Breakout Artists

Out on Bail escapes the alt-country cage with its conviction intact.

The first thing Out on Bail wants to talk about isn't the songwriting process or artistic integrity or any other of rock's bullshit shibboleths. It's booze.

"Picture yourself in Pierre, South Dakota," bassist Mike "Mad Dog" Taylor jumps in before the tape recorder is even rolling. "We're touring with our good friends from Rapid City, the Reddmen. Our drummer, Brooks, has the same last name -- Miller -- as Miyo, the Reddmen's drummer. They're just getting annihilated on a liter of Jack Daniel's. It's, like, three-thirty in the morning, and everyone is trying to sleep; we have to get up and leave at five to make the next show on time. I'm sleeping in the hallway of the house we're staying at, and Brooks and Miyo are the only ones still up. They keep shaking me and saying, 'Mad Dog, Mad Dog, take a shot. It's fucking Miller time!'"

Cackling and then taking a slug off his Budweiser, Taylor finishes his tale with a blow-by-blow account of a wrestling match in the van later that morning -- a melee that nearly sends the vehicle careening into oncoming traffic.

Out on Bail isn't as drunk and disorderly as it once 
was.
Out on Bail isn't as drunk and disorderly as it once was.

Details

With Bad Luck City, the Reddmen and Mike Neff, 8 p.m. Friday, February 10, Larimer Lounge, 2721 Larimer Street, $7, 303-291-1007

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"Brooks is still in party mode, and he starts telling me,'It's wrestling time. Let's wrestle,'" recalls Taylor, who looks able to snap a bear's neck in half without breaking a sweat. "In one move, I have him in a full nelson, pinned between my legs. His head's in my crotch on the floor. To which he replies, 'Wait, wait, wait! Let's go again. I didn't get a good start.'"

Good starts have been few and far between for Out on Bail. While Miller is the band's sole Denver native, Taylor and guitarist Josh Cool were raised in remote Casper, Wyoming. Guitarist Jenn Callaway spent her formative years in the equally isolated Grand Junction. On "The Line," a melancholic country-rocker from the group's debut (a split CD with Denver's post-hardcore Pariah Caste), she name-checks John Prine and Patsy Cline before chirping with bittersweet reverence, "All our songs a tribute in three chords/Growing up in small towns being bored." It's a cliched sentiment, and the song itself -- one of the first the band ever wrote -- is shaky, barely in tune, and clearly the racket of some kids from the backwoods just testing their wings.

But that was two years ago. Since then, Out on Bail has toured a ton, honed its craft without dulling its rawness and made The Last of the Lo-Fi Southern Gentlemen. Whereas the quartet's first disc was hell-bent for liquor -- as flaunted by song titles like "Fire in My Belly" and "Coke to Make Whiskey" -- Lo-Fi is about more than putting another notch in your liver. "City of Sin" is the album's only paean to dipsomania, and even it bears this weary realization: "I hate Las Vegas/The party's over and it's time to go home."

And go home Lo-Fidoes. It isn't the kind of home you point at on a map or cross-stitch on a sampler; it's a home that you carry around like a turtle shell, only with your heart curled up inside of it. Split between Callaway's supple purr and Taylor's bourbon-scarred bark -- not to mention the occasional howl from Cool -- the songs trawl deep into sorrow and darkness. They fucking rock, too: While some build heavily into molasses-paced thunderclaps, others are raggedy boot-stompers that sound like the Band and Neil Young filtered through Lucero and X.

The disc's clan of guest musicians doesn't hurt, either. Augmenting Callaway and Cool's acoustic/electric guitar symbiosis are mandolin, violin, banjo and cello supplied by Chuck Coffey of Big Timber, Kelly O'Dea of Tarantella, Handsome Bobby Lewis of Git Some and Angela Kimber, the Potcheen Folk Band's erstwhile cellist. It's a sound as wide as Western Slope valleys and Wyoming skies -- but it took one-way tickets to the big city for three of Out on Bail's members to realize how rooted they were in the tunes of rural America.

"Pop country is huge in Grand Junction," Callaway explains. "We have Country Jam out there every year, which is the biggest country-music festival in the nation. When I was sixteen or seventeen, me and my friends discovered punk rock. I really liked the punk ethic, the rebelliousness of it, and pop country didn't have that. But when you figure out the lineage, you see that punk and country are similar. It's just a matter of going back and connecting it."

After moving to Denver at age nineteen, Callaway started messing around with Pearl Jam and Indigo Girls covers on the guitar. Soon, though, she was digging deep into Americana. "My parents weren't that into music," she says. "So when I turned twenty or so, my new discovery was all this old rock and country and folk music that I had never heard before. A lot of people grow up on that, but it was all new to me."

Cool and Taylor, meanwhile, were reared on classic country and twangy rock. Attending rival high schools on opposite sides of town, the two were brought together by Casper's teeming punk scene and soon started a ska-core band called Overview -- turning their backs on the shit-kicking music they cut their teeth on.

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