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By Peter Margasak
March 10, 2000
After moving from Atlanta to Chicago in early 1997, Kelly Hogan vowed to stay out of bands until she paid off her debts: for years, as the only credit-card-carrying member of the Jody Grind and then the Rock*a*Teens, she'd ponied up for everything from van repairs to motel bills. But she was still making monthly payments when, at the urging of Empty Bottle owner Bruce Finkelman, she hit the stage that November for a hastily organized performance with Brett Sparks of the Handsome Family; a few weeks later she began working with fellow Atlanta transplant John Forbes, then the leader of Mount Shasta. Within a year, she was singing with half the roster of Bloodshot records. One thing led to another, and next month Bloodshot will release Beneath the Country Underdog, her album with the Pine Valley Cosmonauts.
Hogan, 35, is a natural singer. She can nail pop songs, country songs, soul songs, blues songs, jazz songs, and rock songs with equal aplomb; she has remarkable range and great reserves of power and sass. She's been singing as long as she can remember, harmonizing with songs on the radio and playing DJ with her father's collection of soul 45s. She practiced the art of mike handling by singing into a curling iron after school, and finally took it to the stage in seventh grade, when she auditioned for the school chorus with a rousing a cappella version of "Tomorrow."
"At the same time I liked Annie I also liked Kiss and Barry Manilow," says Hogan. "I was a nerd but I always liked the juvie guys." She accumulated a good number of hard rock and heavy metal recordsVan Halen, AC/DC, Billy Squier, and the likebut after a friend gave her a Billie Holiday album "to save me from myself," she says, she sold them all to a guy for five bucks.
Hogan hung out in jazz clubs after high school, but did most of her own singing in wedding bands until she met fellow musical eccentric Bill Taft, a guitarist who ushered her into Atlanta's twisted art-punk scene, which at the time included Forbes's ugly-rock band Dirt and confrontational Lisa Suckdog associates Freedom Puff. Taft and Hogan formed the Jody Grind, juggling rootsy material, lounge jazz, torch songs, and jump blues with punkish esprit. After two albums the band was doing moderately well, but in 1992 drummer Robert Clayton and bassist Robert Hayes died in a van accident, and Hogan and Taft decided the Jody Grind couldn't survive the loss.
Several years later Hogan surfaced playing one-string guitar riffs and yowling unhinged backing vocals in the raucous Rock*a*Teens, and in 1996 she released her first solo album, The Whistle Only Dogs Can Hear (Long Play), a raw but lovable mess that couched her far-ranging tastes in noisy indie rock. Most of the songs had been written with Taft, but ace guitarist Andy Hopkins, who then played in the eclectic acoustic punk trio Flap, took care of the guitar on the record. The next year, encouraged by a string of enjoyable Chicago gigs both with the Rock*a*Teens and on her own, she moved here.
"I wanted to freak myself out, to scare myself," says Hogan. But she quickly found herself in comfortable surroundings, working as a publicist at Bloodshot. The familial atmosphere there led to invitations to appear on records by Alejandro Escovedo, the Sadies, the Waco Brothers, and the Pine Valley Cosmonauts, among others. By the end of 1998 she stopped working with Forbes and Mount Shasta drummer Jason Bensona lineup whose raw and woolly sound one fan dubbed the Judy Garland Blues Explosion. "I had made this vow to never have to scream over the music, and that was happening there," she says. Hopkins moved to Chicago in late '98, and by spring of last year they started gigging around town together, usually with Hogan's boyfriend, Mike Bulington of Grimble Grumble, on drums.
Hogan also kept playing with other friends, and after she contributed vocals (on "Drunkard's Blues") to the Pine Valley Cosmonauts' Bob Wills tribute album, Jon Langford decided to make her talents the focus of the band's next recordwhose working title he says was "The Pine Valley Cosmonauts Salute the Mystery and Exoticism of Kelly Hogan." Before the recording, Hogan gave notice at Bloodshot. "I didn't want to be working there while I was making that record," she says. "I was singing on other people's records and then I would end up typing my name on the press releases and it made me feel really goofy. Someone teased me by calling me the Puff Daddy of Bloodshot."
Joining Langford's usual crew were Neko Case, Robbie Fulks, Edith Frost, John Wesley Harding, and Deanna Varagona. Hogan and Langford agreed to focus on "southern music," exploring the intersection of country and soul. In the end, they wound up with three originals by Hogan and Hopkinsincluding the brassy soul stirrer "I Don't Believe in You," whose Stax-worthy horn part Hogan wrote in the showerand eight great interpretations of other people's songs. Hopkins and Forbes's "dueling guitars" lend a swampy ambience to the Willie Nelson gem "I Still Can't Believe You're Gone," and Hogan puts a jolt of vintage Tina Turner into the kitschy Conway Twitty and Loretta Lynn hit "Wild Mountain Berries," with Hopkins in a charming Twitty turn. She gospelizes Langford's "Mystery" and simply finesses her way through the Percy Sledge classic "Sudden Stop" with fine falsetto backing by Hopkins. "I don't know what he did with his nuts that day, but it really sounds great," she says.
The undeniable peak of the album, however, is an achingly spare cover of "Papa Was a Rodeo," a gorgeous country ballad by Stephin Merritt that also appears on Magnetic Fields' acclaimed 69 Love Songs. Hogan gives it emotional depth and melodic nuance missing in Merritt's typically sardonic reading. She heard Magnetic Fields perform it live last summer and was so riveted that by the end of the night she'd decided to record it. Problem was, Merritt's version hadn't been released yet, and wouldn't be until the Cosmonauts were in the studio. When 69 Love Songs finally arrived, Hogan bought it immediately, and the group learned the song on the spot.
Langford and Ken Sluiter's polished production on Beneath the Country Underdog still doesn't sit well with Hogan, who prefers her music rough and blemished, but she's getting used to it. "Halfway through I was freaking out about the way it was turning out," she says. "But I just figured I would learn how to make that shiny donkey brass ball record, and then later I'll do another scrappy-doo record, I hope." And although she'll be touring regularly for the next few months in support of the Cosmonauts disc, she's already plotting that record, which she says will emphasize her fondness for torch songs. "It will be weirder, wigglier, and emptier," says Hogan. "I'd like to get [fiddler] Andrew Bird to play on it, and have a piano player. And I'm doing some covert reconnaissance trips to places like Toulouse Cognac Bar."
Hogan and the Pine Valley Cosmonauts open for Anna Fermin's Trigger Gospel on Saturday at the Double Door; their official record-release party is Saturday, April 1, 2000 at the Hideout.