Various artists, “Too Late to Pray: Defiant Chicago Roots” (Bloodshot)
After drawing up a business plan on cocktail napkins at various drinking establishments in Chicago, three dedicated roots-music disciples started Bloodshot Records in 1993 with the seemingly foolish mission of showcasing the region’s underground country-punk scene. The label’s debut album the next year, “For a Life of Sin: A Compilation of Insurgent Chicago Country,” presented an overview of like-minded artists (from better-knowns such as the Mekons’ Jon Langford and the Old 97’s to cult favorites the Sundowners and the Texas Rubies) and the secret was out.
A quarter-century later, Bloodshot (led by its sole remaining co-founder, Rob Miller) is still leading the honky-tonk-is-the-new-punk insurgency. Credit (or blame) the label for the “alternative-country” trend, but Bloodshot has survived in large part because it has continually refreshed its roster with real-deal artists instead of bandwagon-jumpers. Like its “For a Life of Sin” predecessor, the label’s 25th anniversary collection, “Too Late to Pray: Defiant Chicago Roots” features cover art and a new song by Langford while gathering an even more diverse array of voices from a still-thriving movement.
At times it’s so meta that one can’t help but notice that this is a distant iteration of the music it celebrates. Wild Earp and the Free for Alls lament that “I can’t find anybody to do the two-step with me” because “they closed up the honky-tonks and threw away the key.” The Lawrence Peters Outfit parses 50% of the country songbook in “I Wrote You a Song” (“I didn’t plan on it ending with both of us alone”) and the Hoyle Brothers celebrate “A Little Bit of Buck” (as in Buck Owens) and other country icons.
But the humor doesn’t devolve into irony, because the artists zoom in on traditional country’s plain-spoken directness and deliver it with a rawness that would sound just as good on a sawdust-floor roadhouse as it would at a basement punk show.
Especially welcome is the way the collection embraces country-adjacent swing and R&B, notably on Tammi Savoy and Chris Casello’s finger-snapping ride through Little Esther’s “If It’s News to You” and Kelly Hogan’s sultry take on Floyd Tillman’s “Gotta Have My Baby Back.”
A few holdovers from the first Bloodshot compilation contribute stellar tracks. Langford’s Hillbilly Lovechild weighs in with a wry slice of social commentary, “I Am a Big Town,” backed by Steve Albini on guitar. The Handsome Family goes art-punk on Leonard Cohen’s “Tower of Song.” Robbie Fulks’ narrator hits rock bottom in the bluegrass devastation of “Lonely Ain’t Hardly Alive.” And Freakwater strips the Rolling Stones’ world-weary “Sway” down to two plaintive voices and a banjo — now that’s hard-core.
Just as enriching are the relatively new voices that blast through this dense 22-song collection. Big Sadie’s lamentations send a chill through “You Never Told Me,” Sima Cunningham continues to unveil different facets of her musical personality on the ghostly “Weeds and Daisies,” the Dyes saturate an early David Bowie cut (“Liza Jane”) in Cramps-like reverb and Los Gallos filters Tex-Mex through garage rock on “Yeah Yeah Yeah.”
The “Too Late to Pray” title is from a lyric to Hank Williams’ “Lost Highway,” just as “For a Life of Sin” did, though sometimes that connection to ‘ol Hank is hard to detect. Rookie’s enthusiastic if incongruous cover of Tears for Fears’ “Head Over Heels” certainly stretches Bloodshot’s boundaries, back to MTV-era British pop. Then again, Bloodshot started out by ignoring the rules, so why stop now?
Greg Kot, Chicago Tribune