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Music Preview: There's a place in the world for the Cowslingers

Friday, November 07, 2003

By Ed Masley, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

You wouldn't know it from watching the beer-swilling rock 'n' roll circus they're certain to bring to the stage of the 31st Street Pub tonight, but "Cowslinger Deluxe" finds Cleveland's finest roots-punk institution fleshing out its sound with guests providing everything from banjo to accordion, mandolin, fiddle, acoustic guitar and piano.

 
 
THE COWSLINGERS

Where: 31st Street Pub, Strip.

When: 10 tonight.

With: Slim Cessna's Auto Club

   
 

As Cowslingers' frontman Greg Miller explains, "We were trying to do something different. Our last record was a really big, loud rock record. And there were some songs that we kind of kicked around that it just made more sense to do acoustically. Instead of writing for being able to perform the stuff live, we just kind of let the songs be what they were."

They'd used a fiddle before, for a couple of tracks on "Americana-a-Go-Go." But this is the first time, Miller says, that they've actually written the songs with acoustic arrangements in mind -- "as opposed to recording and then being like, 'You know, I bet a fiddle would sound pretty cool if we put it in that dead spot.' "

Despite the distinct lack of banjo or even accordion within the four-man lineup that's been averaging 100 shows a year for the bulk of its 13-year existence, they've been playing seven of the 10 songs live, including G.G. Allin's "Drink, Fight, [Expletive]," which Miller says has "sort of become its own thing -- a live anthem."

While Miller's hilarious tales of hard-drinking and other debauchery delivered in a voice that's equal parts Iggy Pop swagger and Bakersfield twang (with more hiccup than either) guarantee that in the end the new album still sounds like a Cowslingers record, it certainly won't make them any easier to classify.

In Cleveland, for example, they've been named best country band, best rockabilly band and -- twice -- best punk band.

"It's funny," Miller says, "because they've had in the past an Americana or roots-rock category and we weren't even in that category. Instead, we were in punk, which to me, was really funny."

It wasn't nearly as funny, as one would imagine, for the actual punk bands on the Cleveland scene.

"One time," he says, "they have this little ceremony, so they announced the winner and we go up there and there were, like, these punk kids giving us a hard time."

So he did the punk-rock thing.

"I got up on the little microphone," he recalls, with a laugh, "and berated them. I said 'Just because you sound like Green Day doesn't mean you're punk-rock, dude.' "

They've never been embraced, he says, by the Americana scene.

"That whole thing seemed really cool at first," he says, "But then, just as quickly as that was being called the Next Big Thing, the tastemaker publications all came in to say 'This is what Americana is,' which I think just became boring singer-songwriter stuff. But it's funny because now Wilco will get coverage as one of these Americana bands and those guys are like Genesis now or something. Just because the dude was once in Uncle Tupelo ..."

After joking that Americana means "going to shows and there's guys in beards and John Deere caps and flannel shirts and no girls in the room," Miller is quick -- or relatively quick, at least -- to point out that it's not just the Americana group he wouldn't want to join if they would have him for a member.

" I always try and distance myself from any group," he says. "The rockabilly guys don't like us because we don't play an upright bass and rockabilly is more of a fashion thing. And then the people in the little garage-rock thing, you've gotta have the right little jackets and pretend to not want to write good songs or play well. All those stupid little movements where everybody's just trying to have their own little inclusive group ... it's not about music or anything. It's more about a clique."

So how exactly has his own band been able to draw without playing to any particular clique?

Miller sizes up the situation, laughs and says, "The sheer stupidity of our performances, our willingness to be complete jackasses on stage and make fools of ourselves for the joy of the ticket-buying public while simultaneously rocking has made us America's best loved music tradition."


Ed Masley can be reached at emasley@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1865.

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