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Alt-country movement rooted in Windy City

Chicago Tribune

This city might have seemed like an odd place for a pair of former punk-rock drummers to start a roots-country label a decade ago, but Nan Warshaw and Rob Miller knew better when they mapped out a business plan for Bloodshot Records on a bar napkin.

The city was teeming with disenfranchised rockers drawn to the soul of Appalachian murder ballads and honky-tonk two-steps. With their former partner, Eric Babcock (who has since left the label to run his own imprint, Catamount Records, in Nashville), Miller and Warshaw helped put the notion of “alternative country” on the map with Bloodshot’s first album, “For a Life of Sin,” a compilation of local twang-punk stalwarts, released in 1994.

“For a Life of Sin” quickly sold out of its initial pressing of 1,000 copies, and now -- 109 albums and singles later -- Bloodshot is renowned as the home of “insurgent country,” ground zero for a movement that prides itself on being the antithesis of everything Nashville’s Music Row stands for.

But as the label begins its 10th anniversary celebration with a concert here Saturday, Miller acknowledges that the “insurgent country” imprint has become a “straitjacket.”

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“I know what I mean when I say country-influenced stuff, but not everybody else does,” he says with a laugh. “If Creedence Clearwater Revival came out now, or [the Rolling Stones’] ‘Let It Bleed,’ or Neil Young, they’d all be thrown into the alt-country ghetto. Our label has some stuff in the country tradition, but there are also the Waco Brothers, Bobby Bare Jr., Neko [Case], Alejandro [Escovedo], who are country-influenced, but not really country or even alt-country in the way most people think of it. We tried to control the message at the start by labeling the music, but now it’s sort of irrelevant. We’re not so narrowly defined anymore.”

The label has had a number of successes in recent years, both artistic and commercial. Bloodshot released the Pine Valley Cosmonauts’ benefit CDs, “The Executioners’ Last Songs,” Volumes 1-3, which helped pour money into the successful campaign to overturn the death penalty in Illinois; nurtured rising country-soul singer Neko Case, and resurrected punk pioneer Alejandro Escovedo.

But the label’s watershed release remains Ryan Adams’ first post-Whiskeytown solo album, “Heartbreaker,” which came out in 2000. Its worldwide sales of 250,000 copies enabled the label to buy health insurance for its half-dozen employees and removed the cloud of financial doubt that had swirled around the label since its inception. Adams wanted $30,000 to make the record and Miller and Warshaw took out a private loan to make it happen.

“We didn’t want to interfere with the daily operation of the label,” Warshaw says, “so we went into hock to make it. But it paid off: It still sells 600 to 1,000 copies a week.”

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Bloodshot has earned a reputation for being scrupulous about paying its artists; Escovedo says Bloodshot was the first label ever to pay him a royalty check in his 25-year career.

“The longer I do this, the more I abhor the music business in general,” Warshaw says. “It’s like they lose sight of the fact that they exist to serve the artist, not the other way around.”

Greg Kot is a music critic at the Chicago Tribune, a Tribune company.


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