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 country solo 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."
Furnace Room Lullaby may not be as twangy as The Virginian, but it's a richer, more sophisticated album, and it won high marks from a number of critics. Ann Powers of the New York Times included it on her end-of-the-year top-ten list and praised Case for "giving country a bloody punk heart." The Village Voice put the album at number 36 on its annual "Pazz & Jop" critics' poll.
Not surprisingly, the big labels have come a-courtin', a situation that has Case sounding a lot like Nancy Reagan: "You just say no. I'm too much of a control freak to go with the majors. I think it would kill me."
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Indeed, Case remains loyal to Mint, which seems to have no interest in pigeonholing the singer stylistically. On the heels of Furnace Room Lullaby, the label released two widely divergent albums involving Case: The Other Women, a rollicking country album by the Corn Sisters -- Case and her friend Carolyn Mark -- recorded live at Seattle's Hattie's Hat restaurant, where Case once worked; and Mass Romantic, by the New Pornographers, which features Case and some of her Vancouver buddies doing Badfinger-style power pop. Meanwhile, Case is about halfway finished recording a new album with her Boyfriends, which this time around include several members of the eclectic Tucson band Calexico. The new collection is slated for release next April. To keep her fans satisfied, she's also put together a homemade solo album, recorded in her kitchen, called Canadian Amp. "It's kind of a love letter to Canada," she says, and features works by some of her favorite north-of-the-border songwriters. (Case is selling the disc on the road.)
So how exactly did the girl from Tacoma end up in Chicago? After The Virginian came out, Case moved to Seattle, where she quickly became part of that city's thriving music scene. But when the dot-com boom hit town, Case was kicked out of her apartment building so that it could be converted to high-price condominiums. "I have a lot of resentment toward Seattle for that," says Case, who packed her bags and moved to Chicago, where, when she's not on tour, she works as an animator by day and a bartender by night.
"I love it here," she gushes. "Seattle was a pretty soulless, money-grinding machine, so I got the hell out of there." In Chicago, Case has discovered the joys of Lake-effect snow. "It's one of the most beautiful things I've ever seen. It looks like glitter on the ground." She misses the rain-soaked Pacific Northwest, though. "Hell, yes! I love the Northwest, and I love Seattle as a city. I just don't like the politics there right now."
Case's Denver show will be her second appearance in the area: She performed at Fiddler's Green in 1998 as part of the Lilith Fair. This time around, she's hoping to hook up with an old friend from Tacoma who now lives in the Mile High City. "Could you put something in the paper about my friend Laura Woods?" Case asks nicely. "Tell her to come to the show! She was my best friend when I lived back in Tacoma, and she's totally responsible for getting me into lots of different music. She was the only other lady I'd met up to that point who was into collecting records and voraciously going to rock shows. And that kind of saved my ass. Laura Woods, where are you?"