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."
Pecadores, the 1995 Moonshine Willy debut (also on Bloodshot), is proof of that. The album kicks off with "Lucy & Jack," a rowdy, bluegrass-flavored romp that initially seems like a celebration of a wonderful romance involving the title pair. But before long, the narrative gets sticky; Lucy runs off with a drummer, spurring Jack to track the pair "through seventeen states in eight days." With a jaunty melody behind her, Docter puts a cap on the tale: "He found his beautiful thing--love, love, love/He killed his beautiful thing dead, dead, dead." After adding, "If he can't have her, no one will/You've heard it all before," Docter rips off a gleeful "Yee haw!"
Such juxtapositions are characteristic of many Docter compositions. "I don't know why that kind of thing is so appealing to me," she admits. "But I think I'm just fascinated by the dichotomy of life in America. So many of us seem to gloss over the bad things in life. I mean, you had the Valium generation, and now you've got the Prozac generation. You take something that's supposed to make everything fine, but it only seems fine. It's really not."
"River," from Bold Displays, employs this methodology as well, but Docter uses it in a new way. Although she runs through a long list of murderers and lunatics during the ditty, her theme can be read in more than one way: It works equally well as a joke or as a jaundiced look at the darkness in our souls. "Look at Her," "Eatin' Crow" and "Brady's Leap" follow this cut's path. They're undeniably diverting (albeit a bit underproduced), but they aren't so easily dismissed as novelties. Docter, too, recognizes her progress. "My mother's my biggest critic, so I was terrified to send her a copy of the CD," she says. "But she really nailed it on the head. She told me, 'Your first album is really character songs; every song tells a story in that character's voice. But on the new album, you're singing much more as you.' Which," she adds, "is really true to the country tradition."
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Of course, most of the people who are coming out to see Moonshine Willy aren't exactly hardcore country buffs. Although Docter is reluctant to generalize about the act's audiences, she concedes that few of those who follow the group go home after a show and listen to George Strait. "It's mostly a twenties alternative crowd who are looking for something different. They've seen this whole alternative thing turn into mush, so they don't want to be spoon-fed something. They don't believe that corporate America knows what they want to listen to, and they're willing to try other things.
"We get some of everybody. We get Deadheads who really listen to what we do--they're not just there to meet a cute guy. We get punk rockers who love the energy of it. My parents' friends come out to see us and think we're the greatest thing ever. And sometimes we even get people who are into Top 40 country who'll come up to us after a show and say, 'I like what you're doing. I don't really understand it, but I think I like it.'"
Responses like these have pretty much obliterated the writer's block from which Docter once suffered. But she's not so cocky as to take anything for granted. "There are two types of conversationalists," she says. "There is the kind of person who's quiet, but when they say something, it's a gem. And then there's the kind of person who talks and talks and talks and talks and talks, hoping that something good will come out with all the crud. And that's more like the kind of person I am--so I guess I'd better keep talking."
Moonshine Willy. 10 p.m. Saturday, October 26, Lion's Lair, 2022 East Colfax, 320-9200.