Jon Langford: Capturing The 'Atmosphere' of Country Music in Paint

Alt-country artist displays his paintings of country music heroes.

AUSTIN, Texas — For a quarter-century, songwriter/guitarist Jon Langford has enjoyed a loyal following for his music. Whether performing with the Mekons, the Waco Brothers, the Three Johns or on his own, Langford emerged from the punk scene playing music without any posture or pretension.

But Langford has recently also gained a following for his artwork — folk-art-like paintings that explore the tradition and heroes of country music. A selection of his latest works is now on display at Austin's Yard Dog Folk Art gallery.

"As an outsider and not being part of the [American] culture," the Welsh-born Langford said, "country music was something fairly exciting. I somehow found a lot of things in common with it I didn't expect to. I kind of realized there were a lot of parallels between what we did and what people like Merle Haggard, George Jones, that tough sort of honky-tonk, and Johnny Cash [did]."

Langford's paintings — acrylic paint, pencil and marker on plywood — depict images of Cash, Haggard, Hank Williams and other country music icons and imagery. While those stars of country music look proud in the paintings, there is always an element of sadness in them as well. Langford said this was part of what he was trying to communicate with them — about his shared experiences with this other culture and the music industry.

"I'm just trying to describe some of the atmosphere in the paintings — the music and the way the industry treated the people who made the music, which has a darker side," Langford said. "I'm just trying to come to terms with that.

"To some extent these paintings are classic country western singers," Langford continued, "but they're actually paintings of photographs of classic country western singers, which is kind of the point. They are [taken from] publicity photographs [which are] photographs used to sell a product. They are also kind of autobiographical in the experience of trying to make music and the way that music and words work together."

For the exhibition, Langford wrote lyrically about his own work: "Like rabbits frozen in history's headlights, they are trapped beneath layers of nicotine and neglect. Pearl buttons still gleam as they sign their contracts and stare out of the honky-tonk shadows with glazed promo-shot grins."

In the same way that the musicians he depicts, in his opinion, were chewed up by the industry and are now abandoned by mainstream country music, Langford feels popular music has abandoned the kind of music he plays.

"I've got this very big love-hate relationship with America," Langford said. "The culture in this country is just amazing. When I started to do these paintings, I couldn't believe how little the people I was in contact with knew about what had happened [musically] in this country over the last 50 years. It's amazing that it's a fringe thing to be interested in Bob Wills and Jimmy Rogers — it's just bizarre. Nothing is really valued here. Nothing is really given any respect, even though that's what I would be proud of if I was an American. People are just proud of money. It just drives me insane."

On the other hand, Langford thanks America, and especially Chicago, where he's lived for the last ten years, for giving him and his music a new lease on life.

"When I came to the States, I'd really kind of, like, given up," he recalled. "I wasn't interested in playing music, but then Chicago was great for me. There was pressure on me to keep doing things. In England the pressure was on me to go find a box to pull the lid down. It was like, 'You're 30, man, and you're still trying to play music. What the hell are you thinking?' But over here, I think we've done some of the best records for the Mekons and the Waco Brothers that I'd been involved in over the last five years."

With the Mekons' 1985 release, Fear and Whiskey, Langford and his band dove head-on into country music, abandoning their earlier explorations of the more avant-garde edge of punk rock. Their latest album, Journey to the End of Night, continues the band's journey into country folk traditions. He also released this year, along with fellow Mekon Sally Timms, a limited eight-song EP, Songs of False Hope and High Values.

"As long as people keep telling me I shouldn't be playing, I'll just keep at it," Langford said, laughing.

At the exhibition's opening on Saturday evening, Langford treated the packed crowd to a 20-minute set in the backyard of the gallery, both he and the audience momentarily forgetting the low 40-degree temperature outside as his voice and guitar pierced the night air.

The exhibit of Langford's work will continue at Yard Dog through the end of December.