Radio Sweethearts – Old country from the old country
John Miller, singer-songwriter for Glasgow’s Radio Sweethearts, is well aware that the idea of a Scottish band playing traditional country music is apt to raise a few eyebrows Stateside. Nonetheless, Miller can trace his as well as his country’s enduring affinity for the genre back to the early days of rock ‘n’ roll.
“Scotland has a big interest in country music,” Miller explained during a recent telephone interview. “The Merchant Navy used to bring back country and rock ‘n’ roll records. There’s always been a big tradition of the people of West Scotland listening to country music. I grew up listening to the records my parents had at home.”
It was the Hank Williams records in particular that inspired Miller to try his own hand at country songwriting. Miller says he “flirted around” with various pop bands in his younger days, before getting married and settling down. During the ensuing decade, Miller worked as a conductor on the railway, where he met people with similar musical interests. After taking tickets, Miller would sit down and share his passion for music with anyone who would listen — an audience that included members of two prominent Scottish pop bands: BMX Bandits’ Duglas T. Stewart and Francis MacDonald, and Teenage Fanclub’s Norman Blake.
“One day John said, ‘You know, you should come to my house and I’ll play you some Hank Williams,” MacDonald recalls. “But instead of putting them on, he’d sing them. I thought he was going to be DJ but he was actually singing them, and he had a great voice.”
Deciding to start his own country band, Miller recruited MacDonald and Teenage Fanclub’s Gerard Love to join him (Love eventually left the band due to Fanclub commitments and was replaced by Martin Hayward of the Pastels). In turn, MacDonald brought in John McCusker, a fiddle player who routinely tours the States as part of the Battlefield Band.
Over the next several months, Miller and MacDonald wrote songs together, and the fledgling band opened for the likes of BR5-49, Dale Watson and Townes Van Zandt. In early 1996, MacDonald asked producer Kim Fowley, who was in town recording with the BMX Bandits, if he’d mind staying an extra day to produce a couple of Sweethearts singles.
Fowley agreed, and the resulting session yielded fifteen songs recorded and mixed in eighteen hours. “Kim’s of the old school — he likes everyone to play live and keep the tape running,” says MacDonald. “We’d finish a song and sit there and want to listen to it and try it again, and he’d go, ‘Next song.’ We’re thinking, ‘God, this is just rubbish, this isn’t the way it’s supposed to be, it’s supposed to be more precious.'”
Nevertheless, Fowley took the songs back to the States and called the band a few months later from New Orleans with a surprising bit of news: “I found someone who wants to put out your album,” he told MacDonald.
“What album?” MacDonald asked.
“The one you recorded in Glasgow,” Fowley replied.
“Kim, that’s not an album, that’s half an album,” MacDonald recalls telling Fowley. “Come back to Glasgow and we’ll finish the job.”
Fowley wasn’t listening, however, and before the band knew it, they had a copy of New Memories (mastered, sequenced and named by Fowley) in their hands. The sound of the album, which came out on New Orleans indie St. Roch Records, surprised the band.
“We’re playing it and going, ‘Wow, is this the same thing?’ The songs were so direct and the sound was actually punchy because it had been mastered well,” says MacDonald. “We thought, ‘Hey, this album is pretty good.'”
“We’re very proud of the sound we’ve got; it celebrates the real organic sound,” he continues. “Hank Williams died in 1953 before you had eight-track studios, and all of his songs have that gut, that real edge. They don’t sound slick at all. That’s what Kim Fowley taught us. He said, ‘All these records that you love, these are the records that were recorded very fast with the band playing live; not everything sounded perfect or smothered in reverb.'”
Fowley’s experience with the Sweethearts reflects the band’s fundamental principles. “I saw in them the ultimate group from another world looking back in time on a world that never really existed in the eyes of Nashville,” Fowley says of the elements that shape the Sweethearts sound — elements, he says, that extend deeper than obvious influences such as Hank Williams or Johnny Cash. “In the case of the Radio Sweethearts, the idea was to replicate emotionally the feeling captured by minor artists on minor labels [during the early ’50s].”
Last year, MacDonald re-released the album as New Memories Revisited with half a dozen bonus tracks on his own Shoeshine label. This year, Shoeshine will release a new Sweethearts record featuring six songs produced by Alex Chilton, with whom MacDonald had toured as part of Chilton’s backing band.
Working with Chilton, who also contributed guitar and backing vocals to the new Sweethearts album, was the extreme opposite of the time spent in the studio with Fowley, says MacDonald. “Where Kim is breathing down everybody’s neck,” laughs MacDonald, “Alex lies back on the couch and looks like he’s falling asleep in the corner.”
The songs slated for the new release retain the Sweethearts’ earthy brilliance. With timeless tear-in-you-beer lyrics, cleanly composed song structures and Miller’s deep, rich voice, it’s sometimes hard to tell if you’re listening to a country music standard or a Radio Sweethearts original. Tracks such “I Must Have Been Out Of My Mind” easily hold their own against classic country tunes.
Such authenticity, however, could prove to be more of a hindrance than a benefit. The band has yet to find a U.S. label interested in the new record or its timeless sound.
“It’s funny because some labels in America that I’ve associated with insurgent country and alt-country have said we’re too traditional,” MacDonald says. “Which suggests to me that there’s a feeling that a lot of the stuff is country-influenced, but some of these labels stop short of embracing traditional country. They wouldn’t say the songs aren’t good enough or they hated the singer’s voice. They said we sounded too country.”