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Glasgow (yup, Glasgow) band helps spur Texas shuffle

By Lawrence Kay, June 1997

Glasgow, with its booming indie-pop scene, may seem an unlikely place for the Texas shuffleto make a comeback.

But Scotland's Radio Sweethearts offer "New Memories," a symphony of straight ahead, washed-in-the-blood hard country on the New Orleans-based St. Roch label.

Somewhere between the popsters and would-be wranglers was Scotland's biggest Hank Williams fan, John Miller. Armed with his record collection, an old guitar and a plaintive, burnished voice that would make Merle Haggard proud, Miller quietly started to set the moors on fire. One of Miller's early converts was drummer Francis MacDonald, a veteran of such venerable indie-pop bands as the Teenage Fanclub, BMX Bandits and the Pastels.

Introduced by mutual friends in the early 90's, the two built their friendship during MacDonald's daily commute into Glasgow City Centre. Riding the same train line Miller worked on, they talked incessantly about Hank Williams, and Miller eventually hauled MacDonald over to his house to listen to some music.

"He kept pulling out all these record covers to show me, but instead of playing the albums, he sat and sang them all on guitar," recalls MacDonald. "I was blown away. The first song of John's I heard was 'New Memories.' It spurred me on to start writing for the band as well.

"When we began rehearsing, there was an initial identity crisis: can we sing songs about highways? We have motorways in the UK, but 'Headin On Down The M8 Motorway' doesn't sound right somehow...Now we're like, 'Hey, if it sounds good, its good. Let's not think ourselves out of a good thing.' "

As their songs coalesced, MacDonald recruited childhood friend John McCusker (a talented young fiddle player, from the Celtic traditionalist Battlefield Band), along with two former members of the Pastels, and an alternating pair of pedal steel players, one for the road and one for the studio. The band slowly built up an audience, playing at rock clubs and opening for American country artists such as The Mavericks, BR5-49, Townes Van Zandt and Steve Young.

Of course, eyebrows inevitably were raised. What were these Glaswegian nuts doing playing American honky-tonk? For Miller, authenticity or indie-cred were never questions. "My parents were big country fans and I grew up listening to Hank and a whole heap of other great country singers. Being the baby of the family I was also exposed to, and influenced by, stuff like the Beatles that the older kids were listening to.

"I never thought of country as 'American' music," he adds. "I was simply too young to be aware of what or where America was."

For MacDonald, working with the Radio Sweethearts was a natural extension of the pop revivalism he'd been involved with for years. His songs (the first three tracks on the album) strike the same balance between reverence, reveling and relaxation which made Teenage Fanclub's Big Star homages so great.

"A few years ago, I couldn't have imagined playing anything but pop music... I had been involved in a lot of pop/rock stuff, working with people like Teenage Fanclub, Alex Chilton and Dan Penn... now I can't imagine ever stopping playing country. I love the deceptive simplicity of country. "Likewise, a million songs have three chords in the verse and a fourth introduced in the bridge or chorus. So many country songs have similar themes - heartache, love, honky-tonk fun, drinking to forget a lost love. So when you come to sing your version of an old story you'd better make it interesting: you'd better have a good melody or a snappy, heartbreaking or funny turn of phrase."

When it came time to make a record, Francis asked the eccentric Kim Fowley, who's worked with everyone from The Runaways to Gram Parsons, if he would produce the album.

Fowley agreed, but insisted on taking the Billy Sherrill/Colonel Tom Parker part to its extreme. "I told the band if I was going to work with 'em, they had to let me run everything totally old school - I'd tell 'em when to go to the bathroom, when to eat, make everybody eat together and work together all day long so that the record would have that special feel to it, like it was recorded in the back room of some run-down feed store, in 1948."

The results are impressive. The first half of the album features three catchy tracks by MacDonald, a faithful rendition of the Freddy Fender/Doug Sahm gem, "Is Anybody Going To San Antone?", and two Hank Williams songs. Like the great Nashville writers of the 50's, MacDonald and Miller pair off heartfelt emotionality and a relaxed, economical writing style. This, along with the spare, modest production, is what makes their songs click.

"Kim knew right away how to produce us," says MacDonald. "Old style. .Minimum overdubs. Lead vocals and pedal steel solos being recorded with the band playing all in one take. So there are imperfections - so that's human! Listen to Buck Owens get tongue-tied on 'Waiting In Your Welfare Line'...Gene Autry makes a slip with the melody towards the end of 'Buttons and Bows'...Tommy Duncan almost can't sing for laughing on Bob Wills 'Take Me Back To Tulsa.' So what? - these are great records!

"I think it's important to stress that Radio Sweethearts are not lampooning a genre. Reviewers say we sound old-style or traditional, and I like to take that as a compliment. Just so long as they don't say we are contrived."