fides with an inventive cover of The Replacements’ “Can’t Hardly Wait”. Rebellious but refined, he resoundingly kicked off his fruitful career with that LP. Earle would go on to release two more compelling albums with Bloodshot, 2010’s Harlem River Blues and 2012’s Nothing’s Gonna Change the Way You Feel About Me Now.
3. Alejandro Escovedo – A Man Under the Influence
While Bloodshot has hosted a variety of artists at various stages of their career, having cowpunk veteran Alejandro Escovedo on the roster was a major grab. The former frontman of Rank and File as well as the True Believers, Escovedo went solo in 1992, releasing four albums before signing with the label in 1998. After a live album and 1999’s Bourbonits Blues, a messy but lovable album full of live cuts, covers, and four originals, he released A Man Under the Influence. The offering was the best album of his Bloodshot years and, arguably, his career. On the LP, Escovedo enlists a number of guest players to realize his songs, from having Superchunk’s John Wurster and Mac MacCaughan on the rocking “Castanets”, the album’s best song, to Ryan Adams and indie rocker Mitch Easter. Even with the marquee cameos, it’s Escovedo’s show. Tracks like opener “Wave” are moody and contemplative, “Wedding Day” is twangy and gripping, while “Across the River” is orchestral and grand. It’s a smooth and polished effort from a tried-and-true veteran.
2. Neko Case – Blacklisted
Her third studio album and first full-length without backing band Her Boyfriends, Neko Case’s Blacklisted would go on to be a breakthrough effort and one of her most enduring works to this day. It was a brave, fully-formed departure from her early twangier material — a subdued, nighttime release grappling with heartache. Featuring players from Calexico and Kelly Hogan herself, the album’s compositions are atmospheric and occasionally Southern. “Tightly” rings with reverbed-out guitars while “Deep Red Bells” is carried by luscious pedal steel melodies and a soaring chorus. Throughout, Case’s silky yet also smoky croon is a powerhouse, especially on her innovative cover of Aretha Franklin’s “Runnin’ Out of Fools”. While the story that Case named her album after being banned from Grand Ole Opry in 2001 makes for a better narrative, it’s unfortunately not true. Regardless, the album is good enough to not need any sensational mythology.
1. Ryan Adams – Heartbreaker
To this day, no other album on Bloodshot’s catalog has sold as many copies as Ryan Adams’ Heartbreaker. After listening, it’s not hard to imagine why. Following his time as frontman of Whiskeytown, he went guns ablaze into his solo career. Beginning his album with a recording of a funny, pre-Internet argument he had with guitarist Dave Rawlings about Morrissey’s “Suedehead” and an almost honky-tonk romp “To Be Young (Is To Be Sad, Is To Be High”, he set the tone for one of the most defining Americana records of that decade. While Whiskeytown was beloved (though conflict-filled), having songs as good as “Come Pick Me Up”, “My Winding Wheel”, and “Oh My Sweet Carolina” filled the void left from the defunct ragtag country rockers. Along with the drinker’s anthems, the swagger, and the youthful rebelliousness, the then 25-year-old Adams had an emotionally resonant, heartbroken side to justify the LP’s title. He proved that with songs full of regret and sadness, like “Call Me On Your Way Back Home” and “Why Do They Leave”, marking a devastating side to a near perfect album. Fourteen years later, many of Adams fans still consider it his finest work.