[Sidebar] The Worcester Phoenix
Feb. 22 - March 1, 2001


Lonesome no more

Randy Weeks hits the road with Madeline

By John O'Neill

If the world of contemporary commercial radio is in an out-of-control death spiral into the slag heap of culture-past (the same fetid dump that also swallowed up AM radio, and is in the early stages of composting Grunge), then the little sub-genre now stamped as Americana is entering a phase of unmitigated growth and originality. You won't really hear about it unless you tune to the left of your dial, but a new breed of singer/songwriter is emerging from the fringes and casting off the tired shackles of revisionism for wider pastures to call their own. Tim Easton has successfully married thinking man stories with tape loops and backwards tracked e-bows, Steve Earle continues to bend music to fit his needs so distinctly that the establishment finally threw up their hands and called it folk, and the precious Ryan Adams has somehow buffaloed everyone into thinking he's the second coming of Dylan. Then there are the guys that take pride in doing it the old-fashioned way, while taking care to mix it up with anything else that might have caught their attention somewhere down the line: Dennis Brennan owing more than he'll recall to the Remains and Arthur Alexander, Russ Toleman's open revolt against his psychedelic past in True West, and Stan Ridgeway deciding to become a living Ennio Morricone score. These are the guys pushing and stretching roots music while they continue to learn themselves.

And then there's Randy Weeks, who just happened to be in the right place at the right time. Minnesota-born but California-bred, he arrived in Los Angeles just in time to catch the opposing fronts of country and rock collide with such magnificence that the results are still being felt today. The Blasters and X were redefining what three chords could mean, and folks like Lyle Lovett, Rosie Flores, Dwight Yoakam, and Weeks's band, the Lonesome Strangers, would all take away the lessons taught. "Oh, well, everything I am now I guess I owe [to that scene], which is who knows what," cracks Weeks from room 201 of the Atlanta Econo Lodge. "I was totally influenced by the Blasters and X. It changed my musical outlook. When [the Lonesomes] hooked up, it was a hillbilly, country thing, but with contemporary elements. It wasn't called Americana back then, but we liked country that wasn't from Nashville and we liked rock elements. It's been a growth process from there. I do a little more R&B, and some of my stuff might be a little more folkie."

One of the progenitors of the `80s Cowpunk movement, the Lonesome Strangers spent the better part of two decades laying out their own brand of roots-inspired twang. Without question one of the more innovative acts to emerge from the era's roots scene, the Lonesomes scored a minor Top 40 country hit with a cover of Johnny Horton's "Goodbye Lonesome, Hello Baby Doll," hit the road as the opening act for Yoakam, and also added vocals to his album Buenos Notches From a Lonely Room. After three better-than average albums (and a should-have-been novelty hit "We Use to Fuss") the band finally went belly-up in 1998, and Weeks went to work as a serious songwriter as opposed to playing in a band. A tough way to earn a steady paycheck, Weeks struck gold almost immediately when his contribution to Lucinda Williams's Car Wheels On a Gravel Road, "Can't Let Go," was nominated for a Grammy. Meanwhile he hit the studio and went to work on his first solo disc, Madeline (Hightone).

"The Lucinda Williams thing helped me out a bit," Weeks confesses. "I was doing the album and hoping for some radio play, but I figured it was kind of a long shot. After Lucinda I thought I might get more opportunities and I've had some because of it. And I can't feel too bad about all that happening. I wouldn't mind having other people sing my songs, or doing some soundtrack work and maybe making a living doing this."

Released in March of last year, Madeline makes a pretty strong case for Weeks not only as an emerging songwriter, but also picks up on the experimental continuum started all those years ago with the Lonesome Strangers. With a top-flight band comprised of guitarist Tony Gilkyson (Lone Justice, X), drummer Don Heffington (Emmylou Harris), bassist Kip Boardman, and augmented by an all-star cast of LA musicians (including Teddy Morgan, Yoakam organist Skip Edwards and the Blazers' Manny Ramirez), there isn't much that Weeks isn't willing to take on, and he reaches across a fairly broad expanse of influence and style to deliver the word. Singing about the universal staples of love, loss, and life, Madeline touches on everything from classic Stax and Muscle Shoals soul ("Baby You Got To Choose," and "If I Cut You"), Mid-Seventies riff rock ("Motor City"), the chooglin' back-country swamp of Creedence Clearwater Revival ("Long Ride Home"), and smarter-than-the-average-bumpkin southern rock ("Can't Let Go"). The sum of the parts are pulled together by Weeks reedy, dry vocal delivery, and storytelling that is precise in each instance. Ultimately it is the all-around understatement that makes the songs on Madeline work so well together; you have to believe he knows exactly what he's doing in each instance. It isn't a roll of the dice if you're absolutely sure that what you are doing is the proper thing, and Randy Weeks has few doubts these days.

"It's probably a terrible idea from a marketing point," says Weeks of the album's variety. "But it is more interesting to me. I was totally influenced by all these things. The whole songwriting process is pretty confusing to me, to tell you the truth. Each song, it's always different.

"The idea now is just to make some albums and stay true to what I like. I don't have to make a ton of money, I'd just like to stay away from the day job if possible."

Randy Weeks appears this Saturday, February 24, at 8 p.m. at the Performing Arts Center of Worcester, 6 Chatham Street, Worcester. Tickets are $8. Call (508) 752-0700.

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