OHIO RIVER BOAT SONG
It was the summer of 1992 and Todd Brashear invited his friend Will Oldham to come live with him in Bloomington, Indiana where Brashear was in the Audio Engineering program at IU. Oldham moved into a house with Brashear and his schoolmate Grant Barger, and soon they began working on music all together. They set up a weekend session at the house with Barger at the controls, using his 8-track cassette recording machine (not to be confused with the crappy 8-track tape format popularized in the 1970s). They invited David Pajo to come up from Louisville to play on the session. There were three songs to tackle: “For the Mekons et al”, “Two More Days”, and “Drinking Woman”. Brashear played drums and lap steel and sang harmonies, Barger played bass and Pajo played lead guitars (both acoustic and electric). Oldham sang and played acoustic guitar. The house was an older house with high ceilings and wood floors, and Barger’s engineering was impeccable so that everything sounded good and felt in line with an aesthetic that felt like a true realization of what was in Oldham’s mind.
Around the same time, Brashear and Oldham scheduled a session in the IU studios, with Brashear as engineer. Britt Walford and Brian McMahan came up from Louisville and, there in the fancy studio using 16-track 2” magnetic tape, the group recorded “Ohio River Boat Song” and “Riding”, with McMahan playing drums, Brashear playing bass and Walford playing electric guitar. This sound was big and clean and the songs had a polish to them that differed significantly from the house recording with Barger. Beautiful, though maybe not quite the kind of recordings Oldham was beginning to want to be a part of. The Barger session was all about assembling people and getting the takes right together as an ensemble, while the Brashear session was more about studio craft. One could listen to “Drinking Woman” and hear the musicians clearly, almost imagine one is in the room as the song happens. “Ohio River Boat Song” has more of an out-of-time-and-place vibe happening. Brashear and Barger were both great engineers, and the methods and technology used for the two sessions differed significantly.
Oldham sent cassettes to a few record labels featuring a proposed 7” single: “For the Mekons, et al” backed with “Drinking Woman”. A perfect single! Of the four labels Oldham sent tapes to (including Matador, Homestead, and Interscope), only Drag City responded enthusiastically. He’d sent Drag City the tape because he had a copy of the Silver Jews“Dime Map of the Reef” EP and sensed a value-system in play that might accept some of what was being dished out. Drag City said they were intrigued but needed to hear more. Oldham sent them “Ohio River Boat Song” and Drag City was sold; they liked the solid power of that recording. They asked if they could match this latter song with a song from the earlier cassette for release as a single. “Drinking Woman” was a born B-side. The Mekons ode would have to wait for a more opportune moment.
The cover of the single was designed by Paul Greenlaw, a great visual and musical artist from Rhode Island. Greenlaw used an archival aerial photograph of some unnamed coastline over which he superimposed lettering fashioned from a photograph Oldham had taken of Mekons violinist Susie Honeyman (when Greenlaw started the design, the idea was still for “For the Mekons et al” to be the A-side). The lettering spelled out “palace songs”. In the lower-right corner of the front cover was a sad yellow bird that Greenlaw had drawn. The back cover featured a Greenlaw elephant, a “Palace Brothers” banner, a fleur-de-lis (symbol of Louisville, KY) and a photo from the “Drinking Woman” session of Oldham, Brashear and Pajo. There’s an alphabetical listing of contributors to the existence of the record, as Oldham was still figuring things out and didn’t know how best to attribute the existence of any fraction of the whole. Only black and yellow inks were used on the sleeve in order to keep costs down. The label design was a throwback to old-school labels: royal blue with metallic silver ink. Dan Osborn is the Drag City graphics admiral and he executed the label design beautifully.
Oldham shot a video for “Ohio River Boat Song” on 16mm black-and-white film using a wind-up Russian camera. The footage centered around the early morning horse exercises at Churchill Downs in the spring. Osborn and Oldham edited the footage at Osborn’s office in the HARPO compound.
“For the Mekons et al” came out later on the compilation Hey Drag City. “Two More Days” came out on a compilation called Love Is My Only Crime, released in Europe. “Riding” was re-arranged and re-recorded for the record There is No-One What Will Take Care of You. The recording of “Riding” from the Bloomington session was included on Lost Blues and Other Songs.
THERE IS NO-ONE WHAT WILL TAKE CARE OF YOU
Once the “Ohio River Boat Song” single went into production, Drag City asked the Palace Brothers for a full-length record. Over the summer in Bloomington, Oldham had been writing songs and was thrilled to find that these songs might have a welcome place in the world, at least when it came to there being a label willing to release them. At the end of summer, Oldham moved back to Providence, Rhode Island, where he was ambivalently pursing a college degree in semiotics. He went to ethnomusicology professor Jeff Titon and suggested an independent study class, supervised by Titon, in which Oldham would work on a set of songs derived in many ways from a variety of historical styles, forms and sources. Oldham worked on many of the songs with musicians Matt Fanuele, Paul Greenlaw, John Davis, Mark Cummins, and Colin Gagon. Davis introduced Oldham to the records of the Royal Trux, and at one point during the fall the Trux came through Providence on tour. The band stayed over at the house Oldham shared with writer Bob Arellano. For Oldham, it was the first in-person encounter with the inner world of Drag City; not just Jennifer Herrema and Neil Hagerty, but also drummer Rian Murphy, the third leg of the power tripod (with Dan Osborn and Dan Koretzky) that has defined the character and mission of Drag City over the years.
Oldham and Brashear scheduled the recording session for December of 1992 in Kentucky. Grant Barger would engineer, using his 8-track cassette rig. There were two recording locations: a house on Ohio Street (which street has since lost its name to the larger Frankfort Avenue, of which it is effectively an extension) owned by Steve Driesler (who has, in more recent years, re-entered the Drag City galaxy through his work on the White Glove Test book of Louisville music fliers and his involvement with the Endtables reissue record) and a cabin outside of Brandenburg, KY, called “Merciful”. Brian McMahan and Britt Walford would play on the record, along with Barger, Brashear, Oldham and Paul Greenlaw. Brashear, Barger, McMahan and Walford traded off instruments (inspired, in part, by the Bad Seeds records of the 1980s), while Oldham stuck to singing and playing the guitar and Greenlaw played the banjo. Greenlaw was a deeply inspired and unique banjoist; it was the sound of Greenlaw, as opposed to the sound of a banjo, that made Greenlaw’s presence crucial.
The record was mixed by Brashear, Barger, and Oldham at Brashear’s parents house in east Louisville.
There were fifteen songs considered for the recording. A cover of the Rolling Stones “Hand of Fate” was dropped at the last minute. The full-length record ended up with twelve songs. The outtakes were “Don’t I Look Good Today”, which came out on a double 7” comp called Louisville Sluggers 3, released on Mike Bacayu’s Self Destruct label; and “Valentine’s Day”, which came out eventually on the Palace Music comp Lost Blues and Other Songs. The rest of the songs were new originals Oldham began during the previous summer in Bloomington, except “Riding”, which was begun a year or two earlier, and a cover of Washington Phillips’ “I Had a Good Mother and Father”.
Auspiciously, David Berman and Bob Nastanovitch of the Silver Jews passed through Louisville and stopped by the session at Driesler’s house. It had been the Silver Jews 7” Ep that had inspired Oldham to send the first Palace Brothers recordings to Drag City.
Greenlaw painted and/or the covers for There Is No-One What Will Take Care Of You. Oldham had asked him to render the fable of the mouse and the lion and requested that Greenlaw use bright pink and yellow. Greenlaw worked on the cover intensely, ultimately coming up with four powerful variations. Ultimately, all four were utilized, each for a different format or pressing. The back cover is a black and white photograph of a road in northern Scotland taken by Oldham during a hitch-hiking trip.
The record was licensed, via a connection made by Nastanovitch, to the British label Big Cat. The relationship with Big Cat lasted only for the one release, after which all Palace and Bonnie Prince Billy records were licensed through Domino.
It was 1993 and the musical ideas were flowing. Oldham wrote two songs for a 7”, “Trudy Dies” and “Come In”. There was a live-to-DAT session done in Louisville and/or Chicago that was deemed unsuccessful. Meanwhile, Neil Hagerty and Jennifer Herrema of Royal Trux were establishing themselves as freelance record producers under the noms-de-guerre Adam & Eve, and it was decided that they should guide the recording of these two songs. The studio was King Size, in Chicago, run by Dave Trumfio. Mike Fellows tracked the drums but Hagerty erased those drum tracks and replayed the kit himself. Liam Hayes played the Mellotron. Adam & Eve expressed a desire to bring out the inner Springsteen in Oldham’s songs. The front cover of the record sleeve featured a drawing by Jeff Mueller of a bird embryo. The back cover held a photograph by Oldham of land outside of Madison, Virginia. Lyrics to “Trudy Dies” were included on an insert with drawings by Dianne Bellino. There was a video made for “Come In” featuring animation by Bellino and 16mm footage of music rehearsals in the basement of David Pajo’s parents’ house.