Features Music Bloodshot Records: History 101

Music: Bloodshot Records: History 101

As 2019 comes to a close, we caught up with Bloodshot Records, a Chicago-based label that was founded in 1994. The label is celebrating 25 years in 2019. While an official compilation, Too Late to Pray: Defiant Chicago Roots marks that accomplishment (and we definitely think you should check it out), it’s a drop in the bucket considering the label’s overall catalog of approximately 275 records including releases by Whiskeytown, Laura Jane Grace & the Devouring Mothers, Neko Case, William Elliott Whitmore, Robbie Fulks, Wayne Hancock, Legendary Shack Shakers, Detroit Cobras, and a whole lot more.

We could talk up the many notable releases and well-known names to release with Bloodshot, commemorating the hits, the one-offs, and more, but what’s the fun in that? We’d rather hear it straight from the label.

In this anniversary feature, we picked five records from Bloodshot’s catalog and asked the label to share some memories. Then we asked them to pick another five on their own to make sure that we didn’t miss anything.

Below, you’ll read insight from label owner Rob Miller and publicist Josh Zanger, as they recall records dating from 1994’s first release to this year’s anniversary compilation, which the label celebrated in style with a release show at 4200 Workshop last month.

Waco Brothers – Cowboy in Flames*

(BS 015, 1997)

A perfect distillation of the Cash meets Clash ethos that is as exciting and depressingly relevant today as the day it was released in 1997. One half country, one half punk and one half closing time righteousness; it’s 3 chords, the truth and amps turned to 11. Irreverent without veering to schtick and populist without being preachy, the brothers are angry, joyous, and ready for another round. The two wheels on the guardrail approach strips the fat and greasepaint off country music’s carcass and builds a pagan temple out of its bones. Polite society, taste-influencers, rule-makers and establishment media outlets didn’t really know what to make of this utterly outrageous and enlivening platter when it came out. Most are still trying to catch up.

- Rob Miller

Charlie Pickett – Bar Band Americanus*

(BS 154, 2008)

While the joy of discovering new artists never grows old, one of the true kicks of the past 25 years is when we got to work with musical heroes whose records I owned long before Bloodshot was a glimmer in my eye (or ear). The list of people we’ve worked with who helped form my musical biome includes the Mekons, Wanda Jackson, the Knitters, Dex Romweber (Flat Duo Jets!), Alejandro Escovedo, Andre Williams, Rosie “the Rockabilly Filly” Flores, Graham Parker, Barrence Whitfield & the Savages, and many others. Man, that’s a healthy chunk of my pre-label weasel album collection right there!

Then there was our re-issue of Charlie Pickett’s criminally obscure and out of print catalog. Like a handful of other bands of the early and mid-‘80s era, his under-known work resonated with me in strange and unexpected ways. Charlie and his bandmates took my understanding of what roots music was, and what it could be, and blew open the doors of possibility. Their dismissal of stylistic straitjackets was pure punk -- I ain’t been the same since. Putting this collection out was a humble payback to Rock ‘n’ Roll Karma and the ever-flowing current of creativity that exists just under the surface of popular culture.

- Rob Miller

Bobby Bare Jr. – Young Criminals’ Starvation League**

(BS 089, 2002)


We first came across BBJ at the tail end of his redneck rawk band Bare Jr. They were one-part ragged southern boogie and all parts indie rock snottiness. What wasn’t to like? We expected more of it with his first solo album for us.

What we were decidedly not expecting was what we got: an aching, ethereal, elegantly produced album with humor, pathos, and earworms galore. From the Stax soul of the eminently hummable “I’ll Be Around” to the surprising and full-of-love covers of the Smiths and Shel Silverstein, Young Criminals’ Starvation League is a remarkable record.

Look, we get it. A lot of the music we release is on the fringes and has no business making a dent in popular culture. That’s fine. We don’t expect (and don’t want) the masses to have the same tastes we do. However, every once in a while, a record drops in our laps that we firmly believe the music world, and the culture in general, is poorer for not embracing and celebrating it. This is just such a record. Seek it out.

- Rob Miller

Various Artists – For A Life Of Sin**

(BS 001, 1994)

Wherein three music fans saw a niche in a vibrant music city and, rather than let the drunken idea go die in a ditch, we woke up and did something about it. We didn’t know any better. We gathered a bunch of talented misfits and outcasts who loved the possibilities within the world of roots music, put them under one roof and watched in surprise as the world said, “Hey, you might have something here.” Some of the folks on that record -- Robbie Fulks, Bottle Rockets, Freakwater, Jon Langford -- are now so entwined in the history of the city’s music, it’s hard to think of it without them. Some disappeared without another recording.

And what we started improbably carries on today.

- Rob Miller

Sarah Shook & The Disarmers – Sidelong*

(BS 256, 2017)

Moments of clarity are rare in my world. So much goes into the day to day balancing act of surviving in this racket that it can be hard at times to maintain focus and remember the visceral core of what drives me. Days of wallowing in a pool of self-doubt are not uncommon. The banalities of office administration are a far cry from the oft-perceived bacchanalian notions of label life. Hearing Sarah Shook’s album for the first time was one of those moments of clarity -- not unlike the first time I heard Justin Townes Earle, Lydia Loveless, or Scott H. Biram. From the first listen, I was a fan. Sarah attacks with an energy and personal perspective that breathes new life into a music form that, in the hands of people with less conviction, can quickly grow drab and stale. Her hard-stare courage and honesty is gripping, often grimly hilarious and not infrequently unsettling. In short, it’s great. Finding an artist like Sarah and the Disarmers, and being allowed to help shepherd their work to the (hopefully) broader world, remains the primary cri de coeur in our cruddy little office. When it all comes together, when people respond, when the crowds grow, when the music still hits me, it remains as exciting and gratifying as it did when we first started.

- Rob Miller

Regarding Midnight at the Movies and Furnace Room Lullaby, it’s interesting that you picked them to talk about. I find them to be remarkably similar in some ways.

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Words by the SPB team on Dec. 2, 2019, 2:29 p.m.

Main photo by Anthony Nguyen (L-R: Steve Polutnik and Andy Weber from local vinyl pressing company, Smashed Plastic; and Rob Miller and Josh Zanger).

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Bloodshot Records: History 101

Posted on Dec. 2, 2019, 2:29 p.m.

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