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By Tom Murphy
Many performers haven't a clue about the inner workings of their own hype machines -- but Kelly Hogan is a big exception. From 1997 to 1999, a few years before Chicago's Bloodshot Records released her latest album, the wonderfully evocative Because It Feels Good, this indie-music veteran worked for the company as a publicist, learning things along the way that might have scared a weaker person into choosing another career.
"We were a tiny label, especially at that time, in this little basement bunker," says Hogan, whose charm and chattiness illustrate why she was hired as a publicist in the first place. "It was tiny, and you'd bang your head on pipes because it was so cramped in there -- and we were definitely there for the music, because we weren't making any dough. But what proved my undoing was I felt the pain of all the bands in the vans. I'd stay there twelve hours, sixteen hours a day making phone calls I didn't want to make to a bunch of people who didn't want to get them because I know how it feels to play on a Tuesday in Paducah and not even have your name in the Thrifty Nickel.
"It was a lot of pressure, and it made me crazy, because it was too much for one person, and I always felt I was letting the bands down -- and bodily I just could not do it all. I always likened it to, 'Who do I throw out of the lifeboat? Whose calls don't I make today, because I can't make them all?' Aaargh!"
That wasn't the first time Hogan's empathy for her fellow musicians had unhealthy repercussions. In 1995, half a decade after the appearance of One Man's Trash Is Another Man's Treasure, an LP Hogan made as part of a combo dubbed the Jody Grind, she quit working at Wax 'N' Facts, a record store in Atlanta where she was in charge of returning discs that didn't sell. "Talk about a depressing job," she says. "It was like I was on the Island of Misfit Toys, having to take all these copies of albums by indie bands looking so hopeful on the cover and tell them, 'Sorry, you guys, but I've got to send you back.' After a while, I was like, 'God, I'll never make music again! Why bother?'"
Despite such doubts, however, Hogan eventually returned to the microphone, and thank goodness for that. In an era marked by undistinguished warblers desperately in need of digital enhancing, Hogan is the real thing: Her voice is rich, full and as smoky as a cigar bar following a stock-market rally. This last quality has generated innumerable comparisons to the late Dusty Springfield, but while Springfield vacillated between caressing tunes and sending them to the moon, Hogan nestles into the material on Because It Feels Good, creating moody, late-night sounds that seem heartfelt because they are.
"For me, the common thread I look for is integrity -- lyrical and melodic and emotional integrity," she says. "And I like all kinds of different styles. I try not to exclude anything; if I like it enough, I'll fit it in there somewhere."
She's not exaggerating. Because It Feels Good sports two fine tunes Hogan co-wrote with guitarist and longtime cohort Andy Hopkins -- the pop-symphonic "No, Bobby Don't" and the sassy and sweet "Sugarbowl" -- but the other eight songs on the platter hail from disparate sources. "I'll Go to My Grave Loving You," the creepy opening number, comes courtesy of country-harmony act the Statler Brothers, while the closer, "Stay," was penned by C&W category-buster Charlie Rich, whom Hogan especially reveres: "I love the very-special-love-song Charlie Rich, I love the 'Philadelphia Baby' Charlie Rich, I love all of Charlie Rich." But she also tackles "In Time," a supper-club show-stopper she first heard on an LP by '60s chanteuse Ketty Lester; "Living Without You," an early Randy Newman composition; "Please Don't Leave Me Lonely," an obscure offering by King Floyd, the vintage R&B practitioner best known for the 1970 hit "Groove Me"; "Strayed," by Will Callahan's one-man cult band, Smog; "Speedfreak Lullaby," borrowed from a defunct Georgia act called Greasetrap; and "(You Don't Know) The First Thing About Blue," by Nashville tunesmith John Paul Keith, formerly with the outfit now known as the V-Roys.
That's an eclectic array by any measure, which is just how Hogan likes it. "I've got to have my country, but I also have to have my Fugazi," she says. "And the other day we drove from Philadelphia at two in the morning, and this 'N Sync song, 'Gone,' came on the radio -- and I listened to the whole thing. Everybody else was like, 'Turn it! Turn it!' But I was like, 'No, no, I need to hear this. I've got to get educated.' You know, I hesitate to say any type of music is bad, because it means something to somebody. I mean, I loved the shit out of Donny Osmond, so who am I to talk?"
The relatively high percentage of covers on the disc (and her repertoire as a whole) has been a topic of debate among some reviewers, to Hogan's chagrin. "I get asked that all the time," she concedes. "Like that somehow discredits me or something. I always say Bob Dylan fucked it up for all of us interpreters. Me and Neko [Neko Case, a Bloodshot signee and Hogan's current roommate] talk about that for hours, and she gets really pissed about it, which isn't that surprising, because she's a firebrand, a hothead. But as she says, the country-music tradition is to cover other people's songs. One night, Andy called me and said, 'I was looking through my Loretta Lynn records, and you're working at the Loretta Lynn ratio of covers to originals -- and she always worked with co-writers, too.' And if it's good enough for Loretta Lynn, it's good enough for me.
"What drives me is a good song, a song that moves me. If I write it, cool. If I don't write it, cool, too."
This has been Hogan's philosophy since her days in the Jody Grind. The aforementioned One Man's Trash Is Another Man's Treasure is evenly split between numbers credited to the group and ones found elsewhere, like Henry Mancini's theme for Peter Gunn, Duke Ellington's "Mood Indigo," the Gershwin-and-Gershwin classic "It Ain't Necessarily So," and even "Wishin' and Hopin'," a Burt Bacharach-Hal David smash for (guess who) Dusty Springfield. The Jody Grind's next effort, Lefty's Deceiver, put out in 1992, had fewer borrowings and more celebrity power, thanks to the enthusiastic patronage of Michael Stipe and Peter Buck of R.E.M. But prospects for stardom were derailed by a van crash that killed two bandmembers, Robert Clayton and Robert Hayes, and did likewise to the group itself. Hogan and the Jody Grind's Bill Taft subsequently wrote a handful of tunes together, seven of which wound up on Hogan's hard-to-find 1996 solo debut, Whistle Only Dogs Can Hear. Then, upon moving to Chicago, she joined the Rock*A*Teens, happily accepting a supporting role in the combo, which is fronted by talented multi-instrumentalist Chris Lopez.
"People would come to see us and go, 'Why aren't you singing?' But they just didn't understand," notes Hogan, who contributed to the act's 1996 self-titled EP and its 1997 full-length bow, Cry. "It was Chris Lopez's band, and that was a real relief to me to not have to be the stewardess for once. And since I was the bottom of the Rock*A*Teens -- nobody owned a bass, so I played these sort of washtub bass lines on one string of a guitar -- I got to learn the music from the bottom up. And that was the coolest thing for me. Now I can go back and listen to a song I heard a billion times in 1977, like that Who song about mama having a squeezebox, and finally hear the bass line. Plus, it really helped break up those lead-singer stereotypes. I highly recommend it to anybody."
Even so, Hogan didn't stick with the Rock*A*Teens for the long haul, deciding in 1997 that she needed a break from the music business. "I wanted to work in a hardware store -- that's been a dream of mine," she says, with less irony than it might seem at first. "Not like a Home Deport, but a little hardware store, because I love the way they smell. There's a really great one in Chicago called the Crafty Beaver, and I wanted to work there long enough to get a T-shirt."
Instead, Hogan wound up as Bloodshot's publicist, and the constant diet of music she was fed there slowly but surely drew her back to the stage. Finally, last year, Hogan put out Beneath the Country Underdog with the Pine Valley Cosmonauts, a loose ensemble featuring guitarist Hopkins and Jon Langford, an Englishman best known for anchoring one of punk rock's longest-standing collectives, the Mekons. Although this first-rate CD has more in common with the alternative country for which Bloodshot is known than does Because It Feels Good, it covers plenty of ground. The work of country personalities such as Johnny Paycheck ("[It's a Mighty Thin Line] Between Love and Hate") and Willie Nelson ("I Still Can't Believe You're Gone") stands shoulder to shoulder with "Mystery," from Langford's portfolio, the Band's "Whispering Pines," and "Papa Was a Rodeo," by Stephin Merritt of Magnetic Fields fame. Authentic it isn't, but that doesn't make it any less pleasurable.
Hogan is proud of Beneath the Country Underdog, but when it came time to make a new album, she decided to change her methodology. Instead of heading to a studio in Chicago, as she had for Underdog, she gathered together a hand-picked group of collaborators (producer David Barbe and guitarist Hopkins, plus Jon Rauhouse, Mike Sturgess, Mike Bulington and Andrew Bird, leader of Andrew Bird's Bowl of Fire) and headed to Athens, Georgia, her hometown. "I wanted to take everybody away," she says, "because we're not really a full-time band. Everybody's in other bands, so we don't meet three times a week to woodshed -- and I thought we could come together better in kind of a sequestered environment, where we didn't have to go home every night to our bills and our phone messages. So I made everybody tapes of these songs that we were considering and listened to them as we drove -- and when we got there, we played Wiffle ball and ate my mom's biscuits and Krispy Kreme donuts and made a record."
At Athens's Chase Park Transduction Studios, which "is in a little, tiny industrial strip at the bottom of the hill by the car wash and the nursing home," the musicians soon caught a vibe that they rode to the recording's end. "Maybe it was the blossoms on the trees," Hogan says, "but we all felt it. Like the Statler Brothers song -- that version on the album is us learning how to play the song. We'd talked about what to do, and how we wanted to use the tremolo as the tempo, and Andy had played around with a bunch of different amps until he found one he liked. But except for a vocal harmony overdub and Jon Rauhouse doing that foggy-mountain-nervous-breakdown thing on the banjo, that's us figuring it out. The only thing we left off was me at the end saying, 'That's it. Don't do it anymore. It'll sound too good if we do. Let's leave it right there.'"
The tone of the album developed just as naturally: What could have been an erratic patchwork turned into what Hogan describes, with a publicist's knack for catchy phrases, as "a tender bummer makeout record." Indeed, Hogan had to leave out one of her favorites from the Athens sessions -- "One Million Songs (From a Seed-Carrier's Point of View)," inspired by a tune by the Sadies -- because it was too lively. "It would have been like Jerry Reed driving an eighteen-wheeler full of Coors right through the middle of this beautiful little record going, 'Honk! Honk!'
"It was nerve-racking to make the record the way we did," she adds, "and we could have totally crashed and burned. And maybe other people will listen to it and say, 'Boy, that sucks; they did crash and burn.' But we were all really relieved. When it came out the way it did, we were all, like, 'Whew!'"
Now all that's left for Hogan is to promote the album -- something she knows more than a little about. She understands that Because It Feels Good presents a challenge to Bloodshot's current publicist, if only because "nobody even knows what section of the record store to put it in." But she believes that having realistic expectations helps her in the long run.
"The Bloodshot job was good, because I was ignorant about a lot of the business stuff on purpose," she says. "But it's also helped me be wiser about deadlines and what needs to be done and how to cover your ass, so that if you tank, well, you've done your best. It steeled my reserve -- and I think everybody's reserve could use a little steel."