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Austin's Meat Purveyors beef up their songbook with unlikely grade-A covers

Many of the best bands grow -- at least spiritually so -- out of a common love for a certain style of music. Such is the case with the Austin-based Meat Purveyors. While their band name might lead you to believe that they play chopped-beef punk or T-bone hard rock, they actually draw their style from bluegrass and string band roots.

The foursome are not, however, purveyors of O Brother-style bluegrass, but rather a more contemporary "hey dude" approach to the Bill Monroe/Ralph Stanley tradition. The band has neither a banjo, though they did in their initial incarnation, nor a fiddle, though Austin fiddler Darcie Deaville plays on their records. Yes, the Meat Purveyors do cover Monroe, Stanley, Merle Haggard and even Elvis Presley. But they also apply their pickin' (guitar and mandolin), slappin' (upright bass) and singin' to songs by Lou Reed, Madonna, ABBA, Daniel Johnston, and Ratt. Yes, Ratt.

"We love country and bluegrass music, but we can't do just that," says guitarist Bill Anderson of the high, lonesome sound that they love. "We don't have excellent musicianship, so we have to fuck shit up a bit," observes singer Jo Walston. The truth be known, both Anderson and mandolinist Peter Stiles are formidable pickers. But rather than sending their speeding notes down an old mountain music road, the Meat Purveyors make fun, often in the form of copious amounts of booze, their mission statement.

The Spice Girls of Bluegrass say they are less a band than a cry for help.
The Spice Girls of Bluegrass say they are less a band than a cry for help.

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This attitude harks back to Joan of Arkansas, the act in which Walston and Anderson developed the Meat Purveyors' approach more than ten years ago. Though Anderson had played in such Austin punk acts as Poison 13 and Hand of Glory, he'd carried an abiding affection for bluegrass ever since his parents gave him a Flatt & Scruggs album at age eight. Similarly, Walston did time in some local riot grrl acts but loved country ever since her mother turned her on to Bob Wills during her youth in Victoria and Houston.

Anderson explains that Joan of Arkansas was "not like a real band. It was a bunch of people that liked bluegrass and country music that were in other bands and wanted to hang out on Saturday afternoons and play. It was more like a social club."

As were the Meat Purveyors at first, and as they still are, to a degree. The group began when Walston started jamming with original member and banjo player Nora Brackenbury. Anderson joined the picking sessions to keep his bluegrass chops up.

Brackenbury brought in doghouse bassist Cherilyn Dimond. A major Uncle Tupelo fan at the time, Dimond wanted to play music and "bought an upright bass over lunch one day. It was either going to be bass or trumpet, and I was smoking a lot at the time and figured I didn't have the lungs to play trumpet. And besides, I was really into the Paladins at the time, and I had a crush on Tommy Yearsley, who played upright bass and looked really cool doing it."

Mandolin player Stiles ended up playing with the bunch when he visited a friend's house one day and peeked into one of the other resident's rooms. "I stuck my head in, and there was Cherilyn and Jo and Nora sitting around on Sunday morning with a banjo, guitar and upright bass lying out and drinking tallboys -- three good-looking women with bluegrass instruments. I didn't even hear them play. I said, I don't know what you guys are doing but I want to be in this band. So I called up Cherilyn and asked her when they rehearsed and just showed up with my mandolin. And just kept showing up."

A New York native who had worked after college as an engineer and assistant for noted pop producer Phil Ramone, he took up mandolin after a girlfriend gave him one, though he had to call a local music store to figure out how to tune it.

The picking parties turned into open rehearsals at a coffeehouse Walston ran. Eventually these became actual gigs. The act took the name Texas Meat Purveyors from the delivery trucks that showed up at the various restaurant jobs the members had worked at. After a mere six months of being sort of a band, they were spotted by Bloodshot Records on the tout of Jon Langford and offered a record deal.

Just before issuing their first record, 1998's Sweet in the Pants, Stiles called the meat delivery company to ask if they minded the band using their business name. "The guy was like, we don't mind, but we just got bought by a big corporation and so it's probably not a good idea," notes Anderson. Hence they have since gone as simply the Meat Purveyors.

Six years, three albums and an EP (of their Madonna song trilogy) into the accidental career, the Meat Purveyors still keep it fun by being a band on a part-time basis -- Anderson and Walston have jobs with the Texas Legislature that earn them comp time for touring -- and allowing every good thing that happens for the act to be gravy rather than their, ahem, meat and potatoes. "We had no ambitions," Anderson explains.

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