Langford's Art Skewers Neo-Nashville
It's an arresting image: Hank Williams, wild-eyed and skeletal, pierced with arrows like the Christian martyr St. Sebastian.It's an arresting image: Hank Williams, wild-eyed and skeletal, pierced with arrows like the Christian martyr St. Sebastian. This astonishing graphic and dozens more like it are on view in "Nashville Radio" (Verse Chorus Press), the first collection of art works by Jon Langford, the prolific vocalist/guitarist of the Mekons, the Waco Brothers and the Pine Valley Cosmonauts.
The Wales-born Chicago resident says of his multiple portraits of Hank-as-martyr: "The guy was just in agony his whole life ... I think of Kurt Cobain and Hank Williams -- their careers are so parallel."
Langford and the Mekons saw many parallels between their brand of punk rock and traditional hard-edged country music, and the band adopted, and adapted, the conventions of American hillbilly music into their sound in the mid-'80s.
"They were simple three-chord songs about drinking in bars," Langford says. "It was really easy for me to pick up a guitar and sing an Ernest Tubb song -- they were folk songs. Maybe it was arrogant on one level, but it made sense to me."
Langford had studied art at Leeds University during the Mekons' formative years but had abandoned painting for music. However, a 1988 trip to Tootsie's Orchid Lounge in Nashville -- the Lower Broadway bar that was the dry Grand Ole Opry's wet "backstage" in the days when the show was broadcast from the Ryman Auditorium -- proved to be an artistic epiphany.
The musician was fascinated by the scarred, stained photographs of country's famous stars and unknown aspirants that lined the walls of the saloon. "That was a 'Eureka!' moment," Langford recalls. "It was as if this was the only monument to this culture ... It was the graveyard for the part of America I was interested in."
He began to produce paintings and etchings, rendered in a distinctively scuffed, manhandled style, which represented country music's history and heroes in a phantasmagoric, gothic way. He says, "I tried to imitate what had happened to those pictures [at Tootsie's] -- the nicotine, the tearing."
The pages of "Nashville Radio" (which takes its name from a haunted Langford song penned in Hank Williams' voice) are filled with unsettling portraits of Williams, Johnny Cash, Bob Wills and other icons. Several of his works are devoted to the stars of the "National Barn Dance," the now little-remembered Chicago radio show that gave the Opry a run for its money as a showcase for country talent.
Langford will appear later this month at the South by Southwest Music Conference & Festival in Austin, Texas, performing a show in support of his new ROIR solo album, "Gold Brick." A show of his art will be hanging at Yard Dog Gallery during the festival, and he will sign copies of "Nashville Radio" there March 18.