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Bloodkin: Cutthroat Blues

Bloodkin
Cutthroat Blues

by James Calemine

The music business is a cruel and
shallow money trench, a long plastic
hallway where thieves and pimps run free,
and good men die like dogs. There’s also
a negative side.
Hunter S. Thompson

The truth was obscure, too profound and too pure,
to live it you had to explode.
In the last hour of need, we entirely agreed,
sacrifice was the code of the road.
Bob Dylan


A scent of wood smoke floats in the cool October Athens, Georgia breeze. Autumn descends in these foothills where leaves transform into vivid yellow, orange, and scarlet colors, an overcast sky looms, and sounds of a distant train evoke some vague nostalgia during another shifting season. Out on Chase Street in Transduction Studios, Daniel Hutchens sits on a couch near the soundboard console listening to a playback of his band’s newest songs. This evening Hutchens’ band, Bloodkin, complete final touches on an album scheduled for release in the spring of 2002.

Bloodkin exist on an obscure musical tightrope. No curse of sudden fame haunt this under-rated group. They’ve forged on writing songs, performing shows with ruthless determination for over fifteen years, and ignoring the fickle music industry while many talent-less bands became superstars. Bloodkin’s self-released fifth album, The Bloodkin Community Gospel Rehab, on Pretty Mean Records hit the streets in late September of 2001. This dark, introspective record required almost two years to complete and arguably stands as the band’s strongest work.



Hutchens’ black hair grays at the temples. He glances at his longtime songwriting partner, Eric Carter, who is dressed in torn & frayed Levi's, a Gonzo tee shirt, running shoes, and the ever-present tennis hat, while producer David Barbe silences all tracks on a particular song except one gritty guitar solo. Many years on the musical ‘lost highway’ transpired since these rotgut troubadours wrote their first song.

Hutchens and Carter began playing music together almost twenty-five years ago in Ripley, West Virginia. They moved to Athens in the 1986. In 1994, the Athens band Widespread Panic covered a Bloodkin song, “Can’t Get High”, that climbed to #27 on the Billboard charts.

These days Bloodkin seems almost comfortable with their niche’ in the music world. After all these lean years of playing in bars and clubs while enduring the treacherous balance of keeping straight jobs to survive, Bloodkin’s primary source of music recognition originates from their songwriting. The band’s live dynamic solidified in 1999 when Hutchens and Carter were joined by drummer Bentley Rhodes and Athens music pro, bassist Paul “Crumpy” Edwards. Not long ago, Hutchens told me, “there are bands that get record deals and it destroys the band. The way things are now, with the Internet and everything, the technology has gotten to the point where if you do it right--you can almost do it yourself; at least to a certain point. Now, if someone really started to take off in a mainstream sense, then you have to hand out some responsibility.”

In 2000 Bloodkin recorded a live album, All Dolled Up, at Smith’s Olde Bar in Atlanta, Georgia, for the record label Phoenix Presents Series. Unfortunately, a current legal battle concerning ownership of the Phoenix Media Group prohibits any sale of All Dolled Up, increasing Bloodkin’s ongoing struggle.

For two weeks this July in spirit of extreme restlessness, with the new Rehab album complete, the band recorded these latest gritty, adrenaline-laced songs in the basement of, Widespread Panic bassist, Dave Schools’ home. Between playbacks in the dim-lit studio, quiet talk of the band’s plans and intentions surface amid legal, personal, and professional tribulation sniffing like a hellhound on Bloodkin’s trail, and Eric Carter remarked, “yeah, we’re always behind the eight ball...”


II


Daniel Hutchens was eight when he met a six year old Eric Carter through a neighbor in Ripley, West Virginia. The boys connected immediately sharing an interest in comic books, baseball, and rock and roll music. A few years later their fascination in music expanded as Hutchens began playing guitar, and Carter started out on drums. “He was a good drummer——then his parents bought him a guitar, and the drums sort of went out the window,” laughed Hutchens.

As teenagers, they moved to Huntington, West Virginia. Hutchens described their early days of playing together, “when Eric graduated from high school, we both went to Marshall University. Then, we got our first real band together and started playing out in Huntington. It was real fun. There was no place to play, but a little scene started happening around original music night in this place called ‘the Monarch Cafe’. Every band had a forty-minute set with seven or eight bands a night. For a year, that’s what we did every Wednesday——that was our gig.”

Soon they grew restless and moved again. Carter elucidated on the geographic relocations, “Huntington really started drying out. Danny actually moved back home, and I was still in Huntington. My parents got a divorce, and my brother and I moved with my mom to Myrtle Beach. Then I got Danny a job. There was nothing in West Virginia for us personally or musically. Every time I moved, it was farther south. As far as playing out, we didn’t do much in Myrtle Beach, but we did a lot far as writing and getting our own style. We were in Myrtle Beach probably five or six months. Then we moved to Athens in July of 86.”

Moving to Athens, home of the University of Georgia, brought a welcome change. “Essentially, for five or six years Bloodkin was Eric and I being songwriting partners and we’d occasionally go out and play shows. It’s not like we were on the road or on tour, it was more of a songwriting thing, and the live shows were parties. We were just learning how to do it. We didn’t really start playing out live as much for a good number of years. Coming from Huntington, I mean, Athens was literally a place where you could get a band together and play your own songs any night of the week. So, to us Athens was like heaven,” Hutchens told me.

During the fall and winter of 1988, Hutchens and Carter recorded songs on a borrowed four-track machine and circulated a tape titled Start From Scratch. This demo included some of Bloodkin’s earliest and best known compositions such as stripped versions of “Privilege”, “Can’t Get High”, “Quarter Tank of Gasoline”, and “Wet Trombone Blues” among others.

Around town, Hutchens and Carter started keeping time with friends from another Athens band, Widespread Panic. Several years later, Panic recorded a Hutchens song, “Makes Sense To Me”, on their second album. Exposure from Panic covering one of his tunes allowed Hutchens space to compose songs with songwriter, Jerry Joseph in Portland, Oregon. “Capricorn Records had the idea”, Hutchens explained, “because they were thinking about signing Jerry Joseph, and they heard my songs through Panic. For whatever reason, Phil Walden had the notion that Jerry and I should write songs together. Nothing ever came of that with Capricorn, but I hung out with Jerry for a week and wrote like 8 or 9 songs.”

It was during this era in Bloodkin lore, early 1991, when I met Danny and Eric in Athens. The foundation of this rare friendship existed on a mutual dedication to our crafts along with shared appreciation for literary and musical artists such as Jack Kerouac, Bob Dylan, and the Rolling Stones. We also shared another, more surreal, connection since I too have blood kin from West Virginia. What I really loved about them was they were the first people I ever met, my age, fiendish as I was about music and literature, besides cultivating their own craft.

Soon Hutchens traveled with ex-Velvet Underground drummer, Moe Tucker, as bassist in her band, and he also played on several of her solo albums. A year later Hutchens served as Sterling Morrison’s guitar technician on the Velvet Underground reunion tour.

In early 1992, Bloodkin played more scheduled live dates, with Aaron Phillips as the drummer and Chris Barrineau playing bass, all along compiling a dense song catalogue. Later that year Danny, Eric, and I moved into a decrepit apartment building #C6, located near downtown Athens which became a productive period for Hutchens and Carter since living together allowed them to devote immediate time towards songwriting.

Around the apartment, they recorded songs on a four-track machine. In time, after recording sessions or practicing their own material while the instruments were still warm, I’d read poetry, psalms, or stories as they provided a musical landscape around the words. These sessions gave birth to what we refer to as the Fandango Brothers in spirit of Kerouac, and the tradition of fusing spoken word with music. Years earlier, Danny and Eric backed-up Allen Ginsberg on two separate poetry readings at Charleston University in West Virginia. We often recorded these spoken word sessions at apartment C6, but the first live reading as the Fandango Brothers occurred at Bloodkin’s release party for their first album, Good Luck Charm.

In late 1993, Bloodkin began recording an album with longtime Allman Brothers Band producer, Johnny Sandlin, who orchestrated Widespread Panic’s 1993 album, Everyday. Hutchens elaborated on the nature of Bloodkin’s first record: “He (Sandlin) set up a little record label of his own, and we made an album with him in Decatur, Alabama; it was Good Luck Charm. That record was like going to school for us. That was learning how to make a record, because, y’know, it’s Johnny Sandlin. We’d never been in a real studio before, and he taught us how to do it. That’s the only way you can learn——you can’t go to some college and learn that. Good Luck Charm is Johnny Sandlin’s version of a good Bloodkin record.” There were few recent compositions on Good Luck Charm——many songs existed from the old demo, Start from Scratch.

Widespread Panic recorded two more Hutchens tunes, “Henry Parsons Died” on their Everyday CD and “Can’t Get High” on the band’s 1994 album Ain’t Life Grand, besides gradually rotating over a half-dozen Bloodkin songs in their live repertoire. Panic’s rendition of the Hutchens/Carter song “Can’t Get High” rose to #27 on the Billboard charts. Widespread Panic shot a video for the song, but one story circulating around the inner circle revealed a PR guy forgot to show up at the MTV offices to deliver the video, which, consequently, never saw the light of day. Eric Carter recently told me: “I realized all it takes is a matter of minutes and one person to make a difference between twenty thousand copies sold or two million. Like Todd Nance (Panic drummer) said, ‘if this damn video would’ve gotten into the right hands at the right time, you guys would never be working in restaurants again.’”

For the next several years, the band continued a productive songwriting period. In the spring of ‘95, they started recording sessions in the C6 kitchen for what became their second album, Creeperweed. This album emerged in 1996 marking Bloodkin’s first self-released record on their new label, Pretty Mean Records. In many ways, Creeperweed’s spontaneous acoustic nature served as a polar opposite to the first electric record, a very structured, Good Luck Charm. The band hit a weird apex during those Creeperweed sessions operating in a zone where no separation existed between one’s daily life and the songs such as the one-take instrumental classic, “Mercy Train To Bogart”.

The chemistry between Hutchens and Carter border on musical telepathy from two decades of playing music together. Eric Carter is a rare breed. A consummate cynical humorist, who once practiced a stand up comedy routine in West Virgina, inspired by an early idol, Lenny Bruce. Carter’s guitar playing is the backbone of Bloodkin’s music.

Carter’s guitar tone resonates a thick aggressive sound. His dexterity reaches from slide guitar zeniths descending into depths of sad-hearted country twangs. Knowing him all these years, he really reminds me of an old blues guitarist from the forties. He doesn’t own a credit card. He lives at no permanent mailing address. No phone. He doesn’t drive, but he possesses a golden ear. He can hear any song on the radio and play it back to you on the guitar. His guitar playing is a direct result of his character.

Bloodkin’s style is a mean, wicked sound. They cannot be categorized as a “jam band”. Although, they stretch songs into free-flowing interludes within the composition, no noodling jams mar their music. The nexus of Bloodkin can be discovered in all its glory in smoke-filled, low ceiling bars on a Saturday night. Comparisons are odious, but the band prefers a hard-bitten musical angle like, the Rolling Stones, as opposed to, say, the Grateful Dead. The solid rhythm section of Bentley Rhodes on drums and the mighty “Crumpy” Edwards on thundering bass guitar augment the group’s live dimension.

Hutchens is a true songwriting craftsman. Many nights I’d sit in our dim-lit kitchen at the cheap metal-frame table facing my typewriter as Dan sat alone in his room or with Eric singing and composing songs. Hutchens once told me writing lyrics for songs was essentially stringing a combination of one-liners together. Sharp imagery from his song “Paying What I Owe” distinguishes an example:

I stole the kisses when the bride was young
hid the razor blade beneath my tongue
stuck my shovel in a shallow grave
sold myself one sad and wicked slave
but I ain’t got time for fun and games no more
I’m staying in my hotel room lock the door
tomorrow I’ll be on the bus again
I will call the faithful driver my best friend
here I go
paying what I owe

I made commotions in a quiet town
spilled the purple wine all down her wedding gown
when the son starts speaking in tongues he’s cast away
but he just might make it back someday
so every Sunday morning I’m dressing in red
no shoes on my feet, Godalmighty, but a top hat on my head
and on my shirt the painted butterfly
you know you’re never gonna come clean until you die
so here I go
paying what I owe

A dark song from the new Community Gospel Rehab called “Limb From Limb” stands as a soul searing testimony—— perhaps Hutchens’ most revealing lyrics:

the preacher at my church told me
you better stand up to temptation
it’s a stupid hallucination
your own shadow you’re chasing
it’s like the last minute
of the longest night
it’s like the last drink in the bottle
and suddenly your mind is a maze of mirrors
and the sun is coming up full throttle
and more just makes you want more
but when you run out you know for sure

she gonna tear you limb from limb
rip and tear you

another beautiful face
with a wicked little grin
and a knife stashed under her pillow
in her red velvet room her voice “come on in”
sounds like a breeze through the weeping willow
it’s a dream whorehouse and she kicks you out
in the morning so you crawl to another
and another and another and another and
when you forget what it means to fall in love

she’s gonna tear you limb from limb
rip and tear you

at the gospel tent in New Orleans
I finally learned to pray
learned I’d been doing it all along
I’d been doing it every day
but at the tent there I finally tuned it in
just like learning to sing again
and the preacher that day was Pop Staples
and I think about him when I’m able
the little hymns he sang so pure and tough
said, Only God can get you high enough
and now that sermon seems so far from here
but I’d better wake up and shake my head clear
cause I can find a new preacher every day
to tell me, Son if you don’t change your ways

she’s gonna tear you limb from limb
rip and tear you


By 1997, we all moved out of apartment C6. A new era dawned for Bloodkin as inner turmoil mounted by the time they recorded and released a third album in 1999, Out Of State Plates. Once this hard-edged electric album was complete, drummer Jack Dawson refused to go on the road leading the band to recruit Bentley Rhodes for an upcoming tour in Colorado manager Zac Weil booked that summer.

Soon, long-time bassist Chris Barrineau decided he no longer wanted to remain in the band. Carter explained the group’s live dilemma, “that’s when I picked up the phone and hired Paul “Crumpy” Edwards, because he wasn’t playing. I called him and told him we’ve got 20-25 gigs booked in Colorado in two weeks, and we need a bass player, and he’s played with us before. He said he’d do it. It was the most this band practiced in years. We practiced four hours every day for a week. We did twenty shows out there in thirty days, and we’ve played a lot of shows since then.”

Hutchens remarked on changes within the band, “the line-up we have now, Eric and I with “Crumpy” and Bentley, since the summer of 99, that really is the live version of Bloodkin. We’ve played more shows in that period of time since 1994."

In October of 1999, Bloodkin began recording another album shaping up as an acoustic collection of songs already titled The Bloodkin Community Gospel Rehab. In April of 2000, a personal setback dampened the band’s spirit when manager Zac Weil died. He worked for Bloodkin three years, and his death only stirred more chaos within the camp. The group fought personal distractions and while continuing work on Rehab, they received a particular offer to record a live album.

So in September of 2000, Bloodkin recorded a performance at Smith’s Olde Bar in Atlanta, Georgia, for what became, All Dolled Up, a twelve-song collection capturing the genuine spirit of the band, but misfortune soon struck again. Hutchens told me, “we recorded that live record last year, and it was another example of how being with a record company can be problematic. That record company put that live record out; it was doing great——it just about broke even after like two months. Then they got into this legal dispute over who owns the record company. Now, a year later, they say we can’t legally sell the record! This is still in court. It was like, fuck that, we’ll make our own records. That was the last straw——we’re gonna do it ourselves until someone can get it together and do it right.”


III


For a year and a half, Bloodkin sporadically recorded their fifth album The Bloodkin Community Gospel Rehab. Many changes occurred during this time frame, and the project transformed since its inception as new electric songs appeared replacing several original acoustic numbers. Rehab, officially released in September 2001, combines a dark, introspective collection of redemptive songs dealing with love, death, addiction, change, and getting older while the band commands a deeper, more soulful sound. This 45-minute album reveals a vulnerable underbelly in Bloodkin’s usual slashing blend of rock and roll containing definitive Hutchens songs such as a country classic “Love’s Getting Older”, speed freaked “Bookends”, confessional “Limb From Limb”, and the lowdown “Jazz Funeral”. A collage of sounds flavor the album with additional musical ingredients of dobro, pedal steel, piano, and special guests William Tonks, Bill McKay, John Neff, and Todd Nance appear on the album.

Buy Bloodkin's Community Gospel Rehab at AMAZON.COM

Booked tour dates for Bloodkin support the new Rehab CD throughout the winter into next year. In October, Carter and Hutchens joined Widespread Panic onstage in New Orleans for an annual voodoo celebration. The new hard-edged Bloodkin record is due out in April 2002, which Carter mentioned, “this new record was done really fast under a deadline, although we could’ve gotten more time, we really looked at it like ‘we have to get to work’ instead of waiting. So that was kinda cool. It’s definitely more upbeat than Rehab, which was made with some outside stresses going on. This new untitled record is the closest thing to our Exile On Main Street, just the rawness of the mood. It’s more upbeat.”

Various projects linger on the horizon involving these musical underdogs such as Bloodkin music in the Hansen Brothers new Widespread Panic documentary, The Earth Will Swallow You, along with songs on the new Panic DVD, Live at Oak Mountain 2000. Hutchens sings on a song called “Crime & Punishment” on an upcoming Jerry Joseph album for Terminus Records. Also in January 2002, Bloodkin plans a short tour with Panic drummer Todd Nance’s sideband, Barbara Cue. Carter and Bloodkin bassist “Crumpy” Edwards (also bassist for Barbara Cue) most likely will perform with Panic’s keyboardist Jojo Hermann’s Smiling Assassin band, including Cody and Luther Dickinson from the North Mississippi All Stars, for a few upcoming southern shows.

In late October and early November, Hutchens recorded a solo album and informed me of his plans for the near future. He stated, “with the solo record, things are still somewhat up in the air, but it’ll come out before the new Bloodkin record in 2002. It looks like it might come out in January or February and during that time from February to April, I’ll be touring in some manner for the solo record. It’ll be aimed more towards singer/songwriter showcases in acoustic clubs; places that lean towards that sort of thing as opposed to bigger, rowdy rock and roll clubs. I’m sure there will be some opening gigs as well. It will definitely be interesting. This solo thing is something that’s been hanging there for a while. It’s like a challenge to myself, because I won’t have the big revved-up Bloodkin vehicle behind me. It’ll be just me with a guitar and the songs. The songs will stand on their own or not.”

When questioned about Bloodkin traveling on a weary musical road where talent doesn’t necessarily constitute the ability to earn a comfortable living, Carter responded, “it seems like it’s always been like that. This whole (music) business is kind of a joke. I was talking to Danny last night, and we were talking about when we were kids, like twenty-one or twenty-two. In those days, I still let girlfriends put mascara on me, whatever...assuming if the Rolling Stones were living on the French Rivera at thirty-two...we thought, well, ten more years, and we’ll be there. Now the way I look at it is, Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash are still going. William Burroughs didn’t write his first book until he was 45, although he had to kill his wife to do it, but y’know what I mean. We can’t look at things in the terms of, we’re not famous yet. We’ve had to learn to deal with that. Danny’s thirty-seven. I’ll be thirty-six next year. It’s way beyond age, which is good. Danny and I have told one another before how lucky we are that we never got famous at twenty-one or twenty-two because we wouldn’t be here right now. We’d be dead. So, I’m fine with this. I’d just like to have a little more cash. It’s all a matter of how you go about it. I really have no desire to make a video. Maybe a little documentary like you and I are talking about, a little film, but I don’t think videos are necessary.”

Hutchens remarked on the band’s immediate mission, “we’re playing places we’ve never played. What’s going on now, I feel like is we have the machinery in place. The whole assembly line. We go very efficiently into the studio to do a record, we mix it, master it, and tour. We have everything in place. We get offers from independent labels and so far there is no deal that beats what we’re doing. We have financiers. We have people to put up money and they give us a much better deal as far as how much we have to pay them compared to what a record company wants back. When someone approaches us with something that will benefit us, we’re ready, but we’re not gonna take a step backwards just to say we’re on a record label. Y’know, we’re in debt and it’s killing us, but we’re on a label....”

Bloodkin, no strangers to trouble or the unknown, press onward amid ruthless change, running the gauntlet in an evil cutthroat business, continuing to write enduring songs and perform in mean little juke joints and dives, perhaps, securing their position as the greatest rock and roll bar band in the world.

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