MAN, WE LIKE THAT! The Loudermilks

Loudermilks

With their earlier, next-big-thing band Lou Ford in the rearview but reconciled, North Carolina’s Edwards brothers take a swing at the musical piñata once more. This time around, they both feel, their aim is true.

BY JOHN SCHACHT

For years, Alan and Chad Edwards opened sets with their band, Lou Ford, playing “How Does It Feel?,” a swinging, mid-tempo rocker that drove a bright G chord down into E-minor mourning and blanketed it in swirls of gospel organ. “How does it feel, to have something real?,” the Edwards queried in their rich Georgia harmonies. “To have something true, to know it belongs to you?”

These were simple interrogatives, but loaded with complex answers about envy, skepticism, failure and redemption, and, like the band’s three long-players in the late-‘90s and early ‘00s, the song delivered on the promise of country commiseration and rock catharsis. (No Depression co-founder Peter Blackstock said the song “might be the best single track any N.C. twang act has committed to tape.”)

The Edwards brothers, as they kept proving over the intervening years, wrote really good rough-patch music. Their harmonized, tragic songs of life narratives and minor chord melancholy — derived from the brothers’ biggest influences, the Louvin Brothers and Big Star — worked as salve and balm, resolving through perseverance and hardening into resilience.

The music – which they dubbed Rural Pop for Yesterday People — worked in dark hues or light ones: as sad shuffles and barroom honky tonk or as feedback rockers and punk-fueled anthems. The lyrics were cliché-free and brutally frank, featuring accusations and regrets aimed at exes, friends, bandmates, the windmills of the recording industry and themselves.

But Lou Ford flamed out in the early century, having shed band members, possible label deals, fans, and once-high expectations along the way. There was a half-hearted, original line-up reunion in 2006, but the vault-clearing Poor Man’s Soul was just about the only tangible evidence that it had ever occurred. As the new century rolled on and the music industry changed into an entirely different animal, it felt like we’d heard the last of the Edwards’ brothers, musically speaking. And that seemed a shame.

Fast forward nearly a decade, though, and the Edwards are back with a new moniker — The Loudermilks —and a new self-titled LP which ranks as their best yet. Joined by former Lou Ford drummer Shawn Lynch (this time on bass) and drummer Mike Kennerly, formerly of Charlotte, N.C., Lou Ford contemporaries Jolene, The Loudermilks are ready to take another swing at this music thing.

“There’s just a lot of growing that you do over the years,” says Kennerly. “And now that we’ve all hooked up, to me it’s very easy for us to get together. We can agree, we can ruffle each other’s feathers a little bit, too. But in the end we all know what we want out of this group: we want to have fun, and we want to make a record we’re proud of and have people say, ‘man, I like that.’”

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The Edwards brothers grew up in Cartersville, Georgia, roughly half-way between Atlanta and Chattanooga. In addition to a near-miss with Sherman’s March to the Sea and claiming the first outdoor Coca-Cola sign (1898), the town was also home to the evangelist Samuel Porter Jones, whose Union Gospel Tabernacle at Ryman Auditorium in Nashville later became the Grand Ole Opry.

But Cartersville is mostly the kind of small town the young leave as soon as they can, though leaving it behind emotionally is another story. That’s the sentiment captured in the fiddle-and-pedal steel wistfulness of The Loudermilks’ LP-closer “Georgia Pines” and the disc-opening “Watch It Fall,” a pedal-steel accented shuffle about the unlikelihood of outrunning your own baggage and past. Those are the kinds of dichotomies that give the Edwards’ brothers songs their emotional heft:

“I miss the Georgia Pines, red clay and better times, the sound of a train coming through/Late at night on a long dirt road, south of no north I’ve known, the sunlight is long overdue,” Alan sings on the disc-ender, having acknowledged at the LP’s opening that, “With every ounce of strength I had, I just packed my bags and ran/ I just ended up alone, farther from home.”

They’re a pair of classic sounding country rock tunes, but the brothers weren’t weaned on the genre and took a while to come to the music their region is noted for. Growing up, the Edwards faced the musical limitations most small towns without college radio faced before the Internet. Limited to classic rock stations, Alan initially fell under the sway of metal, and remains grateful that he didn’t start playing guitar until he’d left and been exposed to better music. Chad, Alan’s younger brother by four years, spent his early musical formative years studying piano, singing in the church choir and “rabidly pursuing the weird music that I couldn’t get where I lived.”

Alan got out first, attending Liberty College in West Virginia and playing in a band whose music he says landed somewhere between the Pixies and shoegaze. After graduating, he joined Chad back in Georgia, where his brother was attending UGA. Alan was ostensibly there to go to graduate school, but within days of arriving he met members of Chocolate USA, an eclectic proto-Elephant 6 band led by Julian Koster and signed to Bar-None — and that was that for grad school.

The dream didn’t last long, though. Alan quit the band after the group’s second release, 1994’s Smoke Machine, as Chocolate USA was fracturing into several other projects (Koster joined Neutral Milk Hotel). The label’s lack of support, in particular, was a rude eye-opener for Alan that would color his view of the business in deep skepticism during the Lou Ford years.

In the late ‘90s, when the Charlotte-based Lou Ford popped up on the radar of regional neighbors like Yep Roc, Ramseur and Merge records, the band played label showcases and even made it to the meeting stage with the Merge brain trust. Nothing materialized, though in hindsight the Edwards – and Alan in particular – take some of the blame.

“I think we had the attitude, I know I did, especially from my experience in (Chocolate USA), that the label’s not your friend, and I went out of that experience into our own band,” Alan says. “I remember being a little intimidated honestly with Merge – not so much the other ones. I probably came off as more ‘fuck the industry’ because I was intimidated.”

Those ambivalent feelings and the Chocolate USA experience is the subject of the new record’s “The Plan,” an up-tempo rocker with Attractions keys and a barbed chorus worthy of the Replacements. “You always said we were gonna get what we deserve/but you never meant a word,” Alan sings as the band bashes away to the chorus with increasing intensity, “What about the plan? Could’ve been us, instead of them.”

In the end, the plan didn’t work out for Lou Ford, either. As the new century rolled over, the band released its strong sophomore effort, 2000’s Alan Freed’s Radio, on Cargo Records. But the San Diego-based label was more known for its punk rock catalog, and when Lou Ford toured the West coast for the release, the new record was nowhere to be found in the record stores.

Shitty distribution was hamstringing the band, because Lou Ford was racking up glowing reviews in publications ranging from Britain’s Mojo and Uncut to The New York Times and No Depression, earning opening tour slots for the likes of Alejandro Escovedo, and had a distribution deal with the leading European label for American country rock, Glitterhouse.

But the growing critical profile masked the fact that Lou Ford was disintegrating. Shawn Lynch had already quit over the band’s increasingly frequent gig flame-outs, and bassist Mark Lynch (no relation) followed shortly after. The internal sniping and bitterness no longer fueled just the songs, something which Alan takes responsibility for today.

“I was mad at our audience, and I’ve never been able to make sense of it,” Alan confesses. “On numerous occasions I just said ‘fuck you’ to the crowd and walked off. Shawn quit because of that, and Chad threatened to quit numerous times because of that. Because, and I can’t say it was the whole band, but I personally didn’t feel like I was getting the respect that I felt like I deserved, so I’d show my ass and they would threaten to quit.”

Soon enough, band members were coming and going with discouraging and tell-tale frequency. Whatever momentum the band had built behind Alan Freed’s Radio was grinding to a halt. So, too, was Lou Ford, and in 2002, with no fanfare, the plug was pulled.

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For Alan, the end of Lou Ford came as a relief. The pressure of being the front man and primary songwriter had exacted a hefty psychic toll. He began a family and started an audio business, and essentially retired from music. But for the younger brother, Lou Ford represented unfinished business. The band’s break-up coincided with the end of his first marriage, and Chad captures the darkness that followed on The Loudermilks’ haunting “Darkness of Hell.” Over a maelstrom of guitar lines and baleful organ chords, Chad cries “if hell exists, then this is it.”

“Lou Ford broke up, my marriage broke up the same week,” Chad says. “So the two things that had been the entire focus of my existence for the last three to five years or whatever were just gone. So I just channeled all that energy into writing songs.”

Chad wrote the song for Hard Times Family, the band he formed with Kennerly and Shawn Lynch in the aftermath of Lou Ford’s collapse. Though an LP’s worth of material was recorded, it was never released and the band simply never gained traction. But the experience proved invaluable for the younger Edwards and key in shaping The Loudermilks into a vehicle of equals.

“I’d never fronted a band,” Chad says. “I’d always been behind my brother, whether it was psychologically for me or just people’s perception.”

Alan, whom Chad had brought in to add guitar fills for Hard Times Family, also took something essential away from the experience – primarily the discovery that, in a band of co-equals, he wouldn’t have to bear the burden of being the front-man. In the meantime, of course, the music industry that Lou Ford had railed against underwent a healthy course of contraction comeuppance. With the ease of home-recording and digital distribution, the brothers could also record cheaply and without label support, and at a pace that fit their lives as family men and business owners (Chad runs a remodeling company).

And thus the Loudermilks were born, paying tribute to one of their influences with a name they gave themselves shortly before Charlie Louvin’s passing in 2011.

After dipping their toes back in the music waters via a few acoustic duo gigs, Kennerly, a strong time-keeper, came on board to whack the skins, and Shawn Lynch moved over to bass. Over roughly eight months, the band’s debut took shape in Alan’s home-studio, while old Lou Ford friends like Jason Atkins (keys) and 70-year-old former Nashville pedal steel whiz Joe Smith contributed key overdubs.

The resulting 10 tracks, split evenly between Chad and Alan songs, form the most concise and focused LP the brothers have released. Time will tell whether it catches on with a broader audience in this new digital era, though it’s certainly the band’s intention that it does. But the Edwards seem content to be making music again no matter the outcome. They may have lost sight of that at times in Lou Ford, but it turns out be to the thing that mattered the most all along.

Chad captures that epiphany on his soulful “Broken Record,” the LP’s emotional center-piece. Over rich organ washes, Lynch’s rolling bass lines, and tasteful guitar fills, the brothers harmonize as only siblings can while they debate whether to get back in the music saddle: “We can scrap it all and start again/We can let it lie and end up wasted/We could tell ‘em that they’re not our friends/But it isn’t true and I can taste it.”

With the new name and identity, the Edwards have even begun playing cuts from their Lou Ford catalog – something they were initially unwilling to do given the baggage that seemed to come with them. But in another sign that they’ve reconciled who they are now with what they were then, select tracks have worked their way into the set-lists.

“It wouldn’t have felt right to me to start a new band and now we’re playing old Lou Ford songs,” says Alan. “We felt weird about it. But they’re our fucking songs, and we’re proud of them, too.”

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