Turning the tide

What would make a devotee of punk rock (not to mention some absorbingly bizarre branches of metal music) tune into a bone-bleak country outfit like Freakwater?

Stir-the-dead harmonies, for starters.

The music fan in question — a former record-store employee who recently left Asheville for more urban digs — once confessed to me a strong weakness for the vocal acrobatics of Catherine Irwin and Janet Beveridge Bean. And he’s not the only unlikely Freakwater fan. In a recent interview with Xpress, Irwin confessed that the band’s fan base is “a really odd assortment.” Need proof?

“We have more little kids in our audience than any other band — I mean, [kids] under the age of 8,” she says with a laugh.

Irwin recalls with wonder a gig at a Chicago cultural center some four years ago, during which a kindergarten-age fan actually seemed to know the words to the song she was singing. Watching a child latch onto a tune about getting drunk and killing someone was a bit disconcerting, she concedes.

But not entirely surprising. The devilish beauty of these women’s voices could at times hypnotize anyone. Joined by bassist David Wayne Gay (also of local band White Heat), this infrequently touring group unleashes some of the darkest little lullabies around. Freakwater’s new album, End Time (Thrilljockey Records, 1999), begins with Irwin’s hoarse confession, “I’ve been good/And I’ve been good for nothing./I had it bad for something, seems like a long time ago/And the dirt beneath my nails is not from some field of flowers.” Further on, the CD features a lush, unprecedented string section. Previous Freakwater efforts — such as Spring Time (Thrilljockey Records, 1998), a bluegrass-influenced work that had critics likening the band to the Carter Family — had a similarly dark, but much sparer, feel. Why did the band alter its decade-old recipe?

“Because we could,” Irwin states simply. “There’s definitely more [instrumentation] on the new CD [than usual], but we had a couple of extra days [to record] and we wanted to see what it would be like [to do something different].” The singer believes that most bands want to try out a string section at one time or another — and the last-minute decision, she notes, is not exactly atypical of Freakwater’s modus operandi: “I have no idea why we do anything,” she deadpans. About their notable harmonies, she proclaims, “That’s the fun part.” But she doesn’t think that two lovely voices are inherently better than one, pointing out that “the sad, lone crooner is emotionally appealing, too.”

Live, the tried-and-true trio has become a quintet, fleshed out for the first time by a drummer (Steve Goulding), plus pedal-steel player Eric Heywood, who has played with Son Volt and Richard Buckner.

Irwin and Bean’s marathon friendship may account for their assured vocal couplings. “Janet and I have been singing songs together for 15 years,” explains Irwin, who claims not to remember when the first Freakwater album was recorded. Songwriting, though, is still a reclusive endeavor — partly due to simple logistics: Irwin lives in Louisville, Ky., while Bean, a longtime member of rock band Eleventh Dream Day, is Chicago-based. Geography notwithstanding, the duo’s songwriting style is mostly a matter of personal taste.

“Janet and I write songs and bring them in and show them to each other,” notes the singer, expressing incredulity at the idea of collaborative songwriting: “I don’t know how people do that, or what that would be like. I can’t [picture] Janet calling me up at 4 a.m. and saying, ‘What’s a word that rhymes with ‘duh’?”

Irwin notes that she has always felt lucky that a non-pop-influenced country band like Freakwater has so many admirers. That statement may have had more resonance in the band’s earlier days than now, what with the urgent popularity of so-called “alt-country.” Bean once had some tart words about certain factions of that particular scene for music reporter Chris Morris, lamenting, “I certainly don’t have a whole lot of interest in or respect for bands that take bluegrass and turn it into a joke phenomenon. When that sort of attitude prevails … I find it to be just awful, just dreadful — sheer mockery.”

Today, absorption in other matters modifies her opinion. “I never have liked that silly, clever sort of They Might Be Giants thing. But really, I don’t have the energy to dislike much of anything,” she concedes. Pal Irwin concurs. Though admitting she is a “huge traditionalist” (and a bit of a music snob, as well), she reports cordially: “I love a good novelty song, but … some of these joke bands just drive me crazy. Then again, some of these real earnest [neo-country] bands drive me crazy, too.”

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