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A while back, Kim Docter, the frontwoman behind the psycho-country combo Moonshine Willy, was afraid she was running out of songwriting ideas. Rather than wait idly for her muse to return, however, she attempted to summon her back on a regular basis.
"For about six months, I would force myself to write a song every day," Docter says from her Chicago home. "I would pick a word out of the dictionary and force myself to write two verses and a chorus about it."
Were any of the songs good?
"They were terrible," she replies, hooting. "I wrote some of the stupidest, dumbest, most embarrassing things you ever heard in your life. One of the words I picked out was 'plumber'--you can guess how fascinating that was. And another one was 'skyrocket.' Now, can you imagine writing a song about skyrockets without having 'Skyrockets in flight/Afternoon delight' go through your head?"
Docter's guffaw makes it abundantly clear that she cannot envision any greater shame than penning a tune that resembles something by the Starland Vocal Band. But further investigation reveals that Docter, whose compositions make up the entirety of Bold Displays of Imperfection, Moonshine Willy's snappy new disc on the independent Bloodshot imprint, would be just as thunderstruck to pen anything that hints at the brand of product featured by most broadcasters of current country music.
"I think what's on the radio is the new disco," she says. "It doesn't have any feeling to it. I have heard some beautiful ballads, but in general, I don't feel that these people are feeling anything about what they're singing."
By contrast, the members of Moonshine Willy--stand-up bassist Mike Luke, guitarist Nancy Rideout, fiddler Rachael Ferro, drummer Chris Ganey, and Docter on lead vocals and rhythm guitar--exude both sincerity and an unmistakable sense of fun. The tone implies a certain parodic intent, but a closer listen reveals that the Moonshiners are motivated primarily by sheer exuberance--and their pleasure is contagious. "We have a great time," Docter confirms. "In fact, the biggest problem I have on stage, singing-wise, is that it's really hard to sing when you're smiling. With your lips spread apart and stretched over your teeth, it's not very easy to enunciate."
Docter has always loved being in the spotlight. Her parents, who raised her in Stockton, California, were both involved in musical theater, and they recruited her to join them on the stage as soon as she was able. "I love Jerome Kern, Rodgers and Hammerstein and all of those guys," she enthuses. When asked to name her favorite role, she doesn't hesitate for an instant. "Adelaide, in Guys and Dolls. I won an award for that one in high school."
But even as Docter was crooning show tunes from eras that predated her own birth, she was becoming addicted to the first wave of American punk rock. "I saw the Dead Kennedys a hundred times," she recalls. "They were my favorite band. And I loved Fear, the Sex Pistols, the Circle Jerks, Black Flag. Bands like those, along with new wave--that's what influenced me musically when I was a teenager."
Unfortunately, Docter's attempts to emulate these punk pioneers would have pissed off Jello Biafra even more than usual. "When I was in new-wave and punk bands, I thought I was the worst songwriter in the world, because all my songs sounded like folk songs," she says. "I thought I was horrible, because in the sea that I was immersed in, I didn't sound like I was supposed to sound. But when I finally played some of my stuff on an acoustic guitar, with Mike playing upright bass and Nancy playing her style of guitar, I was like, 'Oh--I get it. They're country songs. No wonder they sounded so bad before.'"
As Docter portrays it, Moonshine Willy's style came about by a sort of happy accident. Prior to becoming a country musician, she resisted even listening to C&W ("Except for Johnny Cash, who transcends boundaries," she says); furthermore, she claims that of the other bandmembers, only Rideout, who admits to a major jones for Bill Monroe, knew much about country, period. As an illustration of her point, she notes, "Take Rachael--she's classically trained. She was a good friend of ours for a long time, and one day she came to us and said, 'Hey, I think I'd like to learn to fiddle. Could I sit in with you?' And before long, she was a regular member, and she sounds just great. She occupies this incredible midpoint between fiddling and classical violin playing, especially on the new album. She can go from joyous to mournful in three bars."
Formed in 1993, Moonshine Willy emerged at a time when the idea of a group influenced by but not anchored to country and bluegrass was becoming acceptable again. That doesn't mean that they were part of any conscious movement, though. "When we started, you were just starting to hear about bands like Wilco and things like alternative country, or insurgent country, or whatever it is they're calling it these days," Docter points out. "But we're much faster than any of them. And even though we take ourselves seriously--this is what we want to do for the next forty years--we're definitely not stuffy."