Of all the paradoxes, inequities and ironies that govern the music industry, this one is pretty hard to top. Two of the most acclaimed Nashville artists of recent years — one the leader of an internationally revered indie-rock group, the other a compelling vocalist who comes from country music lineage — have made a stunning new record almost literally in their own backyard.
Not only was it recorded in Nashville, it's made up of songs from Music Row's past. From players to producers to songwriters, it couldn't be a more Nashville project if the Ryman's sawdust were digitally encoded in every track. It honors the city's musical history even as it adds a new chapter.
There's just one catch: You'll have a hard time hearing it in Nashville.
For the moment, your average CD buyer in Sweden or Germany would have a better chance of picking up Invariable Heartache, the gorgeous new album from the side project known as KORT, than would a listener in Nashville. Kurt Wagner, who's one of KORT's vocalists, lives only a few blocks away from Grimey's — which is convenient, since that's the only place in the city that will carry the record — and only in limited quantities. Starting Oct. 18, the record has European distribution through the overseas label City Slang, but as of press time, it has no U.S. distributor — even though the group is playing its only U.S. date Thursday, Oct. 14, at the tiny Charlotte Avenue club Betty's.
What makes this a crime is that finally, someone has recorded a contemporary Nashville record that acknowledges the personal and professional sides of the city's musical heritage, and nods to that heritage without being paralyzed by tradition. KORT's debut features reimaginings of classic country and soul songs performed by Wagner, the longtime singer-frontman for Nashville indie ensemble Lambchop, and solo artist Cortney Tidwell. A remarkably supple band studded with local indie-rock all-stars supplies the backing, which ranges from hushed to quietly jubilant.
But let's get this straight up front: Invariable Heartache does not deserve to be heard because its local-boy players work good and hard, or because Tidwell and Wagner are hometown heroes. It deserves to be heard because it's so good, so original and unexpected, that it allows old Nashville to be seen through a new lens. Instead of retro cliché or surface revivalism, there is a deep, palpable yearning in these songs, an earnestness seldom found on records this sonically sophisticated.
Mindful of the past, yet contemporary and challenging enough to be relevant today, KORT's album is the sound of country's influence emerging not as Americana or CMT fodder, but as its own new viral strain of working people's music. For it to go unheard in Nashville would be like the White Stripes sinking without a trace in cradle-of-garage-rock Detroit.
The album has particular significance for Tidwell, who's been hailed as a rising star by the European music press. Of the 12 songs on Invariable Heartache, 11 were first cut in the 1960s and '70s by artists on the Nashville label Chart Records. The label's chief was Tidwell's grandfather, Slim Williamson, a former musician who appeared on the Opry in the '50s and recorded for Decca.
Her father, Cliff Williamson, eventually took over the business. He married Tidwell's mother, Connie Eaton, who recorded for Chart as a teenager throughout the '60s. Yet for much of Tidwell's life, that family legacy was more a curse than a blessing.
"I shied away from music for a long time, because it brought so much heartache to the family," says Tidwell, a diminutive, raven-haired thirtysomething, with a tinge of Southern inflection. She declines to elaborate, other than to say that her mother's "minor success" (as she modestly puts it) was marked by the inevitable mental anguish of a career in which so much rides on selling records, topping charts and remaining relevant. Having retired from country music two decades prior, Eaton died of cancer in 1999 at the age of 49.
For all the pain it caused, however, Tidwell found music impossible to deny. "I started playing in bands when I was about 18 or 19," she says one recent afternoon at the 12South Portland Brew with Wagner. Today, her solo material is of a decidedly more indie-rock/experimental ilk than her mother's, with records like 2009's Boys fetching comparisons to The Cocteau Twins, Radiohead, Björk, Feist and other college-radio darlings.
But those nods don't do justice to Tidwell's range and diversity as a performer and writer, or to the way she has absorbed the music around her. While her arrangements could most easily be classified as post-rock or even art-rock, the ache in Tidwell's crystalline vocals evokes Patsy Cline as much as Polly Jean Harvey. Call it (as another country music scion once addressed his parent's legacy) a family tradition — a tradition her duet partner doesn't share.
"Well, I ain't got anything like that," Kurt Wagner says. "There's no dynasty involved in my thing. I just started making music when I came back to Nashville in, like, '86. ... I started fooling around with some friends and that became Lambchop. That's really all I have to go on."
Interestingly, their dynamic in person is almost the opposite of what you'd expect from the record. Sitting together at the coffeehouse, they have something of the air of siblings — Wagner the protective older brother fielding most of the questions, deferred to by his shy sister. The sensitive Tidwell seems more than happy to yield the floor to Wagner, who's happy to talk when the subject isn't the meaning of his own enigmatic songs. On record, though, it's Wagner whose voice tends to recede into a supportive murmur, leaving Tidwell to raise the rafters.
Nevertheless, theirs is an inspired pairing. For nearly two decades, Wagner has been the central member and driving creative force behind Lambchop — whose arrangements and instrumentation, equal parts nouveau countrypolitan and Salvation Army band, probably hew stylistically closer to traditional country than Tidwell's. Overseas, the band is popular enough to fill London's Royal Albert Hall, and their roughly 10 studio albums have been heralded by critics — from Rolling Stone and Billboard to The Guardian and Pitchfork — as some of the finest country-influenced indie rock to come out of the '90s and Aughts.
But for their stylistic divergences, Tidwell and Wagner share a lot. Beyond being European labelmates — they're both on City Slang across the pond, though Merge puts out Lambchop's records stateside — they share a thoughtful intuitiveness as storytellers and performers. As saturated with songwriters as Nashville may be, any local can tell you it continually proves to be a small town, and like-minded artists tend to flock together. Wagner first duetted with Tidwell on a song called "Society" from her debut full-length, Don't Let Stars Keep Us Tangled Up, in 2007. On Lambchop's most recent studio album, (OH) Ohio, the two sang together on a cover of Don Williams' "I Believe in You."
That track in particular proved that Tidwell and Wagner had remarkable chemistry as vocalists, as Wagner's world-weary, understated croon made a somber backdrop for Tidwell's mellifluous, soaring vocals. Tidwell's manager (and now KORT's) Wyndham Wallace planted the seed that they should make a duets album, as did Kurt's wife Mary Mancini, whose Lucy's Record Shop was the site of Lambchop's early gigs. It made sense, especially since they already shared several band members.
"[KORT] seemed like the next step, because we were fighting over rehearsals anyway," Tidwell jokes. She laughs nervously, as if afraid someone will think she's serious.
Recorded in just four or five sessions, the material was far easier to track than it was to select. Classic country seemed like the most appropriate place to fish for duet material. But the concept of recording familiar standards struck everyone involved as too obvious, even cheesy. Tunes like George Jones and Tammy Wynette's "We're Gonna Hold On" were discussed at one point — but as KORT guitarist William Tyler points out, "Nobody should touch those songs." The project stalled as everyone agonized over what material to select.
Eventually, however, Tidwell proposed sorting through Chart Records' catalog. It was a concept that excited Wagner, not only because of the wealth of Chart material, but also because of its deeply personal nature. Pieces of Tidwell's history, plus pieces of Nashville's, might be tender or even painful to revisit, but surely they would be imbued with profound intimacy.
"I think we were both looking for something that kind of stood out from the pack," explains Wagner from beneath his ever-present Co-Op Horse Feeds cap and thick Buddy Holly frames. "Due to the nature of country music [in the '60s and '70s], it was pretty formulaic in how [songs] fit into these different sort of categories. There wasn't a lot of discerning from each one, and every now and then we'd be listening through and something would stand out as being unique and sometimes even odd."
The good stuff, William Tyler says, stood out immediately.
"The great thing about most country songs is, the really great ones, you feel like you've heard a thousand times before," Tyler explains. "There's something very similar between really great Italian cooking and really great country music. You have three or four ingredients and a lot of patience, and something pretty sublime comes out that's pretty simple."
The artists KORT opted to cover aren't immediately recognizable — not even for country music connoisseurs. They're artists like Gene & Rod, Tom Tall, Wes Helm and Dawn Glass, and the songs are most often bittersweet and lovelorn. They're mostly conventional pop-country tunes as far as instrumentation and structure, but each is strangely idiosyncratic in its own way — whether it's the borderline-provocative nature of LaWanda Lindsey & Kenny Vernon's "Pickin' Wild Mountain Berries" and Charlene Davidson's "I Can't Sleep With You," or the astonishingly forlorn "Incredibly Lonely," from which Invariable Heartache draws its name.
"I mean, there's something about [traditional country's] sort of normalcy and its straightforwardness that doesn't really fit into the way our culture is right now," Wagner says. "It comes from another sort of mindset, a way people expressed themselves. And yet there it is, and it's wrapped in this other sound!" He gestures to indicate a sound that's somehow bigger than the songs themselves — and perhaps to contrast the bluntness of the lyrics with the ethereal musical settings. "It's like these really sweet, pretty square kind of things ... it's a guy talking in a very straightforward way about these almost banal sort of notions. And that's unique in today's, I don't know, iPod."
KORT admit their versions "aren't necessarily very true to the originals," but instead are instilled with the distinctive trad-country-meets-art-rock style they and their players are known for. "Penetration" is perhaps the most peculiar and outstanding track on Invariable Heartache. It was once recorded for Chart by Three Heads, a little-known group whose name is exceedingly difficult to Google — not to mention the bawdy results a Google search turns up when coupled with the word "penetration."
The distant notes of a music box and a long, plinking piano intro give way to staccato stabs over which Tidwell sings a roving background melody. Wagner speak-sings a dense verse about a "sad Cinderella" who dances through his mind. It's a strange, ethereal number that's anything but conventional.
On the other hand, KORT's versions of songs like "A Special Day" — once recorded for Chart by Karen Wheeler — aren't too far from the traditional approach, as Calexico/Lambchop veteran Paul Niehaus' pedal steel weeps alongside Tidwell's yearning, delicate vocals. This approach isn't something Tidwell tries out often in her solo material. She's noted as a powerhouse vocalist — as the tremendous "17 Horses" from Boys can attest — but here there's a vulnerability that paints the entire record with heartache.
The dichotomy between content and delivery is perhaps Invariable Heartache's most striking characteristic. Call it "sophisti-country," perhaps. There's an undeniable balance between these dozen quirky but relatively simple pop songs and the restrained, tasteful manner in which they're played. Neither Wagner nor Tidwell anticipated how well they'd mesh from the outset.
"It's not like any of us had any clue that this would even work," Wagner says. "It was more like, 'We all like each other. We want to do things together. Here's this thing that's a kind of crazy, neutral canvas to start with. Let's see what happens. ... Hey, that's cool. I'd listen to that. And damn, my mom would listen to that! And Cortney's family listens to that!'
"I don't think we were very devious. We didn't [decide to] just make something that everybody likes. We were just honestly trying to find the light switch in a dark room."
The swiftness with which Invariable Heartache was made is a testament to the players' chemistry and experience. The KORT roster, which features all but one Lambchop member and a handful of Tidwell's backing band members — most of whom belong to both outfits — reads like a lineup of Music City indie-rock MVPs.
Among them is Tyler, who picked up the guitar as a young man, eventually landed gigs with outfits like Superdrag and Silver Jews, and later started a small label of his own: Sebastian Speaks, which, as his website puts it, "is dedicated to unearthing unusual audio and video documents, curious written material, homemade music [and] reissues." But he had another kinship with the KORT project: In keeping with the never-ending cycle of generational Nashvillian players, he's the son of local songwriter Dan Tyler, who has penned hit tunes for artists including The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Eddie Rabbitt and The Oak Ridge Boys.
Tyler found his way into the Lambchop lineup roughly a decade ago. "Lambchop was basically ... a bunch of guys that were 20 years older than us," says Tyler. "For a long time I was like Opie." But before too long, Lambchop drafted Ryan Norris and Scott Martin — bandmates of Tyler's from an experimental rock outfit by the name of Character. "Two more Opies," adds Norris.
By day, Norris works as a clerk at Grimey's. By night, he's among the most omnipresent sidemen in town, when he's not touring with Tidwell or Lambchop in Europe. Norris and Martin both signed on to KORT, and the time they've logged together in tour buses and rehearsal spaces is obvious. With a dynamic that is two-thirds old college buddies and one-third old married couple, their work ethic seems naturally bound to their personal relationship. Adam Bednarik, who's worked with Justin Townes Earle, rounds out the lineup on bass.
"These guys, in my opinion, are the best, and what really makes them great is that they're all great artists on their own," Wagner says. "They appear to everyone as sidemen, but these guys are all of great stature as artists and they work hard at it. They all work hard at making music — their own music, other people's music. They don't seem to draw a whole lot of distinction between those things. They get involved with something, and they approach it full on. That's what makes them special, and that's why they're all so experienced at this point considering how young they all are."
"There's a lot of trading people [between Tidwell, Lambchop and KORT], kind of like the way Sabbath and Rainbow and Dio did," Tyler says impishly.
Todd Tidwell, Cortney's husband and part of a Nashville legacy in his own right, recorded the bulk of Invariable at Starstruck on Music Row, a studio known mostly for its work with country stars, though artists as diverse as Kelly Clarkson, Switchfoot and Goodie Mob have recorded there. Frequent Lambchop collaborator Mark Nevers mixed and recorded overdubs, and guest sidemen such as Ben Hill (who performs on occasion with Charlie Louvin) and Billy Contreras (who plays fiddle for George Jones) bolstered the record's classic-country connections.
Indeed, Invariable Heartache captures a sense of the bohemian Nashville that's a generation removed from the Music Row hit mill. Spotlighted here are a batch of songs bound together by familial history: from second-generation players like William Tyler, to Tidwell's background, to her husband's family — Todd's father played guitar with several outfits, including Charlie Rich for a time. Even now, Todd and Cortney's two boys are involved in Youth Empowerment Through Arts and Humanities' Tennessee Teens' Rock and Roll Camp, starting projects and writing (as Todd puts it) "really catchy songs about video games and hating homework and wanting to chase girls and shit like that."
In other words, Invariable Heartache was made with the established Nashville proficiency and work ethic, but it's still unlike just about any other record you'll hear from these parts. And yet here it sits — with support from City Slang in Europe, but no distribution in the U.S.
Both Lambchop and Tidwell have long generated interest and support in Europe. Ryan Norris points out his belief that Europeans tend to "fetishize the American South and country music" — exalting the poetry, storytelling and nuance they see in country and country-influenced American music — while folks at home rarely give the South the same respect. Lambchop's records are still released in the States by Merge, but no such luck with KORT.
"Merge used to be a more outsider artist-oriented label, I think," Tyler says. "They always had Superchunk and bands like that, but pretty much everyone else were guys like Magnetic Fields, Neutral Milk Hotel, Lambchop — dudes that didn't tour or had complicated situations."
Now, he explains, Merge is home to bands like Arcade Fire and Spoon: i.e., bands that not only make money touring, but also make it onto the Billboard charts.
"They didn't want to put out this record that Kurt and Cortney did, and I can understand that," Tyler says. "It's a country record. And they already have their guy-girl thing. Which I won't get into." (He refers, in case you didn't catch that, to Merge's beloved coed indie gems She & Him.)
Wagner admits he'd love to see Invariable Heartache come out on a cool Nashville indie label. "I doubt that's going to happen," he says, "but that's not from lack of trying or lack of interest. It's just timing kind of crap or whatever. I do think that that's important, and frankly if it were just released from here to Hendersonville it'd be all right with me, because I do believe it's that kind of thing. I don't want a whole lot of recognition for that. It just feels right that that would be the nature of this particular release. It comes from here, it should have a life within that.
"For all I know, the only U.S. show we're going to play is at Betty's [Oct. 14], and that's fucking great. That's just fine. It's like, here's our own little thing. Let's celebrate that together."
Wagner's not being pre-emptively defensive or falsely modest. Lambchop made its peace long ago with being stars abroad and all but anonymous in their hometown, even as they upheld its chief export — country music — with more reverence than many insiders. Neither of KORT's singers is particularly inclined to talk about him- or herself at great length, but both know what makes a great record, both are familiar with what it takes to put out a great record, and both seem to have some more great records left in them.
Perhaps more to the point, they understand that whether KORT shows up on the music industry's radar or not, they've made a great record. Invariable Heartache closes with "Who's Gonna Love Me Now," which is sung solo by Tidwell. It's the only song on the album culled from outside the Chart catalog; it was recorded for ABC-Dunhill in 1975 by Tidwell's mother.
KORT's version is arrestingly beautiful. It's sparse and restrained instrumentally, with Tidwell's voice at its most emotive and revealing. It's the kind of emotionally direct arrow-to-the-heart performance — a transformative match of singer, song, subject and arrangement — that 40 years ago made people fall in love with, and to, the time-honored Nashville sound.
Here's hoping you'll get to hear it in Nashville.