Bloodshot Records Celebrates Fifth Birthday

Success of Chicago alt-country label surprises founders Nan Warshaw, Rob Miller.

CHICAGO — Bloodshot Records, the local independent label with an alt-country slant, is celebrating its fifth anniversary with the release of the anthology Down to the Promised Land: 5 Years of Bloodshot Records.

On a recent afternoon Bloodshot Records' founders Nan Warshaw and Rob Miller paused to reflect on the first five years of their company.

Bloodshot's offices are crammed with secondhand furniture, piled with boxes of discs waiting to be shipped and plastered with posters featuring the label's bands. The space feels more like a crash pad than the command post of a vibrant indie label.

In the company's dingy front room, the power, politics and megabucks of the major record companies feel a world away. But this setting is swank compared to the original Bloodshot bunker — Warshaw's basement — where the label grew from a notion conceived over a few beers between friends into a pillar of the alt-country community.

"We started out as just a fun little vanity project," Miller recalled. "[We said,] 'Let's do this for the pure love of the music, consequences be damned. We don't know what we're doing.' "

Warshaw said there were many bands in the Chicago scene at the time with some country elements. "[They] were playing in the rock bars that we went to," she said. "The idea came up of putting out a compilation just to capture the scene. And we got excited by it."

With the 1994 release of that collection For a Life of Sin, Bloodshot was born. The early days were lean, as Warshaw and Miller tried to stabilize their balance sheet — and more importantly, establish their sound.

In The Beginning

"When we started," Miller said, "we wanted to carve out a specific label identity. We all had labels in mind that we admired because they had a stylistic and aesthetic focus." He cited Sub Pop and Stax/Volt; Warshaw pointed to punk imprints like Amphetamine Reptile and Dischord.

Releases such as the Waco Brothers' Cowboy in Flames and the Old 97's' Wreck Your Life sold well (by Bloodshot standards), and the burgeoning alt-country phenomenon began to bubble up from the underground, bringing attention and acclaim to Bloodshot. That afforded Warshaw and Miller the opportunity to expand their vision for the label.

"In the early days, we put out a record when the record before had paid for itself," Miller said. "So we had to keep a very specific focus."

But even then, neither Miller nor Warshaw could have likely imagined the breadth and depth their roster would one day exhibit.

The last calendar year has seen Bloodshot release a pair of country-soul discs by a pair of country-soul divas — Neko Case's Furnace Room Lullaby (RealAudio excerpt of title track) and Kelly Hogan's Beneath the Country Underdog — as well as the second effort from the garage-rockers the Blacks, Just Like Home, and a slab of sob-in-yer-suds honky-tonk from Rex Hobart & the Misery Boys, Forever Always Ends, among others.

Now, Bloodshot is readying the ragtime juke-joint stomp of Devil in a Woodpile's Division Street for a July release and is looking forward to A Man in Full, the first studio full-length album since 1996 from the elegant, eloquent Texan Alejandro Escovedo.

Bloodshot pitched its tent at the confluence of country and rock and has flourished — despite the declamations of detractors.

"People [with] very hyperconservative, idealistic, 'this is what country music is' parameters have hated everything we've done," Miller said. "For some reason, in alternative-country, there are a lot of people who are self-proclaimed arbiters of authenticity who say, 'This is what can be country and this is what cannot.'

"I like to think that the people we work with bring something new to the idiom every time they try something, so it keeps the music vital and breathing and moving," Miller continued. "I would rather have our musicians out there trying something and failing — or upsetting a few people — than just putting out the same record over and over and over again."

Who's Counting?

Although Down to the Promised Land marks Bloodshot's five-year anniversary, the timing is less than precise: "It's actually six, but it took us a year to put the thing together," Miller said with a laugh.

Almost every artist and band in the Bloodshot stable — present (including Escovedo, who covers Mick Jagger's "Evening Gown," and the Waco Brothers, who tackle the Who's "Baba O'Riley") and past (Old 97's) — contribute to the 40-track compilation. Friends and admirers from the Supersuckers and Graham Parker to Johnny Dowd and Giant Sand pitch in, too.

When Warshaw and Miller founded Bloodshot with another partner, Eric Babcock (who later moved on to a stint at Checkered Past Records and last year started his own label, Catamount), they initially saw Bloodshot as an outlet for what was an unheralded Chicago scene. So it's only appropriate that Down to the Promised Land includes cuts from unsigned local acts Texas Rubies, Anna Fermin, Nora O'Connor, Chris Mills and Deanna Varagona — not to mention Bloodshot's own Chicago crew: the Blacks, Devil in a Woodpile, Kelly Hogan and Robbie Fulks (who penned "Bloodshot's Turning 5" for the occasion).

Down to the Promised Land also includes "Monday Night," a solo turn by Whiskeytown frontman Ryan Adams. Adams' upcoming solo disc, Heartbreaker, which features instrumental and vocal backing from Gillian Welch, David Rawlings and Emmylou Harris, is slated for release on Bloodshot in early September.