When it comes to alternative country music, label owner Eric Babcock has gone
from "No Depression" to what some might call "No Bullshit."
As a co-founder of Bloodshot Records, one of the labels which first exposed the
"No Depression" alternative country movement, Babcock made a name for
himself bringing a new brand of progressive country rock to fans. Now,
determined to return to the roots of what country is all about, he is looking to
expose yet another underdeveloped sound.
Babcock parted company with partners Nan Warshaw and Rob Miller in May to
form Checkered Past Records, a indie label he wants to use to record "more
traditional and rootsy sounding artists." And that's just what he has started to do,
signing such obscure and backwoods artists as Lonesome Bob and Tom
"I called it Checkered Past because I thought it sounded mysterious, something
you would want to look into, much like the artists I am putting out," Babcock said.
"Some people ask if it has anything to do with my time at Bloodshot Records,
but it really doesn't."
And while its name is the same, Checkered Past also has nothing to do with a
certain all-star rock band of a few years back, Babcock said. "Apparently, there
was a group a few years back called Checkered Past that had some guys from
The Sex Pistols and Blondie in it. And apparently they were pretty bad. A lot of
people ask me if it has anything to do with them or if I'm working with them or
whatever. It has nothing to do with them. The last thing I want my label
associated with is some stinky band that no one likes."
While he purposely made his new label's name enigmatic, he is very clear
about why he parted company with Bloodshot Records. "Ever since the
beginning of Bloodshot, I was more into the country music, the more rootsy stuff,
and Nan and Rob were into the more punk sounding stuff."
Back when Babcock was at Bloodshot, the label put Tom House on a Nashville
compilation which featured numerous obscure artists, he said. While some at
the label thought House too traditional sounding, Babcock was convinced he
was onto something great. After the release, Babcock got to hear more of
House's music. "I didn't want to fight about putting it out. So, I started to think
about putting it out somewhere else with a better scene."
So, he began forming Checkered Past in March of this year while still working at
Bloodshot Records. Working for both labels (from March through May),
however, proved too much of a drain on Babcock. In turn, he parted ways with
alternative country and set out on his own.
The split raised the heads of those in the alternative country community who
were not already in the know about the inner workings of Bloodshot Records.
For others, the move made sense. "Most everyone who knows the three of us
are not too surprised, just based on our tastes in music. Some people are sort of
shocked, basically because they see Bloodshot as the leaders of a cause.
Others don't seem to care at all. In a lot of the alternative country circles, I get
people telling me 'I will listen to any music put out by someone I respect.' So,
that's nice to hear."
For their part, Warshaw and Miller have been nice about the split, telling
Country Standard Time that things at the label "...will now be a bit more
efficient and streamlined. I don't think it's going to be a noticeable difference to
anybody outside of Bloodshot. Having one partner to communicate with is a lot
easier than two."
Babcock also bears no ill will toward his former partners, preferring to focus on
the positive. And he doesn't consider his former label a competitor. "I mean,
how small do you want to make your umbrella? Neither of us are mainstream
country at all. But, like I said before, the kind of music I'm interested in is closer
to traditional sounding country music than the stuff Bloodshot usually puts out.
However, it's not like either of us are dealing with artists who are getting
attention from radio... I don't really see us competing to sign the same artists."
Checkered Past currently has a small stable of artists. They've re-released the
Old Joe Clarks' Town Of Ten, a 1996 indie release by the San
Francisco-by-way-of-Kansas torch and twang band. Meanwhile, Oct. 7 brings
the release of Lonesome Bob's country blues opus Things Fall Apart. But
Babcock seems proudest of Tom House's The Neighborhood Is
Changing, a symphony of delta blues and Southern folk music. When
talking about why he formed the new label, Babcock said, "Tom House states
my case better than I ever could."
Indeed, he does.
Calling the 47-year-old Tom House at his room in the Meridian, Miss. Days Inn,
you are greeted by a voice not far removed from Boomhauer, the mumbling
country gentleman on Fox TV's King Of The Hill. In spite of his thick
accent and fast talkin', House is clear about what he thinks of the state of
country music. "I don't think much of it," he said. "I mean, there is no current
state of country music. Most of it is pretty embarrassing."
Unlike the blow-dried country-fide pretty boys who claim to sing for the working
man, House has been a laborer for most of his life. Currently working as an
electrician, he said he is happy with how Checkered Past’s The
Neighborhood Is Changing turned out. "I'm pretty keyed up about it. I've
been writing poetry for a long time and doing music since I was 26," the music
"This whole alternative country thing is great. It reminds me a lot of the poetry
scene that sprung up in Nashville a few years ago. Everyone helps everyone
out and the people are nice." [Thurs., Sept. 4, 1997, 9