For anyone who likes Punk, Americana, British Folk, Country Rock or just enduring honky-tonk Rock & Roll, Jon Langford should be a household name. The Wales-born/Chicago-based musician plays Over-the-Rhine’s MOTR Pub this Friday with his band Skull Orchard.
Should be, but isn’t. He’s not an unknown, exactly. Langford actually has had quite a busy career as a sharp-witted songwriter and impassioned singer for The Mekons, among the longest-lasting of old-school British Punk bands, as well as The Waco Brothers, The Three Johns, The Pine Valley Cosmonauts and as a solo performer.
All his recording/performing configurations have made consistently excellent music; none is commercially huge.
As a visual artist, his vividly colorful, punk-attitude/folk-art-influenced, funky but respectful portraits of Country icons like Hank Williams and Bob Wills have developed a devoted following. So, too, have his book projects and album covers.
In Cincinnati, he’ll be at the opening reception for his Transmissions: Art and Words show at Over-the-Rhine’s Clay Street Press Gallery (1312 Clay St.) from 6-9 p.m. Friday. The show continues through July 14 and will feature an extensive selection of his art, some done for his Nashville Radio and Skull Orchard Revisited books. Langford has done a new lithograph for the show, based on the painting of a singing cowboy with a skeletal head that he made for the cover of his 2004 solo album, All the Fame of Lofty Deeds.
“I have to do a lot of things,” Langford, 54, explains during a Sunday morning phone interview from his Chicago home, just before leaving for a British tour with The Three Johns, a Post Punk group he co-founded in Leeds in 1981. “I find it essential, honestly — spiritually and economically. I think it’s very hard for musicians to make a living. I’m very lucky because I have the visual arts thing going on as well. None of it is paying for my retirement fund. It’s all very hand-to-mouth, but it seems to work for me.”
At the time of our interview, Langford had just returned from a Midwest tour with his Chicago-based Waco Brothers, a furiously honky-tonkin’ and Country-rockin’ outfit whose latest album (with Paul Burch), Great Chicago Fire, has just come out
Langford learned multitasking as an art student at University of Leeds in 1977 when he and some classmates formed The Mekons. The band has gone through numerous member changes, record labels and musical interests since then, but has always stayed creatively relevant.
Though the fact that current members live in both the U.S. and England means The Mekons record and tour infrequently, the band’s most recent album — last year’s sterling Ancient and Modern — landed on many best-of lists. Probably The Mekons’ greatest shot at Clash-like American fame came in 1989, when then-major-label A&M Records released the now-classic Mekons Rock ‘n’ Roll album. While touring the States in the 1980s, a funny thing happened to Langford. He fell in love with traditional Country music. And it changed his work.
“The Mekons had stumbled upon the idea that the most sensible way to make Punk work was, rather than advocating chest-beating anthems about smashing the system, to write songs about our experiences and the experiences that other people had,” Langford says. “So a song could be like a conversation rather than a preachy message or a piece of pure escapism.
“We found real parallels with Country music. And we were then very interested in traditional Country and Honky Tonk music.”
Langford even co-produced a 1988 AltRock tribute to Johnny Cash, ‘Til Things Are Brighter, that featured The Mekons and member Sally Timms, among others. It is considered the starting point for the Rock rediscovery of Cash in the 1990s.
One person who “got” The Mekons early was Michael Riley, the late WAIF radio host (and Mole’s Record Exchange clerk) who was one of Cincinnati’s greatest champions of Punk. According to Riley’s friend Steve Spatt, who shared his recollections via email, “I convinced Michael to go with me to see The Mekons in Columbus in the ’80s. I was really into them and this was the first opportunity to see them live. … Michael and Jon became friends that evening and stayed in touch from that point on. He changed the name of his program on WAIF to Mekon Radio. We drove many times to shows in Cleveland, Chicago, etc. to see the band and Michael gave all of them (not just Jon) tapes of music they would enjoy — Punk, Country, Reggae, Oldies and/or anything else that was cool.”
Langford recalls Riley fondly.
“He was one of those people we run into in the States that totally got it,” he says. “He’d come to Mekons gigs and recognize something in what we did. He’d make us tapes of Country music and Reggae — that was what we’d like to listen to. He was a really great guy and a constant fixture at Mekons gigs. It was very flattering to know there were people out there that loved the music that much.”
Langford moved to Chicago in 1992, following a girlfriend and feeling comfortable within the city’s Punk scene. He soon found himself a leader of the city’s emerging AltCountry movement, which was galvanized by the 1994 start-up of Bloodshot Records, a Roots Rock/AltCountry pioneer. As a visual artist, Langford has also painted some of Bloodshot’s album covers.
The music caught on, even if it hasn’t quite made Langford a household name.
“Nashville at the time was putting nails in traditional Country’s coffin, but the spirit inside was bubbling up all over the country with lots of people in different cities tinkering with classic Country,” he says. “A lot of people from Punk Rock bands had that blast of energy from Punk but were experimentalists and never content with what they do.”
And that truly describes Langford.