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Road Weary

The Grievous Angels, from left, Dan Henzerling, Russ Sepulveda, Jesse Navarro, Mickey Ferrell and Jon Rauhouse.
Doug Hoeschler

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).

 

Amid the strain of Telecasters and train beats, Grievous found a niche as part of the first wave of the mid-'90s alt-country movement. Along with a clutch of other exponents -- Texas combos like the Old 97's and Slobberbone, the St. Louis contingent of Uncle Tupelo and the Bottle Rockets, Carolinians Whiskeytown and Backsliders -- the band helped awaken the rock underground to a unique brand of traditional country music, one filtered through a post-punk prism. It's fitting, then, that it was often tagged as "the Replacements meets Lefty Frizzell" -- a notion solidified by ragged-but-right roots excursions like "My Life Story" and "She's Lost Her Head" as well as New City's hidden track, a blazing cover of the Sex Pistols' "Bodies."

"We were right there for it," Sepulveda says. "Dan and I were brainstorming this thing as far back as '90, '91. So, yeah, I feel like we were on the ground floor, definitely a part of something special."

By the time 1998's Miles on the Rail was ready for release, it seemed the years of diligent road work had paid off, as pre-sales for the album were brisk. Yet the group came to an unexpected and abrupt halt that fall on the eve of a 30-city nationwide tour in support of the disc.

Though the conflict surrounded a fight with Bloodshot over billing on an upcoming festival ("We were terminally 'in support of,'" says Henzerling of the label's attitude toward the group), the quibbling was merely a convenient out for the band members, who -- some six years along -- were begging to look toward a decidedly unappealing future. While Henzerling's involvement in Robin Wilson's post-Gin Blossoms group, the Gas Giants, and Ferrell's membership in trash-punkers Sonic Thrills made Grievous all the more expendable, the group's end came as a result of Sepulveda's realization that he didn't want to become just another grizzled local music vet playing out the string.

"I was pretty soured by that point. We toured and worked our asses off and toured and did everything we could," he says. "I didn't want to be like every other local band that hangs on too long playing every Thursday at Long Wong's to the same people."

The band would go on to play a smattering of local shows (including one Balboa Café gig that still stands as one of the best sets of country music Bash & Pop has ever witnessed; there were three people in the audience that night) before making its final official appearance as part of the Bloodshot showcase at 1999's SXSW, five years after first drawing notice.

"As far as Bloodshot was concerned, we were the bastard stepchild. We were thousands of miles away in the desert, unlike most of the bands on the label who were from Chicago. So I don't think we ever got the support that we needed," adds Henzerling.

Whatever their lingering complaints, the band members are proud of a career that had its fair share of highlights.

"There was a lot of great moments," says Sepulveda. "I remember when [Miles on the Rail] went to number two in the Yugoslavian charts. Of course, the number one album that week was Thick As a Brick by Jethro Tull, but still."

Perhaps the band's greatest legacy will be introducing the world to steel player Jon Rauhouse. Rauhouse has enjoyed the benefits of his association with Grievous the most, using it as a springboard to record and tour with everyone from the Waco Brothers and the Old 97's to Sally Timms and Calexico.

"That's been great," says Henzerling. "To see this guy, who was just a gem of a talent but who never got any attention for what he was doing, get recognized has been really nice."

As to the future, Sepulveda is quick to dismiss any prospects of a Grievous Angels reunion.

"I've had people come up to me going, 'Why the fuck aren't you guys playing anymore? You're my favorite band.' And I'm like, 'Where were you when we were playing?'"

But the acerbic front man turns comically nostalgic when asked if he has any fond memories of the band.

 

"Of course. All the years of sleeping on motel floors, getting stiffed by club owners -- why, I wouldn't trade it for the world."

"It's the same old story," muses a more serious Henzerling. "You have a band with high hopes trying to put their music out. You go on the road, deal with a difficult label and you end up with what seems like nothing. But, we put out three records that were pretty damn good, and that's a lot more than most people can say."


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