“To me, the most ‘outlaw’ thing anyone can do is to not give a shit. I personally don’t care what anyone thinks of me, the way I write or how I go about things. Sometimes I feel my goal in life is to just be left alone, on my own land, free to shoot my guns in peace.” These words from Grandpa’s Cough Medicine frontman Brett Bass carry a roadside translation that speaks more to the way he and the band do business than the seemingly backwoods Zen it implies. To their fanatical local fan base, half the band’s appeal lies in the subject matter of their songs — from the risqué to the ribald to the outspoken outrageous and back again. That would be enough for any lesser group to get on with, but there is no denying the instrumental brilliance of their delivery of the message.
If sheer virtuosity is the idolatry of the bluegrass ethic, then GCM are The Olympus Mountain Boys: glove-tight and breakneck excursions from Bass’ flat-picked lines and Mike Coker’s intricate banjo rolls and solos at full-on speed (which belie a stage presence akin to a potted plant) all held together by wayward ex-opera singer Jon Murphy on the upright bass.
Yet again, it is silver bullet time for the band on the eve of the release of their third CD, 180 Proof, a fresh shot of their wares into the music business, as it were. Recorded in a scant week’s time at a Nashville studio, the disc is the outcome of the band’s musical domination of 2014’s One Spark Festival. Ever the do-it-your-selfers, GCM used their winnings to partially fund the release.
“Hell, we’re still out of pocket to get it done,” says Bass. Produced by session veteran Randy Kohrs and featuring alt-country Americana luminaries Hank Williams III, Jason Carter and Aaron Till, 180 Proof is 15 polished gems of traditional bluegrass catapulted into the morass of today’s jaded values and primitive gratification.
Is this music written for the “everyman,” the humble shoes in which songwriters invariably place themselves?
“Why the hell would I write like that?” Bass responds. “I couldn’t write a song about getting up, going to work, coming home to watch TV. That’d bore the shit out of anyone. It’s the darker side that’s always interested me.”
Rather than elaborate on Bass’ statement, I’ve chosen to acquaint the reader with the darker-side aspects of 180 Proof in outline form, as per song subject matter. Topics covered:
I. Alcohol Intoxication
a. As a metaphor for a lifestyle, see the title track (vocal contribution from Hank III)
b. As a bracing enhancement to overcome various obstacles: “Liquid Courage” (sung by Murphy, intoned in a stilted, weird blend of snake-oil barker and college professor)
c. As in detrimental to good health: “Respect The Shine” (“should have stuck to beer and wine,” rhymes the refrain)
a. As a tool to nurse a broken heart: “Van Trip” (in which the jealous protagonist kidnaps and does away with his current squeeze’s exes one by one in selective degrees of gore)
b. As retribution and social justice: “Blood & Justice” (you are a deviant criminal and I know where you live. If you won’t kill yourself I’ll do it for you — point blank)
c. As Jack Ruby-style patriotism: “Westboro Waltz” (eye for an eye is still murder) with a suitably po’-faced fiddle break from Jason Carter
a. Its place in the male aging process: “Brand New 22” (not the caliber, mind you) — “a man is only as old as the woman that he feels.” The record’s lyrics abound with double entendre
b. Deferred gratification as directly proportional to the size of the codpiece: “Denim Prison,” a new riot in cellblock No. 9 (inches, that is)
IV. Environmental Sensitivity
a. Endangered species: “Every Critter in the County” (hunted to extinction? … hangs up the rifle, takes up fishin’)
V. The Promise of The Revolution Unfulfilled
a. As clueless hippie contentment: La La Lolly — pill-popping monosyllabic “hippie girl,” real or imagined, doesn’t really matter.
On the surface, it may seem a collection of novelty tunes taken to the extreme every time, with the sole intent to outrage. Not so; it’s said show business types embraced Lenny Bruce until they realized he was serious. The same applies to Grandpa’s Cough Medicine. To the point of attempts at censorship from festival promoters of their song content — ironically, in the face of loving audience response.
In a strange way, a solid thread of the band’s libertarian integrity runs through every lyric. “I look around everywhere and see people divided into camps — left-wingers here opposing all the things they’ve been taught to oppose, same with the right-wingers over there. There are good sides to both, but they prefer to be stuck to one another with no meeting ground,” says Bass. “Sometimes I wonder why I do this job, who listens to bluegrass anyway? So I’ll continue to say whatever the fuck I please. I really don’t care if anyone agrees or disagrees.”