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March 23, 2019

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Neko Case’s quest for the Grand Ole Opry

This article first appeared on Oct. 14, 1998.

I blew it. I wanted to tell Neko Case how much I loved her Bloodshot/Mint records debut The Virginian, which the former punk drummer recorded with her hand-picked group of "Boyfriends"-friends and neighbors from Vancouver's bustling music scene. I wanted to declare my unabashed love for the shuffling "Timber," the plaintive "Lonely Old Lies" and her bright-eyed cover of the Everly Brothers' "Bowling Green." I wanted to tell her that she had found a place in my disc changer, next to such "alt. country" neo-traditionalists as Lucinda Williams, Wayne "The Train" Hancock, Gillian Welch and Steve Earle.

I wanted to dish over her influences, a hot list that includes Flat Duo Jets, Dolly Parton, Wanda Jackson, the Louuvin Brothers, Hank Williams, Roger Miller and hundreds more, and the bearing they've had on the 28 year old's exemplary vocal and songwriting gifts. I wanted to offer a round of beers after what is certain to be a triumphant Vegas debut, October 18 at Rockabilly's, opening for Southern Culture on the Skids.

Now, I may have said some of that stuff to Neko, but I doubt it. I'd been up late the night before and was barely speaking English. She was very kind and polite, despite being subjected to a ham-fisted interview by some goddamned dope gargling a mouthful of espresso.

Q. How did you find Lilith Fair? (Bloodshot Records' press release described Case as Lilith's "only mama with a pulse.")

A. I thought it'd be kinda weird, but we played to lots of nice people. We were pretty different from what was going on, but we had a great time. And I got to meet Emmylou Harris!

Q. Was she cool?

A. I was nervous, but she was really nice. And she's the most beautiful woman I've ever seen in my life.

Q. You need to hear the Willie Nelson record; she's all over it.

A. Yeah, I haven't heard that yet, but I've been wanting to. I hear it's another Daniel Lanois production; that means no guitars (chuckles).

Q. Okay, here come the stupid bio questions. How did you move from (punk band) Maow to The Virginian?

A. I had written a bunch of songs that were country and weren't right for Maow. Maow didn't want to be a country band, so I decided to record them myself.

Q. How'd you go about assembling The Boyfriends?

A. Well, it was a haphazard process of calling people that I admired and asking them to play on my record, and most of them did. I couldn't believe it.

Q. Must be less hostile up in Vancouver.

A. There's an incredibly supportive music scene in Canada. A lot of that has to do with the Canadian government being so supportive of the arts in general. It's a great place to play music.

Q. So, where does this fabulous songwriting of yours come from? Do you have to kill somebody to write a murder ballad?

A. No! You probably have to want to kill people sometimes (laughs), but everybody does. It's a natural thing.

Q. By the by, I love your cover of the Everlys.

A. I think about (the Everly Brothers) obsessively. I'm obsessed with harmony singing because I'm not very good at it.

Q. You do all right.

A. That's because I sing and somebody sings harmony over the top of me (laughs). The Corn Sisters is a harmony band; I'm in it with my friend Carolyn Mark. She basically engineers all the harmonies, and I do what she says. It feels great when you're doing it right. I don't play guitar, so I don't really understand the concept (of harmony); I can sing it, but I can't make up the parts.

Q. How many bands are you in?

A. I'm with the Corn Sisters, with my own band, and I'm still an honorary member of Maow; they hired another drummer while I'm away, but they said I can come play with them whenever I want. I miss them a lot. They've got Nicki Pollard on drums now; she's awesome.

Q. You've been slotted with the "No Depression" movement.

A. Our next record will dispel that, for certain.

Q. What's with the next record?

A. It's a lot stranger. I don't like being pigeonholed like that, at all. I don't play "alternative country" music; I just play country music. I want to have the same outlets, the same goals that all my heroes in country/western music have had. I want to play the Grand Old Opry in my grandmother's lifetime, you know what I mean? I want to be played on mainstream radio. I'm not willing to change my music to get there faster, but I'll fight for it anyway. I don't think anyone gives a shit about country radio. It's bullshit. It just makes me mad that (country radio) is using the term "country music," when it doesn't belong to them.

Q. There's a giant machine under Nashville, making bands that sound exactly the same.

A. Yeah. I'm not a fan of that. I think now is the time for change in country music; hopefully it'll change for the better. It really burns that all the bands that inspired me were part of a national country music culture that was really admirable and fairly diverse at one time. I want to have the same avenues open to me. It's like having this beautiful old building in your neighborhood and coming back to find that they've torn it down and built a Wal-Mart in its place.

Q. Tell me the record's being played on foofie college stations, at least.

A. The foofie college stations, Americana radio, Canadian radio has been good to us...Canada's been really good to us, period. Being played on the radio is nice, but it's not why I do this-I do it because I like to go on tour, and I like to play live.

Q. What did you think of Wanda Jackson's Bumbershoot set? (Case played Bumbershoot this year-the Seattle music festival I just attended-unbeknownst to old java-for-brains until this interview.)

A. Her voice still sounds really great. It's cool that people can still see her play; she was a huge influence on me when I was young. I was dying to hear women's voices in punk, and finding Wanda really set me on a different path. And she makes these hilarious jokes like my grandma would make between songs. She's awesome.

Q. Do you see yourself doing a Wanda Jackson, singing into your golden years?

A. Well, I should hope so. Can't really see myself doing anything else, to tell you the truth.