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Kelly Hogan plays the country underdog

By Brian Baker, May 2000

Living for the past four years in the city that Michael Jordan has called home is appropriate for Kelly Hogan. She may have just as many moves in her career as His Airness did in his.

Although Hogan's move to Chicago was originally intended as a detour from her short circuited singing career, it turned out to be the place that would propel her to the next logical step along the path. It was a long, arduous journey to get to that step for Hogan.

Kelly Hogan is a singer, pure and simple. In the past couple of years, she has made tentative steps to return to her career with a couple of split 7"s, back-up singing gigs (the Waco Brothers, John Wesley Harding, Alejandro Escovedo), and a solo album four years ago entitled "The Whistle Only Dogs Can Hear." Although she tried to deny it for awhile, Hogan's voice would not be silenced.

"I'm driven to sing along," she admits. "Yea, verily, I cannot shut up."

Hogan began her career in Atlanta as the singer/frontwoman with the destined-for-greatness Jody Grind. "Lefty's Deceivers," the band's second album of alt.cocktail/country delights, had just been released to an overwhelmingly positive reception, and the members of the Jody Grind packed up and got ready to do business out on the road even as the major labels began sniffing around. Unfortunately, fate took the upper hand and altered Hogan's life and career in one fell swoop.

Just days into the Jody Grind's 1992 tour, the band's van flipped and rolled, killing drummer Walter Brewer and bassist Robert Hayes and shattering the Jody Grind dream.

Hogan and guitarist Bill Taft attempted to keep the flame alive by performing as a duo, but the damage to both was too great, and Hogan and Taft went their separate ways.

Needing a radical change in scenery, Hogan eventually relocated to Chicago, where she made the acquaintance of Rob Miller, then calling the shots at alt.country wunderlabel Bloodshot Records. The label was still decompressing from the sudden departure of co-founder Eric Babcock, and Miller was in desperate need of help in all quarters.

When he cried the publicity blues, Hogan offered her services on a part-time basis, having done plenty of self-promotion and publicity as a member of the Rock-A-Teens, as required by Daemon Records owner and Indigo Girl Amy Ray.

What began as a simple gesture of assistance turned into a full time job. But the job wound up having its advantages - much of Hogan's recent work was facilitated by her position as the publicity babe for Bloodshot. Still, it was not what she had in mind when she packed up for the Windy City.

"I was trying not to do anything related to music," she remembers. "I wanted to work in a hardware store and just sort of chill out for awhile and try to shut up. But they really needed someone, and I really liked them. I didn't even really know too much about Bloodshot - I'd heard a little bit about them, and I thought they were doing good work. It was good because I learned about running a label and just what it takes."

One of the best associations she made at the label was meeting and working with Mekons leader Jon Langford, whose side project, the Pine Valley Cosmonauts, is signed to Bloodshot. Hogan's singing became an integral element throughout the Cosmonauts tribute to Bob Wills, and her relationship with Langford grew into a closeness that culminated in Hogan babysitting for Langford's son on occasion.

Last year, the seeds for Hogan's new album were planted after Langford helped Hogan with some car trouble.

"My car had broken down, and when I told Jon about it, he said, 'Why didn't you call me?' I said that I hadn't even thought about it. So the next time my car broke down, I called up and said, 'Ha ha ha ha...my car broke down. Come pick me up.' He came to pick me up at Ace Cut Rate Liquor where all the old dudes were watching Quincy and yelling at the screen. We stayed for an extra hour. Finally, he asked if I wanted to do a record with the Pine Valley Cosmonauts doing whatever the hell I wanted to do. I said, 'Hell, yeah.'"

The resulting album, "Beneath the Country Underdog," is the logical musical conclusion after her work with the Jody Grind and on her own. It stirs, swings, and twangs in varying degrees, with Hogan in command start to finish.

While she is generally a good songwriter, Hogan co-wrote only three songs here (all with guitarist Andy Hopkins), opting for a majority of cover material this time out, including Willie Nelson's "I Still Can't Believe You're Gone" and The Band's "Whispering Pines."

The other songs just seemed to suggest themselves.

"We did a lot of songs that I'd already been doing," Hogan explains. "Langford wanted to wrote a song for the record, so I said, 'Okay, go ahead.' It kind of evolved from there. About a month and a half before we went into the studio, I saw Magnetic Fields do 'Papa Was a Rodeo.' I was completely galvanized. Johnny Dowd wrote a song for me, but we couldn't work it up for this particular record. I'm going to have to do another record so I can do that one."

Talking about the next one before the new one has run its course is a page right out of How Not to Promote a Record, but Hogan has always done all of her jobs outside of the realm of the norm.

Even her return to a regular singing gig doesn't follow any standard methodology (she's tending bar at a joint in Chicago to help subsidize her re-energized career), but she recognizes the risks of going her own way.

And when Kelly Hogan talks about the reasons that she has come back to the singer's life, you can tell just how hard it was for her to be away in the first place. "Oh, man, I missed it like crazy," Hogan says of her interrupted singing career. "I was losing my mind. It's my main thing. Part of me wishes it wasn't, but it is. I got some health insurance through the bar so my mom can sleep at night. I can go sing without my mom feeling bad about it. It's the thing I love the most in all the world."