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RadiogramQuite rightly, Chicago has been a port of focus for alt. Country devotees for some time now. Much as one would generally expect of releases by, say, Loose or Glitterhouse - i.e. quality - Chicagoan musicians and labels have proven to be consistently reliable and entertaining. But this year is seeing the quiet, slow emergence of a potential usurper - Vancouver.
Forever seeking the tastiest truffles, I occasionally unearth the odd diamond, and an example of that in recent months has been Unbetween (Transsiberian Music Company), the auspicious debut of Vancouver's Radiogram. I consequently contacted head 'Gram Ken Beattie to doff my cap and find out more. As a result of this communication, I now have a plethora of Vancouver talent, still largely unheard of outside British Columbia, to report on to interested parties, and on heavy hi-fi rotation. I'm confident though, that the equally curious will discover these sounds in good time. Vancouver's time will come.
Beattie's route to country is the oft- travelled scenic one via punk. From the thrashings of Foam, Sourpuss and the acclaimed Emptys, to the sublime melancholia of Radiogram; I asked Ken how this happened, and for his theory on why the two genres are such close cousins:
an interview with Ken Beattie by Tom Sheriff
"Country was Punk before Punk was Punk," he replies.
"Look at Hank Williams, Merle Haggard, Johnny Cash... they were hard livin' guys who didn't give a toss what people thought or where it lead them. Moving beyond Punk as 'attitude', many of these artists' beginnings were on independent and regional labels. Loretta Lynn showed up at venues and radio stations demanding to play or be played. That's as Punk as it gets!"
"For me, I grew up listening to '70's 'one-hit-wonders' and AM radio Country hits - Glen Campbell, Tanya Tucker... When I got into Punk Rock in my teens, it was at the same time I really started to appreciate Johnny Cash and George Jones, and the whole history of Country Music. So Country and Punk have always been synonymous for me - they are mutually unexclusive."
Reviews of Unbetween have been nothing short of ecstatic - the ever-expanding press-kit has already reached mammoth proportions - I wondered what Ken's expectations had been - did he envisage this reaction?
"There was a moment when my co-producer Chon and I were listening to a mix when a friend of ours came in, pointed at me and said 'You have no idea how good this is, do you?' It was then that I started realising that we might be on to something".
In these reviews, Radiogram has been compared to Red House Painters and Gram Parsons, amongst other greats. One excited hack even tagged Ken as "this generation's Hank Williams." I asked Ken if the pressure was on at this early stage in the band's career, following such lofty comparisons...
"I think that at some point, all of these artists were probably as full of self-doubt as I am right now, and as sad as it may seem, critical acclaim does not pay the bills".
In North-Western USA and further afield in Canada, Radiogram are building a following as a result of solid gigging and a formidable live reputation. They have most recently toured as support to CwaS favourite Richard Buckner, and have shared a stage with both Giant Sand and The Jayhawks. With life going so swimmingly for Ken at the moment, I pondered on the possibility that his band may have even blown one of these heavyweights off-stage;
"Radiogram live is all about dynamics and dramatics, and we've gotten quite good at it, but I believe it's a lot easier being the warm-up band, because you have nothing to lose. We played a show recently in Winnipeg where we were so 'on', that I thought 'Wow! We are going to be a hard act to follow.' Then Richard came out and gave a bone-chilling performance that left everyone shaking. Somehow, I feel our set inspired that."
And what of Vancouver? Are there enough suitable venues and willing promoters to sustain such an enthusiastic response?
"There are not many places to play - the best for us are The Sugar Refinery and The Railway Club. Like any mid-sized city though, it's best to get the fuck outta Dodge!"
Ken has introduced me to some other fine local bands, some with Radiogram connections and some not, like Auburn, Jonathan Incorporated and the wonderful, banjo-led Flophouse Jr. Other
"great, like-minded Canadian artists" he recommends include Rich Hope, Old Reliable, Christine Fellows and Bottleneck. 'Canadiana', anyone? (Ken calls his sound 'Orgambient Country' but refers to the whole movement simply as 'Folk Music').
The odds are good that you will be reading this on a cold, wet and miserable day (with Gone To Stay cutting through the gloom).s Ken told me a while back that he loves to record in the winter, and as he is about to embark on the second album, I asked him, finally, what a bleak and freezing Vancouver contributed to the Radiogram sound. However measured, the language of his response echoes the depth of his music:
"Between the day and the dull grey, there's a tiny little space you can trace. That's easier to capture in winter. Vancouver winters are not freezing, but they are endless days of damp longing and a sense of wet entrapment. The day takes it's own sweet time in coming to a close, and even then, it can't see the end for all the rain"
CWAS #7 - Spring 2001