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[whitespace] Red Meat
Alameda Bound: Faced with eviction from its rehearsal space in San Francisco, Red Meat upped and moved to Oakland with nary a complaint.

Musical Protein

Red Meat plays country music the old-fashioned meat-and-potatoes way

By Gina Arnold

LAST TIME I saw Red Meat's Jill Olson, she was standing on the corner of Valencia and 16th Street in San Francisco. She was wearing a red-check peasant dress with a ruffled skirt, an embroidered jeans jacket and a large silk flower in her hair, and she looked, as she always looks, like the coolest gal on the street.

Like me, Jill had intended to march in that day's Rock Against Dotcoms demonstration, but Jill told me she was put off when she realized it was turning into a Nader for President rally. "Nader is just terrible on women's issues," she told me. "So I'm going thrifting instead."

I looked after her, wistfully. I would have liked to go with her, but duty called. I had to go report on a bunch of disgruntled rock bands that were feeling slighted by the new economy. Seeing Jill there, however, had the effect of pepping me up for the task, since Jill is easily the least disgruntled rock musician I know.

Moreover, our friendship dates back to well before Dot Communism. The first time I saw her was on stage at some long forgotten San Francisco dive with her now-defunct band the Movie Stars, and something about her groovy thrift-store duds, her cool way with a bass and possibly even her extremely unpretentious horn-rimmed glasses made me want to get to know her.

Luckily for me, it turned out she lived around the corner. Before long, I was going to clothing swaps at her house, and it turned out that my instant judgment call about her innate niceness was right on the money. In fact, Jill and her fellow bandmembers in Red Meat are the most approachable, likable and, in my opinion (tainted, of course, by personal friendship), talented musicians in the area.

If you ever go see their band, chances are you'll go back again--and again and again. Which is why their shows are often peopled not with strangers but with friends.

MAYBE IT'S BECAUSE they're from Iowa. Or maybe it's just a difference in attitude that colors their entire oeuvre. It's not that Jill and her bandmates--Smelley Kelley, Max Butler, Scott Young, Les James and Michael Montalto--aren't ambitious, but they seem to get just as much fun and satisfaction out of playing their original country music at bars and dives all over the Bay Area as they would if they were stars.

The result is that, in the seven years since their inception, I've seen Red Meat in some of the weirdest venues imaginable--from DeMarco '97s in Brisbane (where Jill subsequently held her wedding) to the middle of my own street, where last summer they headlined a block party sponsored by our corner store.

In short, Red Meat isn't holding out for that perfect gig at the Fillmore, opening up for Wilco. Red Meat is happy to play the SoFA Street Fair or their friend's birthday party, if that's the only gig going. When they, along with 500 other San Francisco bands, were kicked out of their rehearsal space this summer at Downtown Rehearsal Space (thus prompting the aforementioned march on City Hall), they didn't bother whining. The band members called around and got another, cheaper one, in Oakland, in the space of a few hours. "If you want to play music," Jill says, "there's always a way."

That attitude in itself sets Red Meat apart from most of the local bands in San Francisco. (In fact, most of Red Meat's members, Jill included, have recently relocated to Oakland as well, thus explaining the title of their new album, Alameda County Line.) But Red Meat would probably stand out even if everyone else was as nice as they are.

The band's music is pure country--not roots rock, not Americana, not "No Depression" and certainly not "Y'alternative," but the kind of country music that has a twang to it. Three of the bands members are from Iowa, where they were brought up on a diet of Chet Atkins and Hee Haw. The other members are also Midwestern transplants.

Oh, they've seen their share of Replacements shows, but somehow, those didn't touch them like the memory of Hank Williams and Johnny Cash and Roger Miller singles that, Jill tells me, were played on AM radio in Iowa in the late '60s and early '70s.

"To my parents," she says, "country music was the equivalent of pop music. They weren't into the Beatles and stuff like that, although my older brothers and sisters were. My parents listened to '60s country. And my grandparents watched Hee Haw. To them it was like Saturday Night Live."

"Of course, this was pre-irony era," she adds, "and pre-white trash renaissance; you know, the kind of band that wears T-shirts that say 'Honk if you're horny' and have a country white trash alter-ego."

Red Meat, she doesn't need to add, is nothing like that. For one thing, its members respectfully wear cowboy hats, bolo ties and boots. And far from making fun of country, their music combines classic honky-tonk irreverence with older, wiser, lyrical authenticity.

Red Meat's strength is its songwriting, which no fewer than four of the band members take a hand in. Some of the songs, like Jill's own "Midwest Blues" and "This Property's Condemned," are sweet and serious ruminations on the tribulations of city life. Others, like Scott's hilarious "Under the Wrench," "Inner Redneck," "Whining Doggies" and the unforgettable "Lolita," which is about the trials of having an ex-girlfriend's name tattooed on your arm, are in a far lighter vein. But all of them are catchy as hell and almost poignant in their adherence to authentic country styles.

JILL HERSELF moved to San Francisco in the early '80s after graduating from the University of Iowa. Originally, she was part of a band called the Movie Stars that had its Replacement-like elements (although it also had a mandolin player). Smelley and Scott moved to San Francisco separately, eventually starting a band called the Genuine Diamelles.

Both bands were popular local acts, but never achieved the wider recognition they craved. By the time those bands broke up in 1993, Jill recalls, she (and the others) were sick of many aspects of trying to "make it" in rock & roll.

"You know, when we first got into modern rock or alternative or whatever it was called, people weren't into getting rich off it, so it seemed sort of legitimate, like it was coming from a place of love," she says. "But that really came to an end in the '90s. Now so-called 'modern rock' bands are all just manufactured. By the time we started Red Meat, I had decided that I was not going to pin my hopes on making money at music anymore. I was just going to play the music I liked because I enjoyed playing music with my friends and that was that. Anything else was just going to be gravy."

Of course as sometimes happens when a person stops trying so hard, Red Meat has achieved just as much success as the Movie Stars ever did, if not more. The band's first LP, Meet Red Meat, was released in 1997 and received wide acclaim on the then-new "Americana" circuit, which featured retro- and new-country acts like Son Volt, Wilco, Big Sandy, the Knitters and others.

But Red Meat really has more in common with older artists like Buck Owens and Jerry Jeff Walker. "The hits on country music stations today are like the equivalent of Kansas or Boston or Laura Branigan," Jill points out. "People like Faith Hill and Shania Twain have nothing in common with the country we play, except the occasional bit of pedal steel guitar."

"Our fans," she adds, "are more like the people who used to go out to see Hüsker Dü and still want to go see stuff at clubs."

In 1998, the band released Thirteen, produced by one of their newfound fans, Dave Alvin; his next effort with them, Alameda County Line, hits the stores this month, and anyone with an interest in country music would be well advised to check it out. It's a great record by a great band, with the added bonus that they play clubs throughout Northern California all year long--usually for cheap. (To find out when Red Meat are next playing near here, or to check out their music, go to www. redmeat.net.)

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From the January 18-24, 2001 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2001 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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