Think Kentucky, and you'll conjure up images of hardscrabble Cumberland coal miners; fervent, addled-eyed snake handlers; sleek, pampered racehorses; and smooth-tasting bourbon. Hardworking and heaven-bent, yet consumed with the wilder side of life: This is the sound of Louisville group Freakwater, which, since 1987, has bottled the juxtapositions into a prime musical product.
Although Freakwater's sound, an echo of country-folk pioneers the Carter Family, the Stanley Brothers, and Kentucky's own Loretta Lynn, spearheaded the alt-country movement alongside Uncle Tupelo, vocalists Janet Beveridge Bean and Catherine Irwin never achieved the star power of fellow travelers like Gillian Welch and Iris Dement. Nevertheless, Bean (who relocated to Chicago, where she played with pop group Eleventh Dream Day) and Irwin (who lived in France, New York, and Chicago before returning to Louisville) soldiered on as best friends and singing partners for nearly two decades, recording six startlingly prescient albums under the Freakwater moniker.
Yet by the time the duo entered Chicago's 4 Deuces studio to cut Thinking of You, their seventh album, most fans thought that Freakwater had called it quits. Since their last record, End Time, was recorded in '99, both Bean and Irwin had released solo albums, while bassist Dave Gay -- the group's only other constant -- had relocated to Asheville, North Carolina, and joined the Reigning Sound. Six years had passed since Freakwater sat in a recording studio, and the O Brother, Where Art Thou? phenomenon, which cemented the careers of Welch and bluegrass fiddler Allison Krauss, had unceremoniously passed them by.
Today, they scratch their heads and laugh when quizzed about Freakwater's fallow period.
"We were just in Iowa, where we read an article in the local paper that said we quit working together because of our feud, which I was totally unaware of," Bean jokes, helpfully adding, "people want to imagine that it's impossible for two women to be in a band and remain friends for this long. If there's a lapse in time, there has to be some feud over a pair of shoes."
"It didn't seem that long," Irwin contributes in a mock-defensive voice. "I made a record, and Janet made a record, so neither one of us thought about how long it had been."
Neither woman wants to take responsibility for Freakwater, so instead, they attribute the group's success -- or lack thereof -- to a series of blunders, mix-ups, and happy mistakes.
It's a cavalier attitude.
"We both have a problem with any sort of direction," Bean teases. "We've remained friends because we never air our grievances. I push the bad feelings down."
Even as fans swoon over the luscious harmonies and sparse arrangements that signal the band's return, Irwin emphatically denies that Thinking of You was mapped out or recorded with even the simplest plan.
"We could've made a record in my basement, but our label was willing to pay for something more because we haven't totally bankrupted 'em yet," she says. "We thought it was a good idea to get a producer, so we'd have someone to blame, and we'd known Tim Rutili for a really long time, so we asked him. We're never good at listening to other people's opinions, but we could gang up on a third party, and I'd gladly pay for that.
"Tim originally wanted us to put out our demo recordings, but I think he just wanted to go home," Irwin deadpans. "Instead, we got his group Califone, who really are a band of fancy guys, to play, and it turned out to be a really good thing."
Next, she explains, they recruited artist Sheila Sachs to help with the record cover, which depicts a burning bouquet of roses.
"We were going for a look between Billy Ocean and Tanya Tucker," Irwin jokes, "and I think we achieved it. Our record company hated it, but Janet and I were really happy. It was exactly what we envisioned, and we never agree on anything. Ultimately, Thrill Jockey came very close to not putting it out."
Luckily, common sense prevailed, and Thinking of You, which contains 12 bristling, brilliant originals, including the moralistic "Cricket Versus Ant," an ethereal war protest called "Buckets of Oil," and a gloriously Stones-influenced electric detour called "Hi Ho Silver," was released in September.
Then Freakwater was booked on an extensive four-month tour, which began in Chicago in October and wraps in Switzerland in late January.
"It was a little misunderstanding between Janet and the booking agency," a road-weary Irwin confesses. "It doesn't make sense at all.
"Being in Freakwater isn't a compulsion," she says. "It's just something we do. It's utter chaos. People ask what our plan is, and we have to admit that it's totally random."