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Blue Mountain focuses on "tales"

By Brian Steinberg, November 1999

Laurie Stirratt and Cary Hudson, the principal members of Blue Mountain, have always been involved in music. Now music is their entire focus.

The husband and wife team, one half of the Mississippi-based Southern roots-music collective, also run a record label. But their desire to get their songs and sound out to a larger crowd has overwhelmed their need to be involved in the music business, Stirratt says in a phone interview. The pair are also partners in the Black Dog label, but faced the challenge of gearing up for a new collection of songs.

That record, "Tales of a Traveler," hit stores in early October on Roadrunner, where they still are the only roots/country band on a label better known for metal acts.

The disc features the first songs that Stirratt, one of the band's vocalists and guitarists (and, coincidentally, sister of Wilco bassist John Stirratt), ever committed to disc. And the band will journey to Europe for the first time in hopes of enlarging their core group of listeners.

In order to facilitate these events, Stirratt says, she and her husband took a smaller role in running Black Dog. "It's kind of time to shit or get off the pot," she says, joking about her use of profanity. "We've always made (music and the band) our first priority. We realize now more than ever it's time to really be completely focused on this."

They have been focused on music for a long time. The two met in Oxford, Miss. about a decade ago and formed The Hilltops with John Stirratt. They mixed punk with a dose of country, blues and folk.

That band split, but Laurie Stirratt and Hudson later formed Blue Mountain, named for a small area near Oxford. They self-released an album and were eventually discovered by Roadrunner while opening an Uncle Tupelos show.. The band released "Dog Days" in 1995, mainly a reworking of previous recordings.

"Tales of a Traveler" takes several steps away from the group's last effort, 1997's "Homegrown." That last work was filled with a strumming and picking sound, dog barks and rootsy atmospherics. The new disc also contains these elements, but also possesses a full-band sound, with Frank Coutch on drums and new addition George Sheldon on bass.

But Stirratt and Hudson, who wrote all the new album's songs, seem to have found a resonance within each other. The two now meld their voices over hard-driving guitar, and the result is reminiscent of John Doe and Exene Cervenka in X's heyday.

"We took our time with this record," Stirratt says. "more so than the last couple of records. We just wanted to really - we didn't want to have to rush. We took our time, took a lot of time between sessions to listen." What "Tales of a Traveler" might best be remembered for is the sheer number of styles Blue Mountain employs - from the loose, late-night keyboard-filled vibe of "Just Passing Through" to the it-sure-would-sound-good-on-a-car-radio feel of "Poppa."

"I think we wanted to try some different sorts of production techniques in the studio, make it a little more elaborate than the last couple of records," she says. "We also tried to capture on the rock songs more of a live feel, which we've always had a bit of difficulty trying in the studio."

Stirratt says she wrote "When You're Not Mine" and "Sleeping In My Shoes." She and Hudson co-wrote "Poppa" and "Lakeside," and Hudson wrote the rest himself, she says. "It's the first time I've ever recorded any of my songs. I've written for a while. This is just the first time I felt good enough to use them. Writing is just hard. It's really, really hard. I just wanted to feel really comfortable with what I was putting on the record."

For better or worse, no pets make an appearance on this disc (Dogs figured prominently on "Homegrown'). The canine in question "didn't make this record," Stirratt quips.

The new disc also features Dan Baird, the former Georgia Satellite, as producer. Can the singer of 1980's artifacts like "Keep Your Hands To Yourself" lend a helping hand?

"There are some rock songs on this record," she says, perhaps thinking of selections like 'Comicbook Kid' or 'Sleepin' In My Shoes,' and he's the master of the rock stuff."

That isn't to say you'll her Blue Mountain breaking out a cover of "Battleship Chains" anytime soon, but the cohesiveness of the band on the harder-driving tracks is very noticeable.

One track, "My Wicked Wicked Ways," even evokes images of Little Feat or Al Green. Baird also "had some great suggestions for the more laid-back stuff too," Stirratt says. "Mainly, he helped us to get good takes and kind of keep the vibe up."

And the band has definite goals for its latest effort, Stirratt says. "I'd love to see it sell," she says. "You know, I have realistic expectations> I'd like to see it sell 50,000 to 75,000 copies, which I think is smart for a third record."

A tour began in Chattanooga, Tenn. on the first of October, and wends its way through the Midwest and the West Coast before heading into the northeast and southeast in November and December.

It is the potential fan base to be found in Europe that has piqued the band's curiosity, Stirratt said. "We've never been before," she says. "If we could tour, I think the band could do really well."