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While so much music over the years has mythologized the "road" -- CCR's "Travelin' Band" and Grand Funk's "We're an American Band" immediately spring to mind -- it is, in reality, a life filled with constant hardships and genuine dangers for musicians. It's not merely about coming to town and "partying down" as Mark Farner might say; if you have any doubts, ask the surviving Minutemen.
Despite this grim verity, a skewed romance continues to surround the life of the touring band. This is not the private jets and buses of tattooed millionaires playing arenas and stadiums, but rather a culture of truck stops, greasy spoons and cross-country drives in cramped vans -- all of it endured by struggling bands for the simple prospect of playing to an enthusiastic, besotted crowd.
Talk centers on that very topic as the Grievous Angels gather over a meal of Mexican food and Pacifico at a central Phoenix eatery. Four fifths of the group -- singer Russ Sepulveda, guitarist Dan Henzerling, bassist Mickey Ferrell and drummer Jesse Navarro -- have assembled here. Missing is steel guitarist Jon Rauhouse, who's somewhere in California playing with twang chanteuse Neko Case.
The Tempe retro-country combo has been defunct for nearly two years, although it's never officially broken up. Today is a bittersweet occasion, as the members have come to discuss the release of their latest (and possibly last) song, "Hang Your Weary Head." The cut is included on a recently issued compilation celebrating the anniversary of their label, Bloodshot Records -- a company with whom they had, and continue to have, a difficult and strained relationship (the band is currently embittered by the fact that the song title was incorrectly listed in the packaging as "Hang Your Head in Shame" -- an oversight that is as symbolic as it is insulting).
Penned by Ferrell, the jaunty shuffle appears on the double-disc collection Down to the Promised Land: 5 Years of Bloodshot Records.The 40-song set features contributions from the biggest stars in the Americana galaxy (Whiskeytown's Ryan Adams, Alejandro Escovedo, the Handsome Family) as well as like-minded stylists -- the Supersuckers, Graham Parker and Giant Sand.
Despite the breezy tenor of the music, "Hang Your Weary Head" is a bleak chronicle of days and nights spent on the American blacktop, a litany of fistfights, bad food and near-death experiences on a never-ending highway. It's a narrative of life on the road so rife with detail that it will elicit sympathetic winces from those who've experienced similar travails as well as folks who've never set foot in an Ecoline.
"You've driven 700,000 miles today/You made it cross the border of square one/The highway bed feels harder when you're playing to an empty bar," sings Sepulveda in a mellifluous whine, before Henzerling joins him for the wistful chorus: "Hang your weary head/On a nail above your bed/Don't be left for dead, or in the dark/Sign it over, sell the parts/Lose your mind but save your heart."
"I thought the sentiment of the lyric was appropriate," notes Henzerling, before the band members begin an hourlong detour recounting their favorite stories from the road.
Yet the song is also a sad coda to a stellar and mysteriously overlooked career. Though it seems hard to believe, outside of the obvious big names (Gin Blossoms, Refreshments, Jimmy Eat World), the Grievous Angels were the most nationally recognized and successful band to emerge from the Valley in the '90s. Of course, you wouldn't know that judging by their local draw.
Much like the Meat Puppets a decade before, Grievous never enjoyed the kind of support at home as it did elsewhere, a situation exacerbated by the fact that the group was so closely tied to its Windy City-based label (again, like the Pups and their association with Long Beach, California's SST imprint).
"We never had a good draw in town. We had to go to Chicago and St. Louis to get any kind of response," says Sepulveda.
"And locally, every time we had a good crowd going, Russ would belittle them and they'd leave," says Henzerling, chiding Sepulveda for his reputation as a notorious onstage tongue-lasher.
"Oh, yeah," adds Ferrell, grinning, "we'd be a lot more popular if it wasn't for Russ."
Grievous, which started in 1992 (along with the band's bluegrass alter ego Ned Beatty and the Inbreds), began as a vehicle for Sepulveda and Henzerling's mutual affection for old-school country.
The group's initial period found it functioning as a loose-knit collective of local eclectics and twang enthusiasts, from Zen Lunatic Terry Garvin and Feedbag Jim Swafford to Keltic Cowboy Frank Mackey, all of whom were part of the band's early incarnations.
Eventually, the group solidified a lineup that included bassist Ferrell, pedal steeler Rauhouse and (at various points) drummers Jesse Navarro and John Fogarty, releasing a self-titled tape in 1993. The following year, the group was showcasing at Austin's South by Southwest conference when it caught the ear of Rob Miller, owner of the then-fledgling Bloodshot imprint. Along with Moonshine Willy and the Waco Brothers, Grievous was signed as part of the self-proclaimed "insurgent country" label's original roster and would go on to record a critically acclaimed EP (1995's Angels and Inbreds) and an equally lauded full-length debut (1997's New City of Sin).