Blue Mountain – Muscle memory
Blue Mountain’s self-titled indie debut was released in 1993 on the 4-Barrel label and included early versions of many of the songs that would later be on the Eric Ambel-produced Dog Days. In 1996, Blue Mountain appeared on the cover of the second issue of the fledgling alternative-country music magazine No Depression.
“We were sort of shocked,” says Stirratt. “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. I remember being blown away that people in New York knew who we were. Being on the cover of No Depression really helped a lot.”
“We were spending lots of time going to New York, because our label was there,” says Hudson. “And then we started to get a really nice following in Washington, D.C., and Chicago and Minneapolis. That just felt great to go from being in Los Angeles waiting tables to being on tour.”
Over a decade, the band built up a catalogue of evocative songs and critically acclaimed albums that mixed elements of country, blues, bluegrass and old-time folk music, but always featured a fired-up dose of high-energy rock. With Hudson working out on his battered Les Paul, Stirratt falling in with melodic bass lines and high harmonies, and Coutch holding it all together with a stream of steady but inventive beats, the trio often recalled Neil Young and Crazy Horse, wrapped in the lyricism of the Allman Brothers.
On songs such as “Soul Sister”, “A Band Called Bud”, “Bloody 98”, “Myrna Lee” and “Lakeside”, Hudson and Stirratt created a world full of rough and beautiful southern characters and scenes worthy of some of the great writers who also called Oxford home. Soon the likes of Larry Brown and Barry Hannah were fans.
“I can’t say for sure when I first saw Blue Mountain,” wrote Larry Brown in the liner notes to 1997’s Homegrown, “but it must have been a couple of years ago, up at Proud Larry’s in Oxford. The whole place was packed with a crowd of people, standing room only, and it was easy to hear why. That much good sound coming out of three people was hard to believe, and when it was over the listeners screamed for more. Their music set me on fire that night, and I went back to hear them again, in other places, at other times.”
Another high-profile fan, of sorts, was an “honest peanut farmer” from Georgia to whom Blue Mountain paid tribute on Dog Days with the song “Jimmy Carter”. The band’s label sent a copy of the CD to the Carter Center, the Atlanta nonprofit organization established by the former president and his wife Rosalynn to support human-rights causes. Carter responded with a letter on presidential stationery, writing that he had read about the band “in the paper” and wanted to thank and congratulate them. (“I feel bad; you know, I’ve got the letter,” Hudson confessed to Stirratt in our interview at Smith’s Olde Bar. “That’s all right,” Stirratt responded. “Maybe you can make a copy for me.”)
In the liner notes to the live album Tonight It’s Now Or Never — recorded in 2001, when Hudson and Stirratt had split as a couple but were still trying to perform together — writer Lisa Howorth describes how living and playing in the deep south informed the band’s music: “Blue Mountain has been a part of the same musical confluence that shaped a number of great American musicians, from Elvis to Tammy Wynette to Robert Johnson to Alex Chilton. The five hundred miles from Nashville to New Orleans is a fertile musical crescent with Memphis and North Mississippi firmly in the curve between the Delta and the foothills of Appalachia…
“The band’s last studio album, Roots (released in 2001), was entirely traditional — plain but emotionally rich songs about drinking, sex, longing, and death. Even plaintive Old English tunes such as “Young And Tender Ladies” and “Rain And Snow” were interpreted in Blue Mountain’s earthy, sinewy style and perfectly captured the sensuous, raw energy of a Blue Mountain performance.”
During the six years when Blue Mountain was no more, Stirratt moved to Chicago and started the indie label Broadmoor Records, featuring recordings by the Autumn Defense (her brother’s band with Pat Sansone) and by the Stirratt siblings together (under the name Laurie & John). She also performed and recorded with Danny Black and Healthy White Baby. In the meantime, Hudson continued touring and managed to record three solo discs on his own Black Dog label: The Phoenix (2002), Cool Breeze (2003) and the acoustic Bittersweet Blues (2007).
“I’ve discovered that I really love doing the acoustic solo tours,” Hudson says. “What I’ve discovered I don’t like is trying to have pickup bands. Trying to teach two or three different guys a year how to play ‘Blue Canoe’, and then it still doesn’t sound as good. And you can’t really ride around in the van and talk about something that happened in ’93 or whatever.”
That shouldn’t be problem for the foreseeable future, as Blue Mountain has decided to stay on the road both before and well after the new disc comes out.
Bringing things full circle, Oxford has once again become the center of the Blue Mountain universe. Hudson and Coutch have been living in Mississippi; recently, Stirratt moved back to a place just outside of town after “waiting a bit see how things were going to work out.”
“Things between Cary and me are great,” she says. “It has been easier than expected, but we’ve always been on the same page musically and in the way we approached the business end of things. We have made a commitment to tour these records in the U.S. and Europe for the next year or so, play a lot of festivals next summer, and then take a break. We will still pursue other projects on our down time and hopefully, after a rest, continue on as we are now.”
Bob Townsend lives in Atlanta (not far from the Carter Center), where he recently learned the hard way that a tornado really does sound like a freight train.