Various artists’ Too Late to Pray: Defiant Chicago Roots

cover artI’ve been a fan of Bloodshot Records, the Chicago insurgent country label since not quite the beginning, but sometime in the late 1990s. They’re celebrating their 25th anniversary this month with some live music events as is their wont, but letting those of us who don’t live in or near Chicago get in on the act with this excellent compilation album.

Their first release was a similar compilation of roots musicians from the Chicago scene, called For A Life Of Sin: A Compilation of Insurgent Chicago Country. So you might say they’re going back to their roots. It’s the sort of compilation they’ve done again and again over this quarter-century, in addition to providing an outlet for the music of country and country-adjacent artists, most but not all from the Windy City. Acts like Trailer Bride, The Blacks, The Meat Purveyors, Jon Rauhouse, Rosie Flores, The Detroit Cobras have found a home on Bloodshot over the years, and it has been the home of the likes of Neko Case, Justin Townes Earle, Ha Ha Tonka, Waco Brothers, Lydia Loveless, Bobby Bare Jr and many more over those years.

That’s a pretty disparate bunch of musicians who play lots of styles of roots music. This new compilation Too Late to Pray, its title taken from a line in Hank Williams’ great song “Lost Highway,” reflects a similar esthetic. It’s populated (as apparently Chicago is) by roots musicians who play lots of styles, from twangy garage rock to acoustic folk, bluegrass to honky-tonk, hillbilly to classic rock.

This is a big compilation, 22 tracks of varied music. (Not as massive as this year’s Bear Family collection called The Bakersfield Sound, but the comparison is somewhat apt. Chicago’s country scene has been compared, accurately in some ways, with Bakersfield in the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s. Like Bakersfield then, it’s one of the modern centers of country music that contrasts with Nashville’s more polished, pop-friendly sound.) There are a lot of different ways of breaking down that many pieces of music for review. I’m going to go with New vs. Old.

A hefty slice of the music on Too Late to Pray is from long-established acts, that have been around as long as Bloodshot and in some cases longer. There are names that most alt-country fans are familiar with. Jon Langford chief among them. The Leeds native and founder of punk icons Mekons has to some become all but synonymous with Chicago roots rock. Here he plays with his group Hillbilly Lovechild growling his way through a rocking, shuffling homage to Chicago, “I Am A Big Town.” (He also painted the cover art.) Robbie Fulks sings a poignant bluegrass ballad “Lonely Ain’t Hardly Alive” and Freakwater a typically dark offering “Sway,” Janet Bean and Catherine Irwin accompanied only by a plunking banjo. Country soul diva Kelly Hogan croons a smooth, sexy honky-tonk number “Gotta Have My Baby Back” complete with keening lap steel from Joel Paterson and warmly burbling B-3 organ from Scott Ligon. And the wittily mordant Handsome Family (former longtime Chicago residents) close the album with the mordantly witty “Tower Of Song” by the late great Leonard Cohen. I hope this arrangement, with organ and other keyboards, synths, steel guitar and electronic effects signals a possible new direction for them!

As much as I love all of those acts and their songs on this comp, I’m really thrilled, even blown away, by some of the contributions from newer and younger artists. There much more here than I can fit into one review, but here are some of the highlights:

  • The opening track, “The Last Honky Tonk in Chicago,” by Wild Earp and the Free-for-Alls, a rave-up of a honky-tonk tribute to the country dancehalls of Chicago, whose video has been adopted as the promo for this album.

  • The growling, boot-scooting electric rockabilly blues of “If It’s News To You” by Tammi Savoy, who is the 2019 Rockabilly Female of the Year as well as a visual artist, entrepreneur and pinup girl.
  • The beautifully melancholy but quietly defiant “Wearing White” by Half Gringa, the band fronted by singer-songwriter Izzy Olive.
  • The drawlin’ slow bluegrass ballad “You Never Told Me” by the new young acoustic quartet called Big Sadie.
  • “Honky Tonkin’ In The Moonlight,” a classy hillbilly bop number by The Saluda Moonlighters, featuring young rock and soul singer Bailey Dee.

There’s more, too, lots more. Music for fans of just about every kind of country music, except that stuff they make in Nashville. All this great country music does my heart and soul good! I’ve reviewed countless compilation discs over the years, and *Too Late to Pray* is hands down one of the best.

(Bloodshot, 2019)

About Gary Whitehouse

Gary has been reviewing music, books and more at the Green Man Review since sometime in the previous Millennium. He lives in a mostly hipster-free part of Oregon, where he enjoys dogs, books, music, the outdoors, and craft beer, cider, and coffee.