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Waco Brothers are "Going Down in History"

By Brian Baker, March 2016

Twenty two years have passed since Jon Langford formed the Waco Brothers as a jalapeno-spiced country adjunct to his primary gig with his punk-infused Mekons. And while The Mekons have inserted some twang in their stomp and the Wacos have punked up their hoedown, Langford and his talented cast remain focused on each band's primary sonic direction.

Since the Waco Brothers' 1995 debut, "To the Last Dead Cowboy" to the just released "Going Down in History," the relatively stable line-up (Langford, guitarist Dean Schlabowske, bassists Tom Ray, then Alan Doughty, mandolinist Tracy Dear and drummers Steve Goulding, then Joe Camarillo, with longtime assistance from pedal steeler Mark Durante) has definitively proved they understand the synergy between country and punk.

The Waco Brothers - DIYBYOB in Milwaukee

"The country music I like is very direct and the subject matter is about every day, and musically it's inclusive. It's the sort of thing you can pick up and join in with," says Langford. "And punk had that directness. That's why I was involved in it when we started. It seems useful if you think of it as a form of communication rather than some sort of showing off your virtuosity. We have fantastic musicians in the band, but I think everyone's most interested in the story of the song."

Schlabowske tells a similar tale of exploring his hometown Milwaukee punk scene and finding the occasional Hank Williams hits album in his friends' record collections. He sees the same straight line drawn between the genres.

"I think the old classic honky tonk stuff appealed to that crowd," says Schlabowske. "It's a matter of it being simple music about peoples' lives that both genres try to express basically, so they're natural to pair together. And it eventually got around to the fact that hippies realized they like country music. With punk, our enemy was prog rock. Anything but the guy in a cape, playing 10 keyboards at once."

The Wacos never pretended they were reinventing the wheel, they've merely made the biggest racket, had the best possible time and invited everyone who was similarly inclined to join them. It's worked like a tarnished charm through seven studio albums, two collaborations, a live set and countless gigs.

"We're very unpretentious about it, which I've always enjoyed," says Langford. "It didn't need any explanation. It was, 'Friday night, turn it up, this is the entertainment.' That's a universal tradition that goes through all cultures. You need a band to make some noise for people to enjoy themselves, and the byproduct of that will be the band will let you have some content."

That describes "Going Down in History." Ramshackle and raucous, the Wacos' eighth studio outing is just 29 minutes long but it never feels half baked or insubstantial. Even in its few sedate moments, "Going Down in History" rattles, stomps, howls and compels even the casual listener to pay attention. And it feels exactly the right length to Langford.

"It's a good length for a vinyl album," he says. "And, well, that's what we had."

The album roars to life with "DIYBYOB," an anthemic barn burner that fires on all cylinders. Troublingly, the opening verse seems to imply the Wacos' final curtain, as Schlabowske intones with gravelly candor, "This is the first track from the last album," and finishes with, "You can't kill us, we're already dead." Is this the Wacos' last round-up?

"That's Dean's song, you'll have to ask him exactly what he means," Langford demures. "It's a very good lyric, but we haven't made any plans to split up. It would be far too complicated."

Schlabowske clarifies his intent with "DIYBYOB," settling the nerves of anyone breathing hard at the prospect of a Wacos-free world.

"Johnny Cash told people to never say on stage, 'This is a track off our last album,' that you should say your recent album," says Schlabowske with a laugh. "That's where it came from - useful stage advice from Johnny Cash. Alan has a particular skill for sequencing songs, so his opinion always means more than anyone else's. He was like, 'You wrote that line, I didn't have any other choice but to put that first on the album.' Now I know how to get the lead track."

Although the Wacos have never left the road, "Going Down in History" is the first studio recording of originals since 2005's "Freedom and Weep;" since then, they released 2008's live "Waco Express," collaborated with Paul Burch on 2012's "Great Chicago Fire" and dropped the 2015 cover set, "Cabaret Showtime." While they all have numerous irons in various fires, Schlabowske insists that didn't create the gap.

"I wouldn't say it was necessarily the fact that Jon and I were so busy with other things that it kept us from making a new album for a decade," he says. "We recorded the basic tracks for Paul Burch at the same time we recorded 'Freedom and Weep,' and there was a feeling with everyone involved that we had this time and money invested, and we don't want to check this box off until this thing is done. It took quite a while to get the Paul Burch thing together for various reasons and I think that played a bigger role than any of our busy schedules."

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