earning How to Live" is not just the title track but the predominant theme on Mike Ireland and Holler's Sub Pop album debut.
Songwriter Ireland takes us on an emotional journey that progresses from despair to acceptance. His skill at creating such powerful traditional country music would suggest that Ireland had grown up an avid country fan.
In fact, the appreciation for country music is a fairly recent development in Ireland's musical evolution.
"It was around a lot," says Ireland. "I was particularly exposed to the crossover stuff of the late Sixties and early Seventies. But as a kid, I wanted nothing to do with it."
Ireland says the conversion to country was a gradual process. "During my adult life it just kind of crept back in," Ireland observes. "Slowly but surely you find yourself listening to George Jones, and that kind of pushes you in different directions, and you start listening to other artists. After a while you're like, 'Wow, I'm listening to a lot of country music'."
Ireland grew up in a musical family near Kansas City, Missouri. His father played guitar and his mother played piano while the kids sang harmonies. He played in bands in high school and college, but it was with the alternative country outfit the Starkweathers that Ireland began to make an impact.
Ireland played bass and wrote about a third of the Starkweathers' material. When Jonathan Poneman of Sub Pop caught their act in Lawrence, Kansas, he signed the band to a record deal, and they recorded a single. However, before the single was released, the Starkweathers disbanded.
Ireland feared the Sub Pop deal would be lost. "I figured he (Poneman) would be disappointed or angry. But his immediate response was, 'Okay, I want to sign you.. Which I thought was nuts."
It seems Poneman had been most impressed with Ireland all along. But Ireland was unsure of his ability to be a front man. His role in the Starkweathers, while prominent, was not as the focal point of the band. Initially Ireland worried that he would not be able to come up with enough songs, and even if he did, he was not confident in his ability "to stand up and sing them in front of people - it was very intimidating."
It was Poneman's confidence that gave Ireland the courage to proceed.
Holler was formed with a couple of fellow ex-Starkweathers, lead guitarist Michael Lemon and his brother drummer Paul. Numerous auditions led to rhythm guitarist Dan Mesh, who also provides excellent harmonies for Ireland.
The dark sound of "Learning How to Live" comes from the personal trauma Ireland was coping with at the time. "Most of the stuff came in the wake of my marriage breaking up," Ireland admits. He reveals that "House of Secrets" was "a reflection of where my mind was - which was a whole lot of anger and a very big desire for vengeance."
In the tune, which opens the album, Ireland sings of his plot to burn down his old home - and hints that perhaps not all the occupants were gone ("While I light the flame of love once more and let it burn on down/When they sweep out these ashes I can't afford to be around").
"I look at it now and it's a weird thing, because I think I've gotten a bit down the road from that," Ireland reflects. "But there was a time when this wasn't a persona. I'm not proud that I could feel that much of a desire for vengeance, but it's true."
In the title track, which closes the album, Ireland speaks of coming to terms with the events of the past and acknowledges his role in the breakdown of his marriage.
"Part of not feeling the desire for revenge comes from acknowledging that you're a part of the problem. The relationship doesn't fall apart because she did something wrong. It's because we did something wrong."
While Ireland wrote most of the tunes, a couple of well chosen covers fit nicely amongst Ireland's songs of lost love.
"Banks of the Ohio" is about vengeance taken to the extreme, while "Cry" (inspired more by Lynn Anderson's version than the Johnny Ray original) shows the singer to be what Ireland describes as "more accepting of what's happening and not trying to change the world."
Ireland's fondness for the work of producer Billy Sherrill inspired the use of strings on a few cuts. Ireland defends Sherrill, dismissed by many as what Ireland describes as a "schlockmeister," referring to Sherrill's work as "some of the most exciting arrangements I've ever heard."
These days Ireland reflects on his childhood dislike of country music. "You start losing things and things fall apart. There are a lot of things to be lost in your life. As a kid, you just don't get that."
Ireland feels that today's mainstream country draws a large youth audience because it "not only sounds like rock, but lyrically it's about more rock subjects."
Though it is difficult these days for traditional country acts to find exposure, Ireland does not fear for the future. "There will still be great artists who will make great music. I think inevitably that (great music) rises to the surface, but it may be harder in some periods to hear that stuff."
Americana radio has given Mike Ireland and Holler some good exposure. "At least there's a format that embraces this kind of stuff," Ireland says. "It just takes whatever music is good, and it doesn't sound so much like it's based on market research. I think when you're trying real hard not to shock anybody you're likely not to get the cream of the crop."
Though Mike Ireland and Holler will not likely attract many listeners of "Young Country" to their live shows, the older folks are coming out to see them. "People bring their parents out to the shows," says Ireland. "And it's funny, because when you get a compliment from them you say, 'Wow, this really counts'."
With the disc, Mike Ireland and Holler have emerged as leaders of the alternative country scene. "It strikes me as funny," says Ireland, "because I'm not sure what we're an alternative to."