New West. Lost Highway. Hightone. Hayden's Ferry. Freefalls. Bloodshot. Trailer. Does the world need another alternative-country label releasing records that are as good as they are depressing? Depressing in that no one, relatively speaking, is buying them, even though, in another time, records such as Shaver's The Earth Rolls On, Ryan Adams' Heartbreaker and Julie Miller's Broken Things would define their age rather than define artistic obscurity. Blame the satanic mills of MTV and Warner Brothers, if you like. Of course, no one's forcing the masses to buy the Dixie Chicks.
Then again, if the records are as catchy and tough as the current Slewfoot lineup, bring on the Americana tax shelters. That's not what co-owners Lou Whitney and Dale Wiley have in mind for Slewfoot, but at least they have an exit strategy. "We've invested upwards of $100,000," says Wiley from his law/record-executive office in Springfield, Mo. "Thank God it didn't have to get put in at once." With a roster that includes roots-rock Olympians the Morells, ex-Lucinda Williams guitarist Duane Jarvis, Frogpond leader Kristie Stremel and, most recently, three-chord rockers Hadacol and Georgia honky-tonkers the Star Room Boys, Slewfoot began as a three-way infatuation among a 27-year-old Washington University graduate (that would be Wiley, who majored in classics, edited the Wash. U. arts-and-entertainment paper Cadenza and now practices law), an American music legend (that would be Whitney, who couldn't make a bad-sounding record in the Studio if he tried), and a bunch of Missouri shitkickers called the Domino Kings. A fan of the Kings, Wiley sat in on their sessions for their second album at the Studio and struck up a friendship with Whitney. The hope was to shop the album in Nashville, but door slams echoed all the way back home. "There was a little interest from minor labels, but I can't even remember which," Wiley says. "I got the feeling that we oughta put it out ourselves."
There's no buzz about Slewfoot in Spin or CMJ, no features in Raygun (though the Morells' return to form was praised on NPR), no hope that they'll even break even. But Slewfoot isn't taking No Depression obscurity lying down. They're taking it on the road and, as much as radio will allow, on the air. "One of the things that has frustrated us is the airplay in our own hometown," Wiley says. "We decided we'd do some DJ-ing on a local station, and start a radio show, called South Avenue Live, every Monday night from the Outland. Lou's studio is right next to that club, and it's a great-sounding room. We ran all the cables to the bar, and he records two sets every night -- Billy Joe Shaver, Vigilantes of Love, Tim Easton. Radio is what makes things happen, more than anything else. That and the live shows."
Wiley doesn't sound like the kid who knew nothing about running a label when he started Slewfoot two years ago: "I'd written about music, I'd booked bands, and so I had some idea how things worked. But I really hit the books on the record industry. And then Lou got involved; everybody knows and loves Lou. He says he liked our concept, because we didn't have to be doing this. I'm an attorney; my wife is a doctor. We're not making a living off the label; we're doing it because we love the music."
But how has Slewfoot, even at its modest level, done what so many equally modest homespun labels in St. Louis can't do? (1) Publicity: Wiley hired a savvy publicist, with experience in roots music, in Mark Pucci Media. (2) Radio: Slewfoot works with Al Moss, one of the most active Americana radio pushers around. (3) Low overhead: Rent in Springfield is peanuts, and studio time with Whitney would be a bargain even if he weren't a co-owner. (4) Touring: The Domino Kings have moved close to 7,000 copies, in large part because they gig -- everywhere and anywhere. (5) An open-door policy: "I take a nonterritorial approach," Wiley says. "If there's a Hightone or New West artist, we'll bring them in and have them play South Avenue Live. There's no way their success does anything except improve the market for our artists."
There's also the music. The Domino Kings' Life & 20 is as good a country record as you'll ever hear, testing traditional forms without breaking their fragile beauty. Steve Newman's Telecaster rings with the whole history of the instrument: Surf, Chicago blues, Bakersfield and electrified bluegrass all course through his riffs. The rhythm section of drummer Les Gallier and Brian Capps on bass can lay down a lean swing or a supple shuffle, and in the last six months, Newman's cousin Jimmy Jinnings has joined the band on second guitar and diesel-engine repair.
Newman and Capps first met in 1993. "There was a union party in Lebanon, Ill., and they needed a guitar player, and this friend hooked me up with Steve," Capps says.
"I don't think we had a rehearsal," Newman adds. "At that time, I was playing for anybody who'd hire me. I was a musical prostitute; it'd be country one night, rock & roll the next, blues another night. Then Les came on in '98. Jimmy'd been part-time with us for four or five months, and he's gone full-time."
The Kings' status as pickup-band refugees changed, as it once upon a time did for country musicians, because of a contest. "We won Star Search," says Newman, cringing.
"I want to go on record," Gallier cuts in, "as saying that was before I joined the band."
"We played one song," Newman continues, "and they put us out for being too loud. But we won. That was fall of '97. We won some studio time out in Knoxville. They treated us like we were trying to buy beer with food stamps. And it sounded terrible. It wasn't us. So we just decided to stay at home with Lou Whitney. We told him how we wanted it to sound, and he'd say, 'You mean like this?' He'd turn some knob, and all of a sudden it was there. "
On Life & 20, Whitney's knob-turning captures a near-perfect balance between the belting voice of Newman, the Marty Robbins-like croon of Capp and the Kings' stripped-to-sinew, back-to-the-country sound. "We didn't start out to be a retro anything or a scene-maker band," Newman stresses.
Jinnings adds: "None of us sits down to say, 'Let's write something that sounds like Johnny Horton. That's just one influence."
Though detectable, those influences never usurp the Kings' vision, in which country music, as an ingenuous vehicle of pure emotion, thrives in a cynical and clinical musical culture. "They're staying away in herds," Newman says of the band's chances at mainstream acceptance. "We have nothing against Nashville; we're not Nashville-bashing. We're not out there trying to buck the system. We're not even part of it. There's no point in getting caught up in the art of being a rebel. Nobody down there's paying attention anyway."