Bad Livers : Expect a Full Meal
David Owen, Telluride Bluegrass Festival Program 1994
A lot of different terms have been used to describe Bad Livers – everything from acoustic, speed-metal, bluegrass, thrash to cowpunk. All these terms, however, mean little to the Livers, whose focus is on just playing what comes naturally and relying on the principle that good music cannot be kept down for long.
Born from the Austin, Texas, gig scene, Bad Livers came together in 1990 as much out of attrition as out of any master plan. Banjo player Danny Barnes began booking himself as the “Danny Barnes Trio” around the town. The established sound of this title was misleading, because the trio consisted of whomever Barnes could scrape together to play that night. Over time, Ralph White and Mark Rubin fell into place to round out the group, as the three discovered their mutual influences and interest in musical history.
While all three have backgrounds that include forays into the punk, reggae and Cajun scenes, Rubin says it is their collective interest in history and their respect for their instruments that keeps the music pure.
“Some musicians who play the traditional instruments play almost as if they are apologizing for them,” Rubin said while pumping nickels into a Lake Tahoe slot machine. “We like and respect the instruments and the music we play. We don't feel any need to lose any of that."
The other thing that stands out about Bad Livers is that they are committed, above all, to making the music that feels right to them with no concessions to those who would try to pigeonhole them into one industry slot or another. Whether paying homage to Flatt and Scruggs, Bill Monroe, Metallica or the Stooges, the band is true to its roots and will not adjust its musical focus at the expense of . any of its other foundations. As one journalist once put it, “Listening to Bad Livers is like entering a parallel universe, where bluegrass is the only musical language. But it's expansive enough to accomodate everything from Johnny Cash to Jimi Hendrix.”
“We have had all sorts of temptations dangled in front of us by people who wanted us to become something we are not,” Rubin said. “The compromises have been too great.
We have a friend who is a blues player and record companies are always asking him to ‘put on the blues suit.' Those are allowances I just can't make. I am absolutely incapable of putting on the suit."
Fortunately for the band, they have found a record company, Touch & Go – the label for bands like Therapy? and Pegboy – that is willing to take them for what they are and make no demands.
“They give us just enough rope to hang ourselves with,” said Rubin. “We send them a tape and they put it out backed by whatever resources they have available."
Despite the frustrations of classification and the occasional novelty act tag that follows them, Rubin said the band knows what is most important is the music, and ultimately, that is what makes the difficult times worth it. “The only reason the greats like Bill Monroe ever made it, was because they were bullheaded and stayed in the ballgame," said Rubin. “They realized that you can't keep good music down. Our one accomplishment is that we are still here after three records and over 1,000 shows."
Their latest album, Horses in the Mines, was recorded in a wood shed on an old analog 8-track. “We didn't do it that way because we thought it would sound special or to be cool; it was because it was all we could afford," Rubin said. "But, the end result is something we are really proud of. I think it captured more of our live feel than our last album. It sounds a little like we set up in your living room."Bad Livers will also continue to tour as long as it remains feasible, knowing that the stage is their most powerful ally.
"We have had a range of experiences few can boast, from playing established folk rooms to premier punk clubs — and that has allowed us to touch a lot of different types," Rubin said. “It has also given us the opportunity to turn younger audiences on to the older artists who we respect and admire, turn them on to what turns us on."
"No matter what draws people in or what preconceived notion they have of us, it will not change how we act on stage. They are still going to get two full hours of Bad Livers," Rubin concluded. "We have never had an audience we didn't like, regardless of how they showed up. Good music cannot be denied."
Bad Livers will be performing at 12:30 p.m. Saturday..