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By Tom Murphy
Three years ago, just after her first solo album, The Virginian, made a big (and well-deserved) splash, Neko Case confessed to a reporter, "I want to play the Grand Ole Opry in my grandmother's lifetime."
That a former punk rocker -- she played drums in the all-girl trio Maow -- would harbor such a dream might sound a bit odd, but The Virginian was one of the best country albums of 1998, and Case is more than just a dabbler in the genre. (Never mind that the album didn't get any radio airplay, or that it never even came close to cracking Billboard's Top Country Albums chart.) It's not hard to imagine Case -- who's got a big, brassy, Patsy-Cline-meets-Wanda-Jackson-style voice -- singing on the Opry's wooden stage with old-timers like Stonewall Jackson, Charlie Louvin and Little Jimmy Dickens.
She nearly got there a few weeks ago. On a Saturday night, Case and her band, the Boyfriends, played the Grand Ole Opry Plaza Party, a free summer concert that takes place outside the Opry itself.
"People who have gone to the Opry or are on their way to the Opry come by and check you out while they're coming and going," Case explains by telephone from her home in Chicago, where she's checked in just long enough to get an amplifier fixed before hitting the road again. "You get to go backstage at the Opry, which is the really cool part." Case, who turned thirty last year, got to rub shoulders with such legends as Roy Clark and Jan Howard. Not that she talked to them or anything. "I just wanted to leave them alone," she says. "They've got enough stuff to do without me bugging them."
Case should be playing the Opry, which lately has begun to embrace neo-traditionalists like BR549, Dale Watson, Mandy Barnett and Gillian Welch. (Maybe the Plaza Party gig was just an audition for the real show.) She's been labeled alt-country, but that tag doesn't quite do her justice. In fact, she sounds more genuine than a lot of folks who claim to be country singers these days. Of her music, Case says, "I don't really think it sounds anything like what's on today's Top 40 country radio stations. That's not really country to me. I think that country music, if it hadn't been interrupted by statisticians deciding what to program on the radio by mathematical formula, would have continued to be a hybrid, being influenced by R&B and gospel and even punk rock."
Born in Alexandria, Virginia, Case spent most of her teen years in gritty Tacoma, Washington, just south of Seattle. While attending art school in Vancouver, British Columbia, Case hooked up with guitarist Tobey Black and bassist Corinna Hammond to form Maow. In 1996, the group released its only album, The Unforgiving Sounds of Maow, on Vancouver-based Mint Records.
But punk rock has its limitations. Case, a longtime lover of country music who grew up listening to her grandmother's records, began writing her own country songs, and one day she sheepishly approached Mint Records co-owner Bill Baker about recording a solo album. A countrysolo album. Baker, to his lasting credit, gave her the go-ahead.
For The Virginian, Case assembled a crack band she dubbed her "Boyfriends," comprising various members of such Canadian indie-rock bands as Zumpano, the Smugglers and Shadowy Men on a Shadowy Planet. Released by Mint in 1997 and later picked up by Chicago-based Bloodshot Records for distribution in the United States, the album is a high-energy twangfest that spotlights Case's remarkable voice. About half the songs were written by Case along with various collaborators; the rest were well-chosen covers like "Bowling Green" (the Everly Brothers), "Thanks a Lot" (Ernest Tubb) and "Somebody Led Me Away" (Loretta Lynn). No Depression magazine, the bible of the alt-country movement, called The Virginian "as confident and convincing a debut disk as any country crooner could hope for."
"The first record," Case says, "was kind of experimental. I didn't have that many [original] songs, but there were lots of songs I loved that I wanted to do. We didn't think anybody would ever hear it. We just made it for fun."
On her follow-up album, last year's Furnace Room Lullaby, Case charted a somewhat different course. Inspired, as many great albums are, by a love affair gone bad, Case eschewed the country covers and, with help from various Boyfriends, wrote all twelve songs herself.
"Set Out Running," the opener, establishes the album's you-done-me-wrong tone: "Want to get it all behind me," she cries over a slow, driving beat. "You know everything reminds me/I can't be myself without you, want to crawl down deep inside/The springs in my mattress will cry my dirty secrets/'Cause I just can't shake this feeling that I'm nothing in your eyes." In "Guided by Wire," Case bemoans her pathetic love life ("I could never choose the ones to love/And the ones who took the credit left me reeling") while giving praise to music for helping her get through the bad times. "No Need to Cry," a dreamy torch song, sounds like a long-lost Patsy Cline record. "Thrice All American" is Case's heartfelt ode to Tacoma: "I want to tell you about my hometown/It's a dusty old jewel in the South Puget Sound/Where the factories churn and the timber's all cut down/And life goes by slow in Tacoma."