Freakwater began life as a side project; a country-cover band born from the Louisville, Kentucky’s punk scene of the late 1980s. It’s a project that went so well that the charter members, Catherine Ann Irwin and Janet Beveridge Bean decided to make their brand of contemporary Appalachian folk music into a full-time endeavor. It was good timing. The was a pent-up demand for country-music that reflected the reality of what was happening in rural America; economic decline, disintegrating social institutions and, so course, lots of public drunkenness. Many of the same topics that had made punk and hardcore music so appealing a decade earlier. Unlike Nashville’s “Ford Truck” approach to country music, Freakwater kept the spirit of their music close to the minimum-wage life of their audience. All of the band’s independently produced albums stick close to their signature musical style; a stark instrumental background with raw (female) harmonies and lyrics that echo the everyday struggles of late-period capitalism.
Officially formed in 1989, Freakwater quickly signed to Amoeba Records for two (great) albums before signing with Chicago’s Thrill Jockey label in 1993. Janet Bean had previously been the drummer/vocalist for Eleventh Dream Day. Another Chicago area band that acquired a national following in the late 80s with their Neil Young-ish alternative sound. Bean used those relationships to help build a quick transition to the label. Freakwater went on to record nine albums with Thrill Jockey before making the move to Bloodshot Records’ in 2016. That’s an amazing discography for an independent band releasing some of the finest and most important country music since the 1970s.
“And we’ll go out walking ’till our boots are run down
We’ll walk through this town where all the alleys are haunted
Though the streets are deserted these ghosts remain undaunted
And you’re laughing louder in my ear with every bottle of beer
My old drunk friend, it’s good to see you again“
After releasing and touring their third album, Feels Like the Third Time (1993), Freakwater moved back to Louisville for a well-deserved break and begin the writing process for their next album, Old Paint (1995). An album that was a significant jump forward both musically and lyrically. Featuring a cleaner, fuller sound with lyrics slightly more personal. Focusing on the heartache of failed relationships and the difficulties of loneliness as we grow older. Unlike so many bands that flirted with the sound of country music in the 90s, Freakwater stayed at the foothills of Appalachia; a culture that predates the birth of the United States as a nation. Providing Freakwater’s music with historical context without the nasty right-wing sloganeering that has become so associated with commercial country music.
It’s not difficult to describe the music of Catherine Irwin, Janet Bean and David Gay on Old Paint. The words flow freely enough; simple, beautiful, effortless, earthy and rooted. The difficulty begins when trying to describe the complexity of the sound. Or it’s militancy. Freakwater is the MC5 of country music. And their music is a testimonial. Words like “rooted” or “effortless” do not properly address the purposefulness of Freakwater’s attack on what Nashville has become. Let’s try to say it this way; Freakwater is the antidote for all that has gone wrong in country music. The medicine needed to counteract the poison of the Nashville establishment stripping country music of it’s meaning and it’s voice. Beneath the beautiful harmonies of Janet Bean and Catherine Irwin is the struggle for the soul of an important musical treasure. The Big Hat/ Bro-Country idiots’ like Toby Keith or Garth Brooks or, Allah help us, the Florida Georgia Line is the antithesis of all the beauty, poetry and heartbreak that Hank Williams brought to his audience. The music was cheap and real. When Nashville became more concerned about selling big trucks and beer to suburban housewives, the soul of country music died. Now…Kick out the jams, motherfuckers!
“I wasn’t drinking to forget
I was drinking to remember How I once might have looked
Through the eyes of a stranger When all hope should be gone
Still the dream somehow lingers Like the ghost of a snowstorm
In frostbitten fingers. Ten thousand backwards glances
Won’t bring second chances I never knew I was wasted
I was way too far gone The face I think is mine
Is not the face that I see The worried face in the mirror
Whose worried eyes are fixed on me“