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
With Bad Luck City, the Reddmen and Mike Neff, 8 p.m. Friday, February 10, Larimer Lounge, 2721 Larimer Street, $7, 303-291-1007
"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-Fi does. 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.
"My folks were crazy hippies," Cool confesses. "There was not a day that my dad's stereo wasn't cranked, blasting Richie Havens or the Flying Burrito Brothers. I got really into John Prine when I was fifteen, and Neil Young and Johnny Cash. But I kind of put them all away for a while during my punk-rock phase."
"I didn't even have that," Taylor says. "Growing up in Wyoming, mainstream country music is everywhere, and it's awful. When people said Œcountry music,' that's what I thought of, not Johnny Cash or Hank Williams. It didn't even register then that they might sound different than what was on the radio."
It was Fort Collins alt-country stalwart Drag the River that provided Cool and Taylor with their pedal-steeled epiphany. After seeing the rustic rock thrown down by punkers half a generation older, the two immediately decided to start a country band. After a chance acquaintance with Callaway and the enlistment of Miller, who was then drumming in Man Alive!, Out on Bail was hatched.
The group's first few shows -- and most of its early compositions -- were wide-eyed stabs at aping the alt-country paradigm. "Our whole song ŒThe Line' is just references to other bands," Taylor admits. "The ones we were trying to emulate at that point: Uncle Tupelo and Old '97s."
"It's come full circle," Callaway adds. "At first we didn't want to be a punk band, and now we don't want to be called an alt-country band."
"We shun the country label as much as possible," Cool confirms. But he'll also tell you that out of the hundred or so albums he bought in 2005, not a single one of them came out after the '80s. Like his bandmates, he's immersed himself in the directness and purity of country's golden age. For proof, there's "Patricia Jean," the centerpiece of Lo-Fi as well as the group's raucous live sets. Not so much sung as hemorrhaged by Taylor, the song is a throat-catching threnody about the death of his mother in 1999 and the demons it summoned.
"My mom passed away in a car accident six years ago," Taylor reveals. "It was a life-altering event. I write to get stuff off my chest, and writing that song was the most therapeutic thing." The lyrics, though, are far from a rosy eulogy. "Every day I think where you are," he wails, with Lewis and Kimber providing stark harmony. "Heaven or hell, you're still in my heart."
"The first time we played it, I got choked up," Taylor recalls. "I played it for my dad over Christmas, and there were waterfalls. I was pretty messed up for a while. I hit the bottle pretty hard for a couple of years."
For songwriters, booze can be a jailer as much as a liberator. Now in their mid-twenties, the members of Out on Bail are toning down the drunken rage and discovering that puking on the front lawn isn't the only way to spill your guts. Blackouts notwithstanding, at least they'll always have their alcoholic memories.
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"We were in Casper at Josh's parent's house once, and everyone was getting into the hot tub naked," Taylor reminisces fondly. "So I take off my clothes and get in. There were probably seven or eight guys in there naked, a total sausage-fest. I'm only in there for ten minutes, and I realize how fucked up I am. Hot tubs and drinking whiskey will do that to you. So I said, ŒAll right, guys, I'm going to bed.'"
"And then I stand up," he finishes with a big grin splitting his face. "I don't cover myself or anything. I step on the side of the tub to get out, with one leg up, and then I take a break there for a second. You could see the silhouette of my ball sac glistening in the moonlight."
Now, that's enough to turn a man sober.