Representing perhaps the most true-blue wing of the mid-’90s alternative country movement, Austin’s Bad Livers — Danny Barnes (vocals, banjo, guitar), Mark Rubin (upright bass, tuba) and Ralph White III (fiddle, accordion) — first made a name as the folks who could whip out bluegrass covers of punk classics and toured with the Butthole Surfers. It might seem like gimmickry, but what they’re really doing is bringing bluegrass to today’s kids — and besides, the music’s forebears had speed-demon chops and bad-ass attitude, too. Fans of SST-era Meat Puppets might well dig this stuff, although just about any rocker could appreciate the Bad Livers — the music is full of the bluegrass equivalent of heavy riffs, the lyrics are generally about outlaws, drunks and alienated types, and the tempos occasionally attain hardcore velocity.
Delusions of Banjer was straightforwardly produced by the Butthole Surfer Paul Leary, who also contributed a number called “The Adventures of Pee Pee the Sailor.” It’s a tribute to the Livers’ authenticity that, though the songs sound like bluegrass and old-timey country chestnuts, most are originals. Topped by Barnes’ twangy vocals, songs like “Shit Creek,” “Uncle Lucius” and “If It Runs” are a fine match for the band’s formidable chops. Although generally traditional-sounding, the album does allow one concession to modernity: an amazing free-bluegrass break on the old standard “Crow Black Chicken.”
A home recording initially self-released on cassette as a 1991 Christmas present for family and friends, Dust on the Bible contains covers of a dozen gospel and spiritual standards.
Recorded on an 8-track board with vintage tube microphones — reportedly in a woodshed — Horses in the Mines uncovers blues and New Orleans second-line rhythms sneaking into the pathos of “Turpentine Willie,” a gentle country swing in the rueful “Time and Time Again” and an aching desolation in the slow, spare title track. While the emphasis is on heartfelt songs framed by well-wrought arrangements (like the ambitious-and successful-art-bluegrass instrumental “Puke Grub”), there’s fabulous high-velocity picking on a version of Ed Shelton’s banjo colossus, “Blue Ridge Express.” For the most part, though, Horses in the Mines is more reflective, less rollicking than its predecessor. The album’s depth and sincerity prove that the Bad Livers are indeed no gimmick.