Running mates

A harmonizing duo is the foundation of Freakwater's Kentucky soul music.

It wasn't exactly an announcement of her candidacy, but Freakwater's Catherine Irwin did speak of political aspirations at a recent show at New York's Mercury Lounge. She declared her love for her home state, Kentucky, and her desire to run for governor. Believing this to be merely between-song banter, I asked Irwin about it a few months later in a phone conversation. Her response was not what I expected. "Oh, I think about it all the time," she said, laughing. "I haven't made any progress though."


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Just what kind of platform would one half of Freakwater's harmonizing duo have? "Just everything right and good. No gambling casinos, more horse racing . . . and hemp, lots of hemp. Marijuana is the no. 1 cash crop of our state. Kentucky would be a boomtown based on that. And I could live in the gubernatorial mansion.... The beautiful thing is that I want to be the governor of Kentucky and Janet [Beveridge Bean, Freakwater's other singer/guitarist] wants to be the People's Princess. At least her job is empty now."

The release of Freakwater's latest record, Springtime (Thrill Jockey), finds Freakwater poised to make some type of run, if not political. The long haul, perhaps. Having come up in the early '80s Louisville punk scene, Irwin and Bean (also a member of Chicago's Eleventh Dream Day with husband Rick Rizzo) are on their 15th year of singing together. Along with bassist/chain smoker David Gay, they have put out five long-players since 1987. On Springtime, the addition of multi-instrumentalist Max Johnston (formerly of Uncle Tupelo and Wilco) gives Freakwater its fullest sound yet.

Its music has been tagged with labels such as No Depression, alt-country, and y'alternative, but Freakwater is best enjoyed by checking your cynicism at the door, ordering a cold beer, and letting Irwin's and Bean's voices wash over you. One leads, the other joins in, and their soaring harmony makes you shiver, like seeing the ghost of Hank Williams in the backseat of a Cadillac.

Springtime opens with acoustic guitars, plucking banjo, and thumping stand-up bass. Then comes the soul shot: Irwin and Bean's trademark harmonizing. Both have the kind of voices that ache and crack with emotion. "A shotgun never shot no one when it's hanging on the wall/A shotgun never shot no one when it's hanging on the wall/I got itchy fingers and you got knees to crawl... " yelps Irwin on the opener, "Picture in My Mind," a song reminiscent of the early work of Johnny Cash.

At a time when popular music is dominated by one-hit wonders, samples, and drum machines, Freakwater is impossibly human, its brand of soul music, timeless. No surprise that the word "authentic" is often used to describe the band, but Irwin balks at the idea. "It's awkward for me and Janet when people accuse us of carrying some torch that was about to be extinguished, like we're the last of the true country singers... I mean, I don't feel like a fraud, but I feel I would be equally authentic if I was playing in a Toto cover band.

"I don't know what the authentic folk music for someone from my demographic is," Irwin continues. "I know it's something pretty ugly. Is it Black Oak Arkansas? 'Cuz I remember hearing a lot of that growing up . . . and that's fine. We try to incorporate elements of that in what we do," she says with a laugh.

On the song "Louisville Lip," about her town's (now) favorite son, Muhammad Ali, Irwin tells the story (true or folklore) of the Greatest throwing his Olympic medal into the Ohio River after being refused service at a diner: "Whip the world, whip this town/whip it into the river and watch it go down/whip the world, your lashing tongue/big men crying like babies from where the bee stung." Asked about the song, Irwin comments: "That's just such an important story for people down here—it's something that everybody's heard and is part of the folklore. He's such a hero. It's a song I wanted to write for such a long time, but was kind of nervous about—I guess 'cuz I'd never written a song about somebody that's not dead," she quips.

As for influences, Freakwater wears some of them on its sleeve, its CDs littered with covers of songs from artists such as Bill Monroe, Conway Twitty, and Woody Guthrie. But Irwin also acknowledges her punk-rock roots. "It's what makes me get up in the morning!" she enthuses. "It's all related to that aesthetic . . . make your own fun. That's the beauty of punk rock. It was a real important, formative experience for me. Like when I heard a Dead Boys record, I thought, 'Well, I could do that!' The pop music I heard growing up, like Yes, I'd hear it on the radio and think, 'I don't even know what instrument they're playing. What is that?'"

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