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INTERVIEW: Kurt Wagner & Courtney Tidwell (The Brag)

[ 0 ] January 10, 2012 |

Kurt Wagner & Courtney Tidwell
By Mike Gee

This is a story of tradition, and breaking tradition; of taking a pre-existing idea and twisting it until it makes sense that a band covering the best songs from legendary country music label Chart Records could also cover the Motörhead/Girlschool duet ‘Please Don’t Touch’… That band is KORT, the project of Lambchop co-founder and frontman Kurt Wagner, and singer-songwriter Cortney Tidwell – whose grandfather Slim Williamson ran Chart Records. Her mother, Connie Eaton, was a country singer and her father, Cliff Williamson, a producer and A&R.

Wagner, now 53, founded Lambchop about 18 years ago, and has been playing music for over a quarter of a century. To these ears at least, he’s the American equivalent of England’s Neil Hannon, of The Divine Comedy fame – but where Hannon delivers chamber pop deeply rooted in English musical tradition, Wagner’s Lambchop are a cerebral take on Nashville’s long musical history. There is swing and jazz and orchestra, and cocktail bars, and old footsteps and large halls; the Grand Ole Opry is never too far away.

Wagner and Tidwell, who are speaking to me from a rather cold Nashville, will be in Australia for Sydney Festival – it starts with a couple of KORT shows before a gig from Lambchop, with Wagner playing solo the next day. The latter, Wagner says, he “wisely left to last”. “What I’m trying to do is present an overview of the various things I’ve done over the years. Even with KORT and Lambchop playing, I think there’s enough songs there. After all, I’ve done eleven records…”

Cortney appears on the latest Lambchop album, Mr. M, which is due for release on February 24. The record features a stripped back lineup, with just five of the core musicians plus Wagner and guests – but on the evidence of the song I’ve heard, ‘If Not I’ll Just Die’, it lacks nothing in atmosphere.

From Wagner’s perspective, the songs were informed by the death of his friend, the great American singer-songwriter Vic Chesnutt, who Lambchop backed on his 1998 album, The Salesman and Bernadette. The music also owes much to former full-time band member Mark Nevins, who Wagner says had a concept of a sound and a method that he thought would work with the tone of his writing – something Nevins called a “psycho-Sinatra” sound. “He’d been listening to all these Sinatra records, and he became fascinated by the way the strings are used, particularly in the sense that they often don’t follow the melody. He thought it would fit with what I was doing,” Wagner says. “What’s interesting is that although there are strings on about half of the songs, when you listen to the record it’s often not noticeable whether a song has strings or not. Overall, I think the songs are more open and simpler than in the past.”

For Cortney, appearing on about half the songs on Mr. M was simple. “It really was easy to be part of. I just didn’t think about it at all,” she says. “It’s completely different to what I normally do, in that I’m not writing the stuff, so I just came in and did my thing. It was very enjoyable.” It all sounds very civilised, I offer – and they both laugh. “Ï guess you could say it was,” Wagner says, “but we wouldn’t have it any other way.”

What: KORT is playing at The Famous Spiegeltent on January 19 at 7pm, and at City Recital Hall on January 20 at 9.30pm; Lambchop is playing at City Recital Hall on January 21 at 9.30pm; Kurt Wagner is playing at The Famous Spiegeltent on January 22 at 5pm.

Category: Press & Reviews

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