By James Calemine
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"That's what happens when a war is on
You keep your gun clean if you ever wanna see home."
With a renewed sense of rock and roll vigor, the band released Out of State Plates in 1997. Danny and Eric had cultivated a friendship with Athens sound guru David Barbe. Soon, they began making plans to record at Barbe's Transduction Studios. Today, Barbe serves as the Drive-By Truckers producer dating back to their breakthrough Southern Rock Opera in 2001 and also heads the University of Georgia’s Music Business Program. Back then, Barbe was a young engineer/producer who had played bass in the band Sugar. Barbe also worked with the other Athens sound guru, John Keane who recorded various Widespread Panic albums. Barbe and Bloodkin both shared the need to get back to rock and roll basics that defined Out of State Plates. Songs like "Lifer", "Taboo" and "Tennessee Williams" rotated for some time during live shows. Danny wrote "Tennessee Williams" with bassist Chris Barrineau. Older songs such as "Yeah" and "Wet Trombone Blues" emerged on this recording.
The sense of rebirth also came from the group's new manager, Zac Weil. Zac was a champion for Bloodkin. He was an accessory to whatever endeavor was transpiring at the time. Out of State Plates --once again--suffered from a lack of record label, but Zac was not deterred. He set up some gigs in Colorado playing with Govt Mule. He looked for anything and everything to keep the creative momentum based on Out of State Plates moving onward. Zac was a great figure in the Bloodkin camp. He championed their music, but at the same time he enabled and shared some of their self-destructive habits.
In 1998, Widespread Panic played a free show in Athens, Georgia. Widespread was covering at least a half dozen Bloodkin songs by now. Bloodkin played the after show party along with Gov't Mule at the 40 Watt. Another glorious evening. Panic earned the Guinness Book of World Record for attendance of an outdoor CD release party for Light Fuse Get Away when 100,000 people showed up in the streets of Athens. The next weekend Danny served as one of the groomsmen in my wedding. This was an intense time of transition for the band. Barrineau departed the group. I was living in Atlanta and felt a little distant from it all. Panic had now reached a level of success that transcended the musical community of Athens. Eerie realities loomed. There was a changing of the guards.
Things began to fray a bit in 1999. The group was wearing and tearing and a slow burn of deterioration emanated this era. Disillusion. Panic reached a level where their success kept them on the road, and they were rarely home in Athens.
I was now married and working a job in Atlanta while writing for various magazines such as Hittin the Note, An Honest Tune, PASTE, The Woody Creeker, Gritz and the Georgia Music Magazine. Zac began to become a little lost. He came to grips with certain rock & roll illusions and realities. I remember him telling me he was moving to North Carolina to pursue a computer job. He died a week later in April of 2000. I was at his house the morning the paramedics carried him away. I wrote an obituary for him.
In the fall of 2000, Bloodkin recorded a show at Smith's Olde Bar in Atlanta that later emerged as an out of print record called All Dolled Up. I read the introduction to this album onstage, and wrote the liner notes. Change again floated in the air like smoke, but we were all still here. My daughter was born the next month. All Dolled Up really captures the live spirit of Bloodkin, but it soon went out of print. It was another example of a dirty deal regarding a label that pandered to the jam band scene, and Bloodkin became caught in the proverbial record company legal hassle. Professional frustration seemed to begin appearing at every turn.
Danny explained the situation in liner notes for One Long Hustle:
...We recorded and released a live CD called All Dolled Up, on Phoenix Records out of New York. We recorded the show on September 1, 2000 at Smith's Olde Bar in Atlanta, and the disc came out a few months later, in December. It sold really well by our standards for the first 3 or 4 months, until the record company imploded in a shady haze of legal infighting and greed and bullshit. We were handcuffed from even selling records at shows--that's when we fully and finally decided to avoid "real" record companies as much as possible.
On this live CD they covered a song I turned them onto years before--Eddie Hinton's "Breakfast In Bed"--as well as memorable versions of "Payin What I Owe", "Who Do You Belong To" and "End of the Show". Bill McKay played keyboards on this album. It's an out-of-print gem in the Bloodkin discography. Dark clouds gathered for the new millennium.
"The truth is the truth/ But the law is the law..."
Zac's death sent them reeling. Times changed. To me, the band really got back into songwriting at this point. The songcraft during this period retained a little more heart and wisdom. No smoke & mirrors. A new maturity emerged. Danny was getting out there a little bit more now. Chris Barrineau left the band and Paul "Crumpy" Edwards filled in on bass. David Barbe served as a serious anchor for the band during this time. The band was working on Community Gospel Rehab songs while Zac was still alive. I remember Danny gave me a cassette of these songs before they were mastered. The rough piano version of "Limb From Limb" still almost sounds good to me as the final rendition. And Danny changed a line to the original tune, which I still hear when I listen to the album track. These songs were recorded from October of 1999-April 2001. There was a bit of strangeness going on within the band, but by this time I was gone. I didn't see how it was going on a daily basis anymore, but I was no fool. The road began to grind on them a little bit. Years and years of traveling to bars to play until 3 am, load equipment, get paid, stay coherent and then go sleep in a hotel and drive another 300 miles a few hours later to the next gig wears one down year after year. It's not for the weak of heart...or those who are in it for the wrong reasons.
I consider Community Gospel Rehab as a formidable album. Most bands can't write songs like this at all their entire careers. William Tonks played a strong musical role in these songs. He's an expert of the highest order regarding any instrument with strings. "Jazz Funeral", "Love's Getting Older" and "Limb From Limb" rank as some of their finest material. A maturity aged with the music. "Kingly" was written for Zac. These were all basically newer songs. Maybe only one or two of these songs linger from the Apartment C6 days. An eerie darkness from festering habits stained all actions. As Bob Dylan sang, you could “Smell the tail of the dragon...”
With Zac went the last shot at the brass ring. Now the brass ring had to be redefined on Bloodkin’s terms. They had to keep making records even if no one could find them to buy outside of Athens record stores and at the merch table of a Bloodkin show. They began recording Raving Beauties at Widespread Panic bassist Dave Schools' home studio in Athens. Onward. I remember standing next to Danny in the vocal booth of a studio set up in Schools’ house when he sang "Cheap Speed", which was an older song from what I remember. Raving Beauties almost seemed like they were on autopilot. As far as rock bands go--for any other band--this was a solid record; for Bloodkin it sounded like they were sleepwalking to me.
Danny provided a clear glimpse of the band's state of affairs around this era when he revealed in the One Long Hustle liner notes:
During the making of Raving Beauties we accepted help from several investors, and by the end of the day we were nearly $75,000 in debt. Before the record was released, Crumpy told us he wouldn't be able to go on tour except regionally on weekends. There were no hard feelings, he just couldn't do it. What really bothered me was that Eric said, 'Well, who cares, we just won't tour," although we were already signed with a booking agency and the tour was halfway booked. We called up the agency, said, "Sorry," and canceled, wrecking our prospects for working with any professional booking agency for years to come.
Trouble brewed in the Bloodkin camp.
After September 11, 2001--as we all know--history shifted. Changed. Everything on a global level was different. Complicated times. Welcome to the 21st century...
"The preacher at my church told me you better not fuck crazy women/You're pissing away your passion."
"Limb From Limb"
In 2002, Widespread Panic's lead guitarist Michael Houser was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. A weird melancholy fell on anyone around the Bloodkin, Widespread Panic or the Athens music community. Michael Houser's Door Harp resonated during these times. Danny was asked to sing on Houser's album Sandbox before his death. These melancholy sessions were recorded at David Barbe's. Danny started living in Atlanta around this time, and his songs took on another expansive quality. Time changes everyone, and knowing them as long as I did...they remained the same, but I could see things affecting them like they affect us all...heartbreak, death, lack of funds, boredom, frustration, demons and betrayal.
Bloodkin knew what it felt like to have other people listen to your music, and act like they weren't...or say they were and weren't. We all knew they were great songwriters...but when you look out there at some of the bands people were just throwing their money at, it was just disheartening. But, there's the way it ought to be, and there's the way it is. Being an artist in the old days meant you don't receive accolades for your trade. Only in the rock & roll era of the Beatles, Stones and Dylan did artists get put on a pedestal and paid. Art, like any other commodity, you have to put it out there. For most artists, death is a great career move. People can choose to like it or not. No one is above criticism. Everyone is a music fan. Or everyone has a journal they write in. Anyone is a music fan with strong opinions regarding what's good and what's not. But that's like watching a football game on TV, and saying you could have completed that pass. Panic's bassist, Dave Schools, once told me regarding being an artist and catching attitude from some drunk, civilian or redneck, "There's always one asshole in the back of the room with his arms crossed, saying 'I could do that.' Well you know what? You ain't doin' it..."
Panic's Michael Houser died in August of 2002. Everything seemed surreal. Distance between everything and everyone seemed to reign. As aforementioned, Danny was living in Atlanta where Bloodkin was playing more gigs in the city. Since I also lived in Atlanta we spent a good bit of time together during this time when we could. Danny was writing songs for what was to become Lesser that came out in 2003. This Daniel Hutchens solo record contains several of my favorite songs of his like "Shebang Delang", “Orchard" and "Modigliani Eyes". The entire mood of this collection of songs still resonates. I remember reading Danny the liner notes I wrote to Lesser to him at his girlfriend's house while he was laying in the bed. The sun was already down as I read.
Later, Danny made another solo record called Lovesongs For Losers. Tension emanated in the Bloodkin camp during this time. Fragmentation. The next couple of years pervaded a reflection, reconstruction, tension and dealing with the way things were at the time. Everyone was strung out. Burned out. I remember Eric becoming reluctant to hit the road around this time. I was glad to be distant from the day to day grind so they were always happy to see me when I'd come to visit because dissent on all sides was in the air between them. The wheel grinded on into the gloomy unknown.
"We kept stripping and singing Hoping the money'd roll in/I guess I'd do it all again."
--"Another Lost Son of Gypsy Rose Lee"
By 2004-2005, a new dynamic rotated for everyone involved. David Nickel joined the group on bass. Danny wrote of Bloodkin during this time: "We were like a mobile psychiatric ward, pharmacy and rock n roll band all rolled into one." A new political, personal and artistic vibration filled the air. They returned to David Barbe's studio to record Last Night Out. Two of their greatest songs are on this album--"Another Lost Son of Gypsy Rose Lee" and the title track retain a real spook. Patterson Hood had a quote about this album sounding like the ended of the road for Bloodkin, and it took him to "a place he didn't want to spend too much time."
By this time, the Drive By Truckers--now a high profile Athens band--commanded a respect in the industry. They were certainly the darlings of the underground press. The Truckers seemed to fill the void or took the path Bloodkin paved for years to a much more significant destination. Although the Widespread Panic/Bloodkin connection remains important in both bands’ histories, their connection comes through songs and songwriting. Bloodkin as a band were never a perfect fit in Panic’s jam band audience. Patterson and the Truckers drove straight into the indie world and built a home there for blue-collar southern rock bands that had strong punk leanings.
I had found a new home of my own in 2006 as editor and contributor to Swampland.com. Amongst my music writings for the site, I saw the rise of the Truckers and how their audience differed from Widespread Panic’s. I’d watched Luther and Cody Dickinson form the North Mississippi Allstars, a band that consistently provides a gritty dose of rock and blues, but like Bloodkin, they were slightly out of place in the jam world of Panic. I wrote about all these bands and more, but I saw a purpose in Patterson and the Truckers that could not be denied. It reminded me of Bloodkin, and I could not help be but impressed with their tenacity.
As the Truckers’ built their audience, Bloodkin could only watch from the sidelines. Their records and shows seemed to come and go without anyone really paying attention even though the same Athens heavies such as Todd Nance, John Neff, David Barbe, Jon Mills and William Tonks couldn't wait to play on their songs. The next several years brought ruthless change, hard core realizations and neglect an artist feels when he's been doing something a long time, but it doesn't pay off. They hit a wall. Torn & frayed, indeed. In a mysterious turn of events, Danny got married and eventually started a family. The Saturday morning Danny got married--we were in his Memphis hotel, dressed for the wedding at Graceland--I told him I was getting a divorce. Those are not the best circumstances to inform a person of such events unless you were truly brothers. Danny and I switched roles, and Eric continued to drift farther into the sea of full-blown alcoholism. Things were not the way they used to be anymore. Fallout & aftermath was all around. By 2007-2008, you could feel everyone was operating in uncharted territory.
In 2008, the band could no longer remain silent regarding Eric's drinking. He coughed up blood one night in Jacksonville, Florida, and they basically said "you've got to get help cos you're scaring the fuck out of us." With Danny married and doing solo albums and Eric facing rehab, Bloodkin found its rock bottom.