Louisville-Crossroad of the scenes


20 fév. 2008, 22h48m

Sometime in 1977 or so before a midnight showing of The Rocky Horror Picture Show at the now-defunct Vogue Theater in St. Matthews, KY, USA, I saw my first live punk rock band, which turns out to have been locals, and Louisville's first punk group, No Fun (thanks to Tara Key (Antietam, Babylon Dance Band) for providing that info in the comments below). Time had erased that detail and I thought it might've been Babylon Dance Band or even The Endtables. So, as it turns out (also from Tara's comment), that was Tony Pinotti (later of Circle X) barking, as they say, literally, BOW WOW WOW.

At the movie with me were two friends from Fern Creek (an edge town, proud redneck bastion) where my family had moved in 1972. They were good guys but this wasn't country or even the outermost edge of glam rock that we all had enjoyed together and known well. One of my friends' brother was the lead singer of an "outlaw" country covers group, Cowboy George and The Beer-Drinking Rodeo Band. We loved Waylon and Willie, too. They weren't having No Fun and weren't much more impressed by Rocky Horror that night, but I, somewhat secretly, was. That tension, difference, and contrast, was one that marked my experience of Louisville as a musical, as well as geographic, crossroads.

The Babylon Dance Band (not Cowboy George and BDRB) weren't a dance band to say the least, but still any punk band was a better dance band than the classic rock crap bands that dominated and lorded over local radio at the time. The of the time was no sort of babylon for punk or what immediately followed punk, despite its being a Rocky Horror hotbed. It's not that the town was stodgy, Louisville was always fertile in a low-key way...a contributor to the regional good life with unusually late night bar hours, & traditions in making and consuming bourbon, tobacco, and horse racing casts a permissive shadow on it all. Bars in Louisville can stay open until 4 A.M and don't have to close at all on Derby Eve (e.g. Derby morning).

In 2007, the retrospective Bold Beginnings: An Incomplete Collection Of Louisville Punk 1978-1983 was released and much of what happened here is now coming into focus. The compilation reveals a small, but vibrant scene that includes tracks by No Fun, Babylon Dance Band, Blinder, The Dickbrains, Malignant Growth, The Endtables, The Monsters, Strict 9, Your Food, and Skull Of Glee.

On April 20, 2010, The Endtables work was re-released on the Drag City label in CD and on vinyl, and the group is receiving some long overdue attention. Amazingly, the reissue is from recently rediscovered master tapes. See Obscure '70s punks, The Endtables, and Dusted Reviews: The Endtables. On the CD, Track 12, Trick or Treat (live), features a guest performance by Tara Key.

For a while, there wasn't much of a post-punk (or what was becoming termed as "alternative" scene) or live music scene in town. This despite being the home to the largest Bluegrass Festival in the USA at that time (and the putative home of itself insofar as a rural art form can have a city as its center). Louisville was home to many bluegrass and folk players, such as banjo player steve cooley, who has played with many of the greats, as well as with The Dillards. (19 yrs.)

Later, in a bit of regression, the city would lose the festival although it is being revived of late and the signal sent by Robert Plant & Alison Krauss opening their tour here gives one hope for bluegrass in its homeland.

In the 80s, the rather flower-powered local record store Karma was supplanted by the more alternative and indie retailer, Ear X-Tacy. That is around the time the local scene also began to heat up for live music with the addition of two clubs, Tewligan's Tavern (defunct) and Uncle Pleasant's.

Something called "post-rock" may've had its start in town when the legendary Squirrel Bait fractured into bits from which Slint (and Big Wheel) arose. The release of Tweez and then Spiderland are arguably as good a place to mark the birth of as anywhere (if you can take such naming seriously at all which you can't--but then we're on last.fm so OK). Good Morning, Captain and Breadcrumb Trail are seminal tracks in any case. From there, the trail picks up quickly, and local creativity was greatly enhanced around the time of the late 1980s and early 90s.

Also around this same time, the local professor-poet Ron Whitehead and MANY other talented folks around town founded rant for the literary renaissance a group which issued a stunning series of posters, and sponsored live events called Insomniacathons, (featuring "72 hours of nonstop" performances by poets and musicians all around town), and which brought the great poets Diane di Prima, Gregory Corso, Amira Baraka, and Allen Ginsberg to town for live poetry readings that were quite well attended, really.

The Ginsberg of the latter era was not the nasal young man who read Howl at Berkeley in the late 50s. He played a mean harmonium on October 2, 1992, and a crowd of over 1200 youngsters were gettin' his vibe big time, jamming on William Blaker's Tyger, Tyger (what hand or eye could...frame thy fearful symmetry). Whitehead stood up before Ginsberg by way of intro and declared that had arrived in town.

Much to their credit, the also managed to bring Hunter S. Thompson back to his hometown to be honored at Memorial Auditorium. A hometown he'd left (but not left behind) got that rare chance to embrace a great literary figure in his own lifetime. They did a nice poster and handbill for the event that quoted a Thompson journal entry in which he recalled , a local landmark and one of the great urban parks. Johnny Depp, another Kentuckian from nearby Owensboro, also attended.

The point of bringing all this "poetry" into the matter is that one step at a time a "fearful symmetry" or synergy had emerged from "this old river town" (as the Dwight Yoakam song Louisville calls it). Most remarkably, by the time that energy was palpable it had already produced some very good art and music.

I read recently that Will Oldham, who Johnny Cash called "the finest songwriter to come out of America in the past decade" (The Observer Magazine, 2002) took the photo on the Spiderland record cover. Since several of Slint's members wound up playing in the actor-become-musician's Palace / Palace Music / Palace Brothers projects it came as no shock.

I moved away in 1994. Thus, leaving Louisville for my career like so many of the nomadic performers this article is about. Turns out though, that the leaving is not the thing--(the coming back is the thing). Still, my experience of much of this becomes (even more) secondhand for about a decade. While living in California, I began to read in the music press (from afar) about groups from my hometown, and I guess that's when I knew things had really warmed. Upon my return in 2005, I have continued to piece together things known and things new to me. These discoveries are a great encouragement to me.

Since both Slint and Palace represent what I like to think of as "crossroads" music, music that brings together and distills into something new the disparate live traditions in the air about it, I am also not surprised that they are of Louisville--which is itself a geographic crossroads where north and south, bluegrass (the nobler form of country), rock, R&B, and traditional music all come together and into play.

Gastr Del Sol, a Chicago based band that included Louisville's David Grubbs, is also typical of this merging and Louisville became a mainstay of the Midwest underground scene that nurtured groups like Eleventh Dream Day, Royal Crescent Mob, Uncle Tupelo (and later were popular stops for Son Volt and Wilco).

Eleventh Dream Day had its local connection as well in Janet Bean and in its latter formation, Wink O'Bannon. The group supposedly recorded Lived To Tell in a Kentucky tobacco barn.

As such, you'd expect Louisville to be a bastion of (and I won't use the term alt.country without irony) support and to have contributed some key performers in that category. Not limited to Freakwater (formed by Catherine Irwin and Janet Bean) and the various Will Oldham contributions.

Catherine Irwin's first band was a folk trio with her brother Alec, which in turn morphed into the legendary punk band Dick Brains. Irwin reportedly met Janet Bean after living abroad for awhile.

The growth of Oldham's legend with the Bonnie "Prince" Billy releases and his many collaborations have increased local connections to (Songs: Ohia, Magnolia Electric Company, Scout Niblett, and then there are the things others say about him (in songs and articles) such as the Bjork song Harm Of Will).

In the late 90s, with the release of My Morning Jacket's The Tennessee Fire and in the early 00s, At Dawn, that promise of the crossroads really bore fruit. Lowdown, at a time when I still lived in California and hadn't yet foreseen any chance to return--was pure distilled Louisville to me. Perhaps even more so when It Still Moves was released and I got a hold of Golden and Mahgeetah and had foreseen such a return (which is now reality).

It's not that they're an alt.country band, they're not, but that their influences are worn on their sleeves and yet also transcended, amalgamated, posted at the crossroads as something entirely new. You can hear many influences in MMJ's catalog beyond the usual, cliche Southern rock influences often cited. Will Oldham's influences are treated similiarly. In The Observer article, Oldham points out that he's not just of Louisville but has lived and worked all around, and that is also true of many of us from here and probably of Americans in general.

In a late 2005 opener for Wilco at The Palace theater, MMJ took the stage by fire with a ripping cover of Prince's I Could Never Take the Place of Your Man. They have a way with unusual live covers. Still think their best work may be yet ahead, as 2005's Z seems to show.

Of course, I'm jumping back and forth trying to understand how a town of around 1 million people has produced so much good music and at such seminal junctures of "the way things are" today in music. Lots of other notables worth checking out, many tagged on Last.fm as but there's other stuff too, and the entire Louisville list crosses many genres: Joan Osborne is from a Louisville suburb, Anchorage, KY, Peter Searcy, Endpoint, (), Coliseum (), Nappy Roots ( of a Southern crossroads variety), VHS or Beta (), Your Black Star (), Shipping News, Seluah (), The Enkindels, and Parlour (another seminal group worthy of your attention), David Pajo (he's played everywhere and with everyone seemingly--Zwan, Stereolab, King Kong, The Palace Brothers, Royal Trux, The For Carnation, Matmos, Tortoise, Crain, Rodan, and Bonnie 'Prince' Billy), and Tony Hoyle was the vocalist for three bands, Oblong Box, Crab Nebula, and The Web. The Web opened for Pere Ubu in a March 2008 show at the Pour Haus.

These days, Louisville's live music scene is doing pretty well. A variety of functional venues exist both indoors and out of doors (for touring groups the town has Louisville Gardens, Headliners, the Palace theater, Brown, Uncle Pleasant's, Zanzibar, Skully Alley, Kentucky Center, Mellwood Arts Center, the Clifton Center, bars, and recently Tim Finn performed in a local church. The concert of the year in 2007 took place in the city's Waterfront Park, Arcade Fire and LCD Soundsystem.

Still, a scene can always grow in time. I saw both Sleater-Kinney and The Apples In Stereo at Forecastle Festival in 2006 in front of almost no one. The venue was a former bacon factory that had just reopened as Mellwood Arts Center.

In 2006 at Forecastle, Sleater-Kinney were on a farewell tour for crying out loud. I read on some E6 site that Robert Schneider lived in Kentucky for a while and former Apples drummer/singer Hilarie Sydney is from Lexington so this was one of her last live shows, too. Forecastle has grown much larger since 2007 and in 2010 will feature Spoon, The Flaming Lips, Drive-By Truckers, and many other performers.

Additional resources:
  1. Louisville Punk/Hardcore/IndieRock.com
  2. Louisville Group on Last.fm
  3. The Royal Stable (A Dutch Will Oldham fan site)
  4. Internet Movie Database - Will Oldham
  5. WillOldham.com
  6. The Pulpit - An Unofficial Will Oldham Site
  7. The Observer (London) Will Oldham Interview
  8. My Morning Jacket.com
  9. The Endtables Reissue Coming
  10. New Release from Louisville Punk Icons, The Endtables
  11. Antietam (official site)
  12. Tales of Mighty Antietam
  13. Courier-Journal (04/11/2010): Three decades later, punk band Endtables lands record deal
  14. SFWeekly Blog: Louisville Punks The Endtables
  15. Bold Beginnings compilation MySpace page

  16. Change History:
    I'm sure I've missed a lot so make no claim to having exhausted the topic (and have corrected some facts as they became known). Additional, apologies for the screed nature of the post which should probably have been in sections.
    - Revised the opening section and added links to No Fun and a new paragraph for The Endtables on buying their CD on 4/20/10 at Ear-X-tacy.
    -Added information from HillbillyX about Catherine Irwin, Alec Irwin, and Dick Brains, as well as his comments on bluegrass on 4/21/10. Added Courier-Journal and SF Weekly links for The Endtables.
    --Added links to Bold Beginnings and artists therein not otherwise already linked, added Bold Beginnings My Space page to Additional Resources, on 4/25/10.
    --Added link to Antietam article in PopMatters on 8/14/10,


  • rockrobster23

    Very cool and educational scene history. I've never spent any time in Louisville, but I love this kind of stuff. Wish there was more of it on last.fm. I hope some more local people comment.

    21 fév. 2008, 5h40m
  • tkdcoach

    Glad you liked, rock. Checking out your stuff, too.

    21 fév. 2008, 6h02m
  • RedRage

    Excellent piece on Louisville's under appreciated music history. MM

    24 fév. 2008, 17h04m
  • Antietamnyc

    Howdy. It was my band, No Fun, who you saw at the Vogue Theater and one of my singers, Tony Pinotti, who was barking! (I was also in the Babylon Dance Band). And now a commercial-on about 11/25/09 antietamtheband.com will launch, which will include a fair amount about both of these bands, as well as my current band Antietam. Yrs in rock, Tara Key

    30 oct. 2009, 19h31m
  • tkdcoach

    Excellent, thanks for coming forward! Recall it like it was yesterday. Hopefully you got a nice shock of recognition when you saw the anecdote.

    30 oct. 2009, 19h33m
  • MichaelJoMayer

    Thanks for sharing.

    11 jui. 2010, 17h17m
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