Band of Constant Sorrow
"Cute little band. We do okay. We play Sundays. People clap. Everybody goes home. Nobody gets hurt. But it's really a good opportunity for me to learn the music."
That's Bruce Connole's modest take on Busted Hearts, the bluegrass band he formed with Glass Heroes/Beat Angels guitarist Keith Jackson that's played every Sunday night at Long Wong's since August 2001. Connole is a veteran of several revered Valley bands, which he now dismisses with a cigarette flick. Like the Jetzons ("Me making music that's trying to be cool."). Or the Revenants, whose second album, Artists and Whores, never received a follow-up as Connole tells it, the band started to feel more like the former and less like the latter. With a lifestyle shift away from drugs and alcohol seven years ago came a gradual exodus from the self-aggrandizing trappings of rock and pop music.
In these days where music seems like just another form of media saturation, Connole is happy just digging bluegrass, which is, as he puts it, "devoid of all that cult-of-personality horseshit. You know that the guy who's playing and writing [old bluegrass] tunes isn't thinking, Man, we're gonna get on MTV and get our brains fucked.' These were just regular working guys. Only a few remotely made a living out of playing and it sure as hell wasn't extravagant by any stretch of the imagination."
Such explains the lure of bluegrass, or at least Connole's definition of it. He's filtered out the novelties about town dances and clucky old hens but retained the ones about disappointments and death all the while indulging in happy banjo and fiddle. Take "Hooker's Lament," in which a lady of the night shrivels like a vampire in the light of day; or "I Don't Mind," in which Connole plays a death-row resident pleased as punch that he'll soon fry in the chair and move on to a world without electricity. "Death occupies a good amount of my imagination," he revels. "I mean, we're all gonna die."
The isolation of an agrarian culture that bluegrass music preserves also appeals to Connole, who maintains a near-hermitic existence in a quiet Mexican neighborhood in central Phoenix. He works as a computer consultant out of his house a good deal of the time, and once he sequesters himself there, he rarely answers the phone ("It takes about nine months before people realize you're not gonna pick up."). The front door gets most of its use letting out his cat, a stray he's had for four years but hasn't bothered to name ("It's really only a problem when I take her to the vet.").
As you sit in his living room, his musical preferences these days become glaringly apparent. A Ralph Stanley boxed set sits proudly atop an upright piano. Two acoustic guitars, a banjo and a fiddle rest against the couch like arriving guests on The Tonight Show. His fire-engine-red Fender Telecaster sits in green-room limbo in a hard-to-reach corner.
"I don't even think I've touched that electric guitar in nine months," he sighs wistfully. "It's a shame; it's a nice-looking one, too. I just got bored with honky-tonk. I still like it. Just got more into bluegrass. The other thing became like a job. Ah, gotta do a Revenants gig.'"
Before he pulled the plug on that band, he got his feet wet playing bluegrass with a side project called the Pearl Chuckers, which featured fellow Revenants as well as Amos Cox, who played guitar before taking up mandolin in Busted Hearts. "We couldn't find a mandolin player to save our ass, so I asked Amos, Why don't you play mandolin? It's not that hard,'" he says. "But before that, Keith just called me out of the blue, which was kind of the impetus for the whole thing coming together, and said he really wanted to do some old-timey kind of deal. And Keith was kind of a natural, he had some tunes he'd written . . . and despite what he says about being born in Tennessee, which he is, he grew up in Detroit. He had a really good command of the music, and his guitar rhythm is good, which is important."
Connole picks up a guitar and demonstrates the loping rhythm. "You'd be surprised how many guys can't play that or seem awkward doing it. So he really got the ball rolling with Amos, Paul and Jason, but they had to go away and we got Kenny and Kevin."
That would be Kevin Pate on upright bass and Kenny Love on drums. The pair also plays together in a rockabilly trio called the Dynoglides. Pate still occasionally plays electric bass with Jackson in the Beat Angels, who gig only semi-annually now.
"By bluegrass standards, I don't think any of us are particularly amazing," Connole allows, "which we try to make up for with, for lack of a better word, originality. I do think you should be competent. That's the one great thing about being a bluegrass player. It requires so much effort and work just to be a half-assed player. Keith's always saying, I hope nobody else jumps on this bandwagon.'"
These days, bandwagon is a relevant word. Before the Coen Brothers' prisoner-on-the-run flick O Brother, Where Art Thou?, your twentysomething's closest contact with bluegrass was the theme to Family Feud. Now slumping country singers, buoyed by the movie's smash-hit soundtrack, are suddenly whipping out fiddles and mandolins but steering clear of murder ballads.
"I was watching the Nashville Network and seeing these travesty entertainers, people I've hated all my life, jumping on the bluegrass bandwagon, like Travis Tritt," Connole complains. "Fuckin' wankers. They bore me. I'm sure he's a great guy, but it's 2003 and you've still got a mullet, for fuck's sake. That's a whole other world I don't know anything about. I relate to this old shit that I listen to, feel some sort of kindred spirit to it. But for all intents and purposes I'm a poseur, man. I grew up in the city. I was a junkie for how many years? I'm not a fuckin' hillbilly."
He continues, "I just don't think real bluegrass music has much of a market; it never has and it never will. Just from what I've seen and judging by popular taste, I don't see that happening anytime soon. O Brother wasn't a fluke; it was an amazingly recorded record. But outside of that record, nobody really gives a shit. Any niche market right now, as far as the record industry or the people who make those decisions is concerned, is like why bother?' Bluegrass, the way we do it, there's no ready-made audience for it. It isn't like there's a shitload of 14-year-olds lining up to buy it. You're gonna get one or two people from a lot of disparate demographics. That's a marketer's nightmare. They're not gonna fuck around with that when they can crank out another J.Lo shitbag release."
Detest for media icons and record industry policing practices, which killed the Internet radio company he was working for, fuels Connole's hobby of downloading archival bluegrass off the Internet. "I'm all in favor of ripping off shit," he says. "There's archival stuff I don't even know the names of that I find daily. I like a few things from a few guys. Johnson Mountain Boys stuff, which I think is great, and the rest is just salty dog stuff."
Connole's personal favorite is Ralph Stanley, for whom the Busted Hearts will open up this week. O Brother has made the legendary Stanley a latter-day hero. Connole's fan worship, though, goes back years earlier, when Zia Record Exchange founder Brad Singer gave him a mix tape that included Stanley. "I love Ralph Stanley. Love the Stanley Brothers. I like a lot of Bill Monroe, but I love Stanley more. The bluegrass distinction came from Monroe, but Stanley calls his sound old-timey mountain music."
Busted Hearts have just finished a CD of their own old-timey mountain music, recorded wholly on Connole's computer. He's mixing one version of the album in hi-fi Sensaround sound, which requires five speakers.
"Bluegrass in Sensaround is gonna explode," he laughs ruefully. Apparently Connole's no longer concerned with setting the world on fire, especially when its brightest lights are people like Shania Twain, whose last album was also available in three versions, namely pop, country and international, all virtually indistinguishable. "I guess on the pop one they take off the pedal steel with the phaser on it, like that was country in the first place," he says before taking an exceptionally long drag on his cigarette. "I don't get it. But what do I know? I've aged myself in a demographic nobody really cares about, which is fine with me."
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