Blue Mountain – Muscle memory
“It was so different back then, with the word-of-mouth thing. People weren’t looking it up on the internet, but were actually reading a magazine.”
— Laurie Stirratt
You can feel a joyful yearning wash over the Atlanta audience as guitarist Cary Hudson and his Blue Mountain bandmates — bassist Laurie Stirratt and drummer Frank Coutch — close their set with “Blue Canoe” during the first leg of their 2008 reunion tour.
“Ridin’ round the county drinkin’ from a jar,” Hudson sings in a foot-stomping wail, “Put blue canoe up on top of the car/Hop in darlin’, don’t be a stranger/Sit back and relax cause ya ain’t in no danger.”
Most in the crowd haven’t heard that song played live since before Blue Mountain broke up in 2001. But the loping, idyllic ramble from the band’s best-loved album, 1995’s Dog Days, has become an anthem now, recalling days of youthful hope and glory. Folks sing along with every word, yipping and yodeling and cheering through the last slippin’ and a slidin’ choruses.
Reunion tours aren’t exactly a musical rarity nowadays. But the return of Blue Mountain after more than half a decade has become such a happy occasion mostly because it seemed so darn unlikely — given that the band was in its heyday when Hudson and Stirratt were husband and wife, and dissolved along with their marriage.
If there’s any rancor left from the last days of Blue Mountain, it isn’t apparent during their loose-limbed, powerhouse performance — or when Stirratt and Hudson perch backstage at Smith’s Olde Bar to talk about what they’ve been up to, and how they finally got back together last year to play Twangfest in St. Louis, Missouri.
“We got an e-mail asking if we would consider re-forming to play the show,” Stirratt says. “What was weirder — a day after that, we got another e-mail from a European promoter who wanted to know if we wanted to tour. So we decided to get together and rehearse and see how it went. And it was great — even after that many years, it was like muscle memory or something.”
Since then, besides touring a bunch, Hudson, Stirratt and Coutch have been busy recording a batch of new songs at Elmwood Recording in Dallas, Texas, with Grammy-winning producer/engineer Stuart Sikes (Cat Power, White Stripes, Loretta Lynn). The full-length album, tentatively titled Midnight In Mississippi, is scheduled for release in July.
At the same time, the band will also release a compilation with nineteen new recordings of their favorite songs from Dog Days and the two other ’90s releases on Roadrunner Records, Homegrown and Tales Of A Traveler. Roadrunner also has a new deluxe edition of Dog Days out with bonus tracks.
Hudson, who is from Hattiesburg, Mississippi, and Stirratt, who is from New Orleans, sowed the seeds of Blue Mountain in Oxford, Mississippi, in the late ’80s. The two first met in New Orleans, when Laurie’s twin brother, John Stirratt (now the bass player for Wilco), brought Hudson to town for a visit.
“John and I were playing in this cover band,” Hudson says. “But John had great taste in songs, so we were a really good working cover band — which is kind of a contradiction in terms. Anyway, I went home with him, and Laurie was in her room, listening to records. I knocked on her door, and went, ‘Cool records. Cool girl.’ And I guess we got to be good friends after that.”
“We listened to a lot of records that day,” remembers Stirratt, smiling. “It was like 1986, and I was kind of in a phase where I was listening to a lot of British music, like David Bowie and New Order and Bauhaus, and stuff like the Cure and the Smiths.”
In 1988, Stirratt moved to Oxford, where she joined Hudson and brother John in the Hilltops, a bash-and-pop outfit that came on something like a Dixie-fried Replacements.
“We were listening to everything on SST,” Stirratt says. “We were kind of a harder-edged pop band, with loud, distorted guitars, I would say, and a little bit of a country influence.”
After a couple of albums and a lot of touring, the Hilltops disbanded in 1990, and John Stirratt left Oxford for New Orleans. (He joined Uncle Tupelo in time to help them record their 1993 swan-song Anodyne, then made the transition with Jeff Tweedy to Wilco.) Seeking a taste of something different, Hudson and Laurie Stirratt moved to Los Angeles in the spring of 1991. That’s where they first started playing under the name Blue Mountain. But after eleven months, not much was happening.
“Mostly a lot of waiting tables,” says Hudson. “Mostly a lot of shit work,” says Stirratt. “I sort of had this romantic vision of L.A., and the bands that had come from there. But it didn’t really measure up to my expectations as far as the cool factor. So we finally figured, let’s go back home, where our rent’s going to be $150 a month.”
The couple returned to Oxford in 1992, shortly after the Rodney King riots. Even if California had been less than a dream, the time away from home fueled their imaginations.
“Once we got back to Mississippi, we had the songs that we were gonna put on that first album,” Hudson says. “Mostly it was about living in California, and writing about Mississippi. I had never lived outside of Mississippi. And after we moved back, we started touring, and we toured everywhere. We really went to work. We had some decent songs and we were really determined.”