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The Big Time's Big Price 

Freakwater: No Sale

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By Peter Margasak

When Catherine Irwin wrote "Waitress Song" a couple of years ago, she thought of it more as a reflection than a prophecy:

Maybe money can't buy everything

It looks like I'm never gonna know for sure

Maybe money can't buy happiness

Well neither can just being poor

This past April, Freakwater, the old-timey country band that the sharp-witted Irwin leads with Janet Bean, was being courted heavily by country-rocker Steve Earle to sign with his new Warner Brothers-distributed vanity label, E-Squared. It seemed as though Irwin might discover for herself if money could buy happiness, or at least soften the blows chronicled in her bittersweet songs.

But after months of fruitless negotiations, what originally seemed like a sure thing has finally fallen through. Freakwater is back where it started-the sole country band on an indie-rock label that doesn't have the resources or connections to break into the country market. "All in all I think it's good that we went through this nasty experience," says Bean with a wry smile. "Maybe my bitterness will now be understood by the other members of the band."

Bean's bitterness comes from previous unsavory entanglements with major labels. She is also a drummer and songwriter with Chicago rock stalwart Eleventh Dream Day, which made three albums for Atlantic amid strained and unsatisfactory label relations before returning to indie land a few years ago. While EDD's apples were spoiling, Bean's casual partnership with Irwin, a long-time chum from back home in Louisville, was ripening. In 1988 they released their debut album for the LA indie Amoeba, which had also issued the first Eleventh Dream Day recordings. By last year, with the release of Old Paint (the band's fourth album and its second on Thrill Jockey), Freakwater had expanded well beyond its original status as a lark, embarking on major U.S. and European tours.

Although Irwin and Bean had encountered major label interest before, the overtures made by Earle and E-Squared A&R man Jack Emerson were the first to result in anything beyond a free dinner. Leery of getting tangled up in red tape right away, Irwin and Bean initially met and talked with Emerson sans lawyers. They liked what they heard.

"He said we could continue on the path that we'd already been on," recalls Bean, who juggles her musical activities with raising a son and hostssing at the Wishbone. "They just wanted us to do it in a way that we could tour and support ourselves without being out of our minds about it." But when it was time to iron out a contract the band consulted prominent New York music attorney Richard Grabel. "[E-Squared] had to reveal their true intent when we got a lawyer," says Irwin.

"What emerged," says Grabel, who provided his services pro bono, "was that they both had very different ideas about what Freakwater should be. Jack wanted Janet and Cathy to go down to Nashville and work with Nashville session musicians and make more of a produced, slick record. Janet and Cathy just wanted to keep making Freakwater records the way they always had been."

Prospective record deals often fall apart, but considering Earle's reputation it's surprising that creative control became the main stumbling block. With the increasing popularity of new Nashville traditionalists like BR-549, Dale Watson, and Gillian Welch, it's no longer uncommon for the Nashville machine to grant artists the power to go against the prevailing commercial winds. Emerson declined to comment on behalf of E-Squared, sending only a tersely-worded fax that wished the group success in future endeavors.

Bean and Irwin say they weren't entirely hostile to input from the label. Bean claims that they were willing to experiment with outside musicians, outside songwriters, and outside producers (their last three albums were produced by Brad Wood). "I would've done pretty much anything they'd asked to a certain degree," says Bean. "If they wanted us to wear wigs every now and then we probably would have done that--but they presented themselves as one thing and they turned out to be something altogether different." The label's refusal to grant Freakwater the ability to make final creative decisions finally ruptured the deal. The group (whose third permanent member is the silent, chain-smoking upright bassist Dave Gay) will record their fifth record, once again for Thrill Jockey, this winter.

Irwin's never without some humorous bile, but she's making a special effort to cope with this disappointment. "Around the time the decision was made I started thinking about in the future how I'll be living in a cardboard box, ranting constantly and disturbing all my little box friends by talking about the day we marched into the Time-Warner building and said, 'I don't need your goddamned money!' and everybody would be moving their cartons away from me, thinking, 'There's that woman with that weird Warner Brothers fixation," she explains. "I'm not a very religious person, but I think that everyone will pay for their sins."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photos of Catherine Irwin, Janet Bean by Paul Elledge.

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