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Album: Hank Williams Died for My Sins
Song: Hank Williams Died for My Sins
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Great music from Joe Swank and the Zen Pirates

By Rick Cornell (Photo by Raymond Goodman), November 2009

Album: Hank Williams Died for My Sins
Song: Hank Williams Died for My Sins

Home: Sweet Home Chicago

Age: 41

Musical Influences: Jerry Lee Lewis, Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson, Charlie Daniels Band, David Allan Coe, Steve Earle, Joe Cocker, WASP

Bio: Joe Swank has performed, written (songs and articles), broadcasted, and promoted in the indie-roots world for more than a decade, so you could probably guess the direction he takes on his new release "Hank Williams Died for My Sins," his first with the Zen Pirates. There are echoes of Earle and Escovedo and Ely, of Scott Miller and, yeah, even a little Roger Miller. And it's a record that survived a couple of false starts, a complete turnover in personnel (the 2009 model of the Zen Pirates is completely different from the original 2001 model), and a move by Swank halfway across the country back to the Midwest where he grew up and previously fronted a couple other twang rock bands. Despite all that, Swank is pleased with the results: "As it stands, it is a good representation of the evolution of those songs through the players and phases and stages of my time in North Carolina." And he's quick to add, "Not to say that this band is in any way done. We just played two of the best shows we ever played less than three weeks ago. Chicago ain't that far from North Carolina in the grand scheme of things."

CST's Take: A witty, rousing sermon preached to the alt.-country choir

Country Standard Time: It took awhile for "Hank Williams Died for My Sins" to get finished and get in circulation. Care to share its saga with us?
Joe Swank: Wow. I released our record "Hank Williams Died for My Sins" on Nov. 10, 2009. I formed the Zen Pirates in Raleigh, N.C. in late 2001. We played around and worked up a mess of my originals and tried recording them in 2002. Two days in, the sound just wasn't right, and we scrapped to regroup. Second attempt at recording in 2004 was with a cat that got a last minute gig offer to go on the road. He stored the hard drive with nearly a completed record overnight and e-mailed me from the road. I have not seen him or the $800 I paid him, since that day. Third attempt was in 2006. Three songs in with Jim Smith, and he got called away to a spur-of-the-moment three-month job in Ohio. So, three false starts. Finally, and with an entirely different band than when I started, I got all the ducks in a row and booked studio time with (Southern Culture on the Skids') Rick Miller in 2008. Between the time I booked the studio and the recording date, I was offered a job I couldn't refuse. I literally recorded the album in the two days before I loaded a U-Haul and moved my life up to Chicago and went to work for Bloodshot Records. It was torture.

CST: How did the idea for the title track come about?
JS: That song has a long and sordid history. I like to refer to it as the song I never wrote, inspired by a painting Jon Langford never made. In the mid to late 90's, I worked in a copy store and had been having theological/psychological discussions with a co-worker regarding the need for some sort of deity or spiritual guidepost. Around that time I had somehow, probably through No Depression magazine, been exposed to the artwork of Jon Langford. (I had no idea he did music at that time; now I am obsessed with Waco Brothers shows.)
One night in there, I had a dream of a Langford-esque painting of Hank on the cross, dressed in his rhinestone suit with nails driven through his boots and hands, and he was smiling that sickly smirk of his with his non-show fedora tilted sideways. I went back to work the next day and said, "If I have to have a savior, mine is Hank Williams." Granted, Hank is not my favorite ever in the history of music, but he was pretty fundamental in bringing country music into the mainstream. He was a victim of his own fame. He was prophetic, tortured, brilliant, short-lived. All the things you need in a savior. It was a base chunk of logic that found its way onto a "Hank Williams Died For My Sins" T-shirt I can be seen wearing in old promo photos. At the time, we were recording the MoJoDeans album in the late ‘90s. One of our engineers was also one of my favorite songwriters, Diamond Dave Schultz. (We perform together up here in Chicago from time to time with his band Purple Hank.) I told him all about this dream and the song idea for Hank Williams Died for My Sins, that I wanted it to be a gospel song and to reference the stalwarts of the genre. I spent a few years talking about the song I would write, until one day shortly after moving to North Carolina, I got it in the mail. Dave had finished the song I'd been talking about, nearly perfectly.

CST: How did you end up with the two versions of the song (albeit with slightly different titles - a "Your" version and a "My" version) on the record?
JS: As a songwriter, I couldn't leave it well enough alone, so I started tweaking here and doctoring there. Before all was said and done, there were nearly enough lyrics left over for another song.
As I tweaked the song and compiled the extra lyrics I had, I realized that this base song was a testimonial of sorts. In order for that to be the case, someone had to be preaching the gospel at some point, looking to convert. I took the lyrics I had left over and worked on them until I had a preaching sermon to contrast the testimonial. It needed to be less intense than its more epic counterpart, so I added the piano (performed by Chapel Hill's Alex Bowers) and eventually I stripped off the bass and both guitars to just leave that gospel style piano on there by itself.

CST: And how about the decision to not close the record with the reprise…
JS: The closer, Strutter by Kiss, was a total one-take accident. It was very much an afterthought. We'd started performing it in the live sets as a kind of throwaway. Everyone already really knew the song. It was in the collective subconscious somewhere. As I was originally looking at this as a concept album, Strutter didn't seem to fit within the concept. But then I decided that this would be the capper necessary to bring us up to 10 cuts. Plus, it was too entertaining to not put on the record. Conceptually, it didn't fall within the parameters. If I didn't hate ghost tracks so much, it would be a ghost track. I don't like guessing or hunting with a record. Gimme the info, dammit.

CST: What made you think that Strutter would turn out to be such a great rocking country song?
JS: Most good rock songs are good songs in general. If you strip away the gratuitous rock crap from a song like Only Women Bleed by Alice Cooper (or, in the case of Strutter, the unnecessary guitar wanking), you end up back at a basic formula that translates anywhere from country to Richard Cheese-style lounge. One of my older bands used to bust out Only Women Bleed when we played VFW clubs, and they would all get up and slow dance. Still stands out in my mind as a really weird scene: 70-plus-year-old veterans dancing to Alice Cooper.

CST: If you were asked to make a four-song covers EP to showcase Strutter, what other three cover songs would you include on it?
JS: One of the two songs that got the axe from the Zen Pirates project was our take on Kristofferson's Sunday Mornin' Comin' Down. I have had my arrangement of that song in my head for over half my life. I am glad to say that I am finishing that with the help of the good Dr. Jon Langford up here in Chicago. It will surface eventually. Not sure how, but once it is right, it will find its way to the masses. So that leaves me two more cover songs. I always thought Evel by Raleigh-based Big Joe was one of the greatest songs ever written, but it's a two-electric song, and I'm a diehard acoustic picker. I would get a ringer to come play the other guitar. And as a closer, I have been real fond of performing Randy Newman's Guilty lately. So I suppose that is the four. If we were looking for an oddball, I recently learned Big In Japan by Alphaville and am trying to convert it to a more standard tune away from its high-voiced, ‘80s synth origins.

CST: Some folks don't like the term "cowpunk" for various reasons, but you don't seem to have a problem with it. A record (which I now understand to be available at various digital depots) that you made with an earlier band even sported the title "Cowpunk." Talk about what that term means to you and the appeal of blending styles - probably best exemplified on the album by Tomorrow's Just a Train-Wreck Away.
JS: Cowpunk to me is pretty defining as a sort of radical hillbilly music. I used to bill my first band as "Hard-Core Hillbilly Speed Twang," but I started to realize you can't do three hour shows of "speed twang" so I had to mellow just a bit. I still occasionally sing so hard that I have mini-migraine-style headaches at the end of gigs, but it reminds me I'm working hard. Working hard on an aneurism.
There's something about the Americana crowd that just doesn't like to be pigeonholed. Probably has a lot to do with why the format/genre never took hold like it was supposed to back when it was gonna be the next big thing. I've heard some refer to it as "the Great Alt.-Country scare of the ‘90s." A lot of artists tend to look at genre labels like some kind of stigma. I suppose in some cases they can be: if you have very specific goals in mind, it can be burdensome to be pushed into a group you don't want to be lumped in with. To me, that stuff is all about where they put the record in the store. People are so fond of smack-talking the genre in general like the minute it approached any kind of movement at all, they wanted to distance themselves from it ASAP. "Quick, find me a whiny indie rock band to prove I'm not a twang-banger." I grew up on country and I still love it, as long as it resembles country in some form or another.

CST: In addition to making roots-related music, you've also written about it and aired it on various radio shows. Can you share a favorite story from those gigs?
JS: My favorite writing experience was when I was asked to cover the What the Folk Fest that Todd Snider put on in Memphis. I can't remember the year – probably late ‘90s – but it was really wonderfully surreal for someone who was just getting heavily into the Americana scene. I was across the street from the venue, waiting for it to open, meet another guy, and we start talking about Americana as a genre, and this little baldish dude starts listening in and eventually joins the conversation. Didn't notice it, but Joe Ely had come in with him. It was Al Bunetta, John Prine's manager, and he ends up taking me with him back to the hospitality tent for the upcoming show.
I spent the afternoon drinking free beer and chatting with the likes of Steve Earle (discussing his frustration with the slow pace of the Lucinda piece he was producing – "Car Wheels On A Gravel Road") and the Bottle Rockets, the aforementioned Joe Ely, Will Kimbrough, Jack Ingram, Jerry Jeff Walker… Made many friends that day that I still have a connection with. Ended up totally wasted by the end of the night. Got back to the truck and someone had tried to steal it by breaking the steering column off. I ended up sleeping in the parking lot. Accidentally left the headlights on so had to call AAA for a jump-start the next morning. It was a splendid journalistic experience.


Joe Swank and the Zen Pirates's MySpace page