Delusions of Banjer

Bad Livers outgrow their "thrash/bluegrass" label; the countrified timbre of Richard Buckner

“If I'm not mistaken, you're calling from San Francisco, right?” asks Bad Livers' bassist Mark Rubin when I ring him up. “Okay, this is interview number three. They said I was supposed to be urbane and verbose for this one.”
He's kidding, I think, but it's easy to imagine Rubin sitting next to his phone with a checklist, ticking off the various attributes he's to adopt for each conversation. Since the trio formed in Austin in 1990, Bad Livers have been a lot of different things to a lot of different audiences. Touring in support of fellow Austinites the Butthole Surfers in 1991, they were a sight to behold — Rubin thumping the hell out of his upright bass, a puddle of sweat pooling at his feet; Danny Barnes flinging his head to and fro, clawing lightning-fast runs from his battered banjo; and Ralph White fiddling like a direct descendent of Nero as the band stunned the lysergicized throng with a frenetic set that juxtaposed Flatt & Scruggs with Motorhead and Iggy Pop. But the Bad Livers have also played bluegrass festivals and wowed the purist contingent with their fiery virtuosity. Five years and two albums into their career, it's still debatable as to whether they're upholding tradition or defiling it.

For Rubin, it's two sides of the same coin. “The only thing traditional about acoustic music — and about folk music in particular — is change and innovation,” he insists. “The only constant is its lack of consistency. If you're a fan of banjo music or of old-time fiddling, you're a music fan, so you'll immediately understand that we are, too.

“This 70-year-old guy once came up to Danny at a gig and said, 'Son, somewhere in the middle of all that is really good bluegrass banjo picking.' That was enough to really turn that guy on, you know what I mean?” Sure, but the amalgam of punk and bluegrass the trio forged early on was bound to raise some eyebrows. After the first single, a country-fried cover of Iggy's “Lust for Life” recorded in Butthole Surfer Paul Leary's living room, the Bad Livers were dubbed a “thrash/bluegrass” band, a regrettable appellation they have yet to live down.

“I guess what happened right off the bat was that we weren't being noticed, so if someone paid any attention to us at all we took it, no matter what form it was in,” Rubin admits. “And that's really been to our long-term detriment. If we die tomorrow in a plane crash or something, the obituary will read 'Bad Livers: best known for their quirky covers of Iggy Pop tunes.' We're stuck with that, even though we've done 1,200 gigs and two CDs since then.”

Those subsequent releases — Delusions of Banjer (1992, also produced by Leary) and the just-released Horses in the Mines — display a subtler synthesis. Delusions includes a cover of Leary's “The Adventures of Pee Pee the Sailor,” while Horses borrows Gibby Hayne's megaphone for “Shot at a Bird, Hit Me a Stump” and “Puke Grub.” But for the most part, the songs are mined straight from the Appalachias, filled with bittersweet ruminations on lost love, death, forgotten loners, broken lives and the occasional glimmer of salvation. Not that Bad Livers have forsaken their manic past: Barn-burners like “Git Them Pretty Girls” would sound equally at home at a hoedown or in a mosh pit.

“I make the same amount of room in my life for the work of Bill Monroe as I do for the work of the Minutemen,” explains Rubin. “One of the more flattering things that's ever been said about us is that even though our material and our performance may not be what's considered old-time music, we adhere to its actual spirit. That, to me, is more important than being historically accurate.”

But not all deviations from tradition sit well with the band. The “hokey, fake-country bands” that Bad Livers are often paired with particularly rankle Rubin. “At South by Southwest this year, one band's shtick was to throw a hay bale around onstage,” the bassist grouses. “I grew up baling hay; I don't need some numbnuts throwing it around onstage. That whole hick image just puts people down. That's about as far away from music as I'd ever want to be.

“But I was just like, 'Go ahead, throw your hay around. Some guys, they got music, and some guys, they got hay.' “

Like Bad Livers, S.F. shitkicker Richard Buckner takes liberties with the country-music tradition, though in the opposite direction. Whereas the Livers are Southern boys who were baptized in heritage and chose eclecticism over homogeneity, Buckner is the city boy who opts for aesthetic purity. And, like the Livers, his appropriation might elicit an arched brow or two.

It's not that country music is provincially bound to the South; Buck Owens dispelled that myth 30 years ago in Bakersfield. But this is San Francisco, with its music scene largely propelled by — let's be honest, now — capricious trends and unctuous gimmick du jour, so it's only natural to wonder if Buckner and other denizens of the local “alternative country” scene are making hay instead of making music. Dieselhed, while raucously engaging, is equal parts country and comedy; conversely, Tarnation often takes its gloomy death dirges to near-parodic levels of melodrama. Can Buckner feed from the same neocountry trough without getting similarly shticky fingers?

Apparently so. On Bloomed, his debut album, Buckner casts aside both the Doubters, his backup band, and any doubts about his sincerity. Sparsely accompanied, he has no place to hide, nor does he seek one. Bloomed is unabashedly emotional, knee-deep in melancholy and rife with sweet-and-sour remembrances of a tenacious romantic past. Relationships, generally ill-fated ones, are Buckner's subject of choice — if he's not walking away from one unlucky pairing, he's walking into another. A tad monochromatic, maybe, but smart. While Buckner's blessed with a convincingly countrified timbre, he doesn't have the backwoods pedigree to effectively evoke rurality. As long as he draws from the universal language of heartache, he won't embarrass himself trying.

Interestingly, Buckner downplays the country influence in his bio, which, in a way, makes sense. “The guy who says he's the most genuine is the one who probably isn't,” Rubin surmises. And, Buckner might add, vice versa.

Bad Livers, Richard Buckner and Cindy Lee Berryhill play Wed, April 26, at the Great American Music Hall in S.F.; call 885-0750.

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