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It's "not pretty," it's Freakwater

By Brian Steinberg, January 1998

Have you heard Freakwater yet, Amy Ray? Emily Saliers? The Indigo Girls would do well to shiver when this stuff floats through their radio speakers.

Freakwater does what few bands have been able to do in this era of modern country, which is take the stark, acoustic stuff from the olden days and breathe new life into it.

What's that? Certainly, the concept is nothing new. Will Oldham makes you think you're in the Appalachian hinterlands with the songs he makes with his Palace collective, and Uncle Tupelo got their twanger's cred by bringing traditional folk songs screaming into today with "March 16-20, 1992."

But one might argue Freakwater is the real deal, simply because they write their own songs and make them live and dance. They make them their own. With the point-and-counterpoint of Catherine Irwin and Janet Beveridge Bean's voices, not to mention the addition of former Wilco multi-instrumentalist Max Johnston, Freakwater's new album, "Springtime," (Thrill Jockey) promises something old, something new, nothing borrowed and lots of the blues.

That makes sense to Irwin, who says in a recent phone interview from her Louisville, Ky. home that she has lately been listening to lots of Lefty Frizzell, peppered with selections from the Sex Pistols.

"It's not pretty,' she says of the band's fifth album, which includes songs about whiskey, unions, cars and death. "They're just regular things. (The subjects) certainly aren't specific to country music. Maybe that's just what everything's about - sex and death. Maybe that's what it comes down to."

But her songwriting process certainly isn't a cerebral one, she says: "It's just individual songs, really, and something will annoy me, and I'll have to go write a song about it."

As for the band's sound, she says "I think that (Oldham) may have more of an intellectual approach than we do. That would just be my knee-jerk reaction. I don't know if (our music) is really more emotional. It's just really simple. It is emotional, but it's pretty stripped down, in every sense, even lyrically."

Still, the tunes are somewhat different from those on previous efforts. Irwin attributes that feat to Johnston, who arrived recently in a trade of sorts that sent the band's pedal steel guitarist, Bob Egan to Wilco. "Banjo pretty much changes stuff automatically," says Irwin.

The personnel change wasn't an acrimonious one for either band, according to Irwin. The two groups went on tour together for a brief stretch, and "they had their eye on our pedal steel player, and we had our eye on their fiddle player." Johnston, who also plays dobro and mandolin, contributed one song, "Harlan," and the male voice makes for an unsettling but vibrant entry into the rest of the mix. The band's bass player, Dave Gay, has been on board from the start.

Irwin sounds pretty independent, and expressed wariness at being courted by major labels. "There are certain things about (going to the majors) that are really appealing," she says. "We've talked to some bigger labels before, but usually something bad happened. They tell you a lot of things, and they turn out not to be true."

"I can't really stand the idea of not having control over what you do,' she adds, "which seems pretty much the way it is, unless you're Prince or something." And even that rock star has abandoned the majors for his own, self-directed recording, production and distribution.

Freakwater once had an opportunity for a match that seemed to work on paper, signing on with Steve Earle's E-Squared label. Despite Earle's rep for being a Nashville maverick ("Yeah, right," Irwin scoffed), the grouping didn't take. Now Irwin is reluctant to comment on the matter. "It was kind of ugly," she says.

For now, however, Irwin and associates will look forward to the road, the mini-van and sharing a room in various Motel 6's across the country. A three-week tour will take them from Kalamazoo, Mich. to New York City to Buffalo, Athens, Ga. and Knoxville, Tenn.

No matter how many of the trappings of a full-blown rock band Freakwater might take on, however, Irwin says the group will stay true to independent record-making and stripped-down, emotional songs.

"I really have no idea where we fit in," she says. "Every once in a while something will happen that makes me thing that maybe people have heard of our little records. A country-type encyclopedia will have a listing for us, right next to Janie Fricke. That was one of the most thrilling moments of my life, but in general, I don't know where we belong."