The Mekons' Folk Revival

BURN OUT OR fade away if you like, but for some seasoned punks there's a third way out of rock 'n' roll's sinkhole of youth: Pack up your acoustic and head for the Calgary Folk Festival. At least that's the plan for Jon Langford and Sally Timms of the seminal British punk band the Mekons, who first emerged from Leeds, England, in the wake of the '77 punk explosion.

"Basically, if you are in your late 30s, early 40s in politics, you would be a young upstart; and in folk music it's the same thing," laughs Langford, speaking over the phone from his Chicago painting studio. "It's kind of nice to play the Calgary Folk Festival and be youngsters, rather than veteran punk rockers. We're building up to some career high around the age of 65."

The invitation to play one of the world's most prestigious folk-music festivals yielded more than just an excuse to take a holiday in Calgary, Alberta. The Chicago-based bandmates decided to tour their way to and from the festival. With a stint on the road planned, having a record to plug seemed a natural next step. The results are their first solo collaboration, a wonderful limited-edition EP, Songs of False Hope and High Values (Bloodshot), packing eight songs with Hawaiian guitar, banjo, mandolin, double bass, and other equally unpunk sounds. The 2,000 numbered copies include selections such as folk godfather Eric Von Schmidt's Caribbean-flavored "Joshua Gone Barbados," Dolly Parton's young/pregnant/my-man-left-me ballad "Down From Dover," and Hank Williams cohort Fred Rose's "Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain." Not surprisingly, the originals, most notably the opening "Horses," are cut from the same country-folk mold.

Though perhaps not groundbreaking, the disc's sparse acoustic ambiance harks back more to the Carter Family than the Mekons' punk roots or subsequent roots-punk. Country flirtations are nothing new to the band: They virtually invented cow-punk with 1985's landmark Fear and Whiskey (Red Rhino). More recently, Langford has led country-punk mainstays the Waco Brothers, and Timms has released two discs of country ballads as her alter ego Cowboy Sally. In that light, the more acoustic approach of this outing actually seems a natural progression for the two musicians.

"Everything you might have wanted to happen with punk rock in England kind of happened in the first year," Langford explains of the Mekons' country wanderlust. "So we were looking around. [We started to draw] parallels between how we wanted to write songs and how people like Merle Haggard wrote songs. A lot of things clicked into place and made sense."

That said, this EP and tour represent the pair's first completely acoustic venture. Songs of False Hope was largely recorded in friends' homes with an array of guests, including singer-songwriter Chris Mills, ex-Bottle Rocket Tom Ray, and Steve Rosen of Bloodshot labelmates the Meat Purveyors. On the road the pair will be backed only by Chicago mainstay Jon Rauhouse on banjo, Hawaiian guitar, and mandolin, and Cherilyn diMond (also of the Purveyors) on double bass.

"It was weird," Langford says about the recent acoustic transformation, "but my doctor recommended it....She said, 'You've been playing in a loud rock 'n' roll band for 20 years now.' She knows a lot of deaf musicians in their 40s."

 
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