The working relationships of being in a rock n’ roll band are often compared to that of a marriage. The devotion, the sacrifice, the joys and the aggravation—all of it and more characterize the complex and tense relationships that take place when people band together to stake their claim in the music world. In tough times, things get tense, and often ugly. But through mutual respect, one hopes, wounds heal and bonds are strengthened through tribulation. When this rock ‘n roll relationship is also mirrored by an actual marriage, one can imagine that things can get pretty complex.
Such was and is the case with the now-reunited Blue Mountain. The Oxford, Mississippi roots rock band has always centered on the husband and wife team of Cary Hudson and Laurie Stirratt. And when the marriage broke up in 2001, the band soon followed suit.
But now, after a few one-off reunion shows that went amazingly well, the band is back in full force and hitting the road with a vengeance. Plans are even underway to head back into the studio for what will be the band’s sixth studio album. Blue Mountain is back.
It’s been a long road. That road started in the late 1980s in Oxford, Mississippi when a band called the Hi-Tops changed their name to The Hilltops in an effort to reflect their new dedication to songcraft. That band included Sumrall, Mississippi native Cary Hudson and the twin brother and sister duo of Laurie and John Stirrattt of Mandeville, Louisiana. As the Hi-Tops, the band was essentially a cover band—performing songs by REM, Husker Du, The Meat Puppets and other “college rock” acts of the day.
As The Hilltops, their punk influences showed. “At the time we were listening to a lot of …at the time it was underground music…a lot of the releases that the label SST put out, early Meat Puppets and Sonic Youth and Husker Du.,” says Stirratt. After a few years of toiling, touring and honing their craft, the band landed what they thought was a record label deal with Rockville Records, where they would join tour-mates Uncle Tupelo. But communication breakdowns (and an inexperienced, and, perhaps, too pushy manager) led to a stalemate with Rockville. The band’s master tapes for what would have been their first CD were not released from Memphis Easley Studios when Rockville refused to pay the bill.
“We had put out a cassette release ourselves before that called Holler,” says Stirratt. “And we were working on Big Black River, the second Hilltops record, at Easley, which the record company was paying for. What happened was—I still don’t know exactly what happened to this day—but we had a manager at the time that was not very experienced. He apparently was making their lives miserable at Rockville, unbeknownst to us. We didn’t know any of this stuff was going on. I don’t know what went down between them, but when it came time to pay the balance on the recording, they said the deal was over. They wouldn’t pay [the bill]. They hadn’t even heard the record, which leads me to believe that our manger was such a pain in the ass that they were just like: Fuck it! Or they just didn’t have the money. Who knows? So it sat in the studio because Doug Easley wouldn’t release it to us, which I understand because there was a balance of like $1,500 owed. That was in 1990 and it was a lot more money than it is now. We couldn’t get the record out. Two years later, Blue Mountain had formed, and Mark Roberts started Fishtone records. Fishtone wanted to put it out so they bought the master tapes. But when we went to get the tapes back we wanted to remix it. It had been so long since we had done it that Doug Easley had recorded over the master tape because it was on two-inch tape, which costs a lot of money. All we had was a DAT. We couldn’t remix it and can never remix it. So they put it out as is, and that was Big Black River. It had four or five tracks from the cassette release. “
It wasn’t long after those then-fruitless studio sessions that The Hilltops were already nearing their end. Sibling tensions between John and Laurie got the best of them. “I hate to say it,” Laurie says. “But at that point in our lives we really weren’t getting along that well. You know, we’re siblings in a band and siblings in bands are notorious for fighting. It wasn’t working. It was nobody’s fault in particular. It certainly wasn’t his fault. We just weren’t getting along. That’s basically it.”
John moved back to New Orleans for a while and was soon asked to join The Hilltops’ old touring partners Uncle Tupelo, after serving as their guitar tech for a European tour (he’d later follow Jeff Tweedy to Wilco when Uncle Tupelo broke up). Hudson and Stirrattt moved to Los Angeles for a brief period. They returned with a new moniker—Blue Mountain, named after the rural community east of Oxford. A self-titled (though lovingly referred to as “The Lite-Brite Album” by fans due to nostalgic cover art depicting the 1970s children’s toy), self-released debut record soon followed. “Lite Brite” contained what were to be signature tunes for the band, and a signature sound. Part gospel revival, part hoedown, part furious rock abandon, the Blue Mountain sound was being established.
Blue Mountain was fairly lumped in with the alt-country set that was taking hold at the time. Indeed, the band did share a commonality with folks like Uncle Tupelo, The Jayhawks and others who typified what some people called a new sub-genre. “There have been times when I didn’t like that [label],” says Hudson. “But I have to say that I’m really proud to be associated with the bands that are in that category. When people mention the name Blue Mountain along with Uncle Tupelo and the Jayhawks and Jason and the Scorchers, that makes me proud.” Like those bands, Blue Mountain’s emphasis was on original songwriting, but their near punk-rock enthusiasm was balanced by a reverence for their roots. What set Blue Mountain apart however was their Southern swagger.
“We liked the idea of having a regional sound but being harder edged,” Stirrattt says. But it wasn’t contrived. “It comes out the way it comes out,” says Stirrattt. “Or it should. I’m a true believer in the fact that if you try to manufacture a certain sound it never comes off. Do you know what I mean? You have to write from what you know. And whatever comes out is a direct result of your influences and where you live and a lot of things I think. So we never tried to manufacture any kind of sound”
After the “Lite Brite” album, the labels came knocking again. Record exec Jeff Pachman, who had originally singed The Hilltops to Rockville, was now with Roadrunner Records. “He had kind of followed our career and was a really big fan and felt bad about what had happened” says Stirrattt.
Roadrunner was one of the largest independent record labels of the day (no matter that the band was mostly known for metal titles) and released the watershed album Dog Days. Though it contained many of the same tunes as the “Light Bright” record, Dog Days allowed the band a much wider exposure, and the accolades and fans followed.
Down The Bloody 98
Record label deal, nationwide touring, magazine covers (Blue Mountain graced the second-ever issue of No Depression); it seemed as though Blue Mountain had made it. But things weren’t exactly what they seemed. Though Roadrunner was technically an independent label, they were big. The deal they wrangled with Blue Mountain was typical of a big record label contract. That is to say, it didn’t exactly favor the members of Blue Mountain.
“They got the record out there and pushed the hell out of it. But it wasn’t in our best interest in the long term scheme of things,” says Stirrattt. Blue Mountain was part of an ill-fated movement by Roadrunner to branch out into other genres. Dog Days sold 20,000 copies—a big success for Blue Mountain, but not big numbers compared to label mates like heavy metal acts Sepultura and Type-O Negative. “Their experiment was not working out,” Stiratt told Oxford, Mississippi’s The Local Voice. In time, the label experienced more and more turnover, including the departure of their primary advocate, Pachman. “We became less of a priority. By the third record, it was dismal. All we thought about was getting out of the deal…We weren’t seeing eye-to-eye creatively. They wanted us to play up the hayseed-country hick-schtick, which was horrifying. They made wardrobe suggestions. The contract was old-school and we never made a dime from record sales.”
In addition to a troubling financial and creative relationship with their record label, Stirrattt developed a crippling, and career-threatening condition—tendonitis. The problem worsened to the point where she had trouble playing bass. Rather than call it quits, the band made the difficult decision to expand the lineup, bringing on George Sheldon to play bass, while Laurie switched to acoustic guitar. “We had been on the road a lot,” says Stirrattt. “Mainly it in my wrist but also in my elbow and shoulder. It was excruciating and sometimes it was all I could do to get through a show. So we were trying to figure out what to do. I went to doctors and didn’t get much help, and so we decided to go to a four-piece. We had been playing around with George Sheldon and we always liked George a lot and also he just had a really distinct kind of strange style that was like…it was out there, but we really liked how he approached music. He’s a natural born musician. So we decided to take him on playing bass and I would switch the acoustic, and so that really helped my tendonitis. It wasn’t nearly as demanding.”
The band went on to record their third album 1999’s Tales of A Traveler (Homegrown had come out in ’97) with the expanded lineup. But things weren’t quite right. “I really enjoy playing guitar. I write on guitar,” says Stirrattt. “But I love playing bass. It’s my favorite instrument, hands down.”
Through label pressures, line-up changes, debilitating injuries and a back-breaking work ethic, the road was taking its toll, on both the marriage and the band. “One thing that was particularly hard on the marriage,” says Stirrattt “was that there was so much pressure. This was all we had. The band was all we had. We worked so hard, so hard for years. We toured all the time. It was our sole source of income. So there was a lot of pressure and I think that caused problems.” Cary Hudson concurs: “It was sheer burnout. We worked our asses off. And of course that can take its toll on a band. It can take its toll on a relationship.”
The problems mounted to the extent that the marriage was sacrificed to the band. Hudson and Stirrattt ended their marriage but vowed to keep the band going. But the strained relationship made it more difficult to collaborate on new songs. So they didn’t. Instead, now free from Roadrunner, they self-released a covers record that focused on public domain songs. The acclaimed Roots was released in 2001. But the band began to unravel too. Having received successful acupuncture treatment for her tendonitis, Stirrattt longed to return to her favorite instrument. “[The four-piece] changed the sound of the band a lot,” says Stirratt. “George has a different bass style than I do, and then adding a guitar. As much as I enjoy playing with George and what he contributed—because he did contribute a lot to the band—I always longed for the three-piece again.”
After a tense band meeting, long-time drummer Frank Coutch and Sheldon parted with Hudson and Stirrattt and yet, still, Blue Mountain braved on with drummer Ted Gainey as long as they could. They released the double disc live album, Tonight Its Now Or Never, in 2001. It was to be their swan song.
Don’t Call It A Reunion
But six years later, an offer came from the organizers of Twangfest in St. Louis. Cary Hudson had played for the festival organizers as a solo artist, and the festival put an offer on the table for Blue Mountain. After a little bit of discussion, they decided to give it a shot. “We had talked about doing it before. About a year before it we had discussed it but I think it was just timing,” says Hudson.
So Blue Mountain reconvened in their quintessential trio lineup—Hudson on guitar, Stirrattt on bass, Coutch on drums—for what was to be a show or two, just to see how it went. It went well. Very well. The band had so much fun in St. Louis and at another show in Chicago, they began listening to the many other offers that were being hurled at them. “The band sounded better than ever I think,” said Stirrattt. “I think we’re all better musicians, so that’s a big part of it that made us think maybe we should keep this thing going. Plus, it was just a blast. It was really fun. And we’re all really good friends and have a lot of respect for each other.” A couple of hometown gigs in Oxford turned into a couple of other gigs in Mississippi, then around the Southeast, including a slot at Tennessee’s Mucklewain Festival in September.
Apparently, time had healed all wounds. Blue Mountain had successfully buried their troubles in the past and cranked the engine up again, full speed ahead. “Enough time had elapsed for whatever to be under the bridge was under the bridge so that we could really enjoy playing together and hanging out together,” says Hudson. “It just seemed like when we broke up the band, we needed a break from it. And this was the time to get back to it.”
But not just time. Having explored other avenues helped too, and the band came back stronger. Indeed, the members of Blue Mountain have stayed busy during the intervening seven years. Drummer Frank Coutch kept busy beating the skins for the garage punk outfit Tyler Keith and the Preacher’s Kids. Stirratt moved to Chicago, where she started a record label, Broadmoor Records , with her brother John. “The reason I started it John and I started the label together,” says Laurie, “was that I wanted to be able to release our own music and not have to depend on a record label.” The Stirratts released a collaborative record, Arabella, on the Broadmoor label in 2004. And she collaborated with Danny Black in the band Healthy White Baby and released an eponymous record for that band too.
But Stirratt seems equally focused on other projects, most notably the pastoral pop duo Autumn Defense, which consists of John Stirrattt and his Wilco band-mate Pat Sansone. Autumn Defense has released three records on Broadmoor, each of them elegantly packaged. Through those years of struggling with record labels, Stirrattt learned a lot. “I’ve been working really hard to get the label to the point it is now where I have everything in line with distribution and all of those things you need,” says Stirrattt. “You know, it’s just such a different business these days than 10 years ago or 15 years ago, and I’ve had to relearn how to promote a band and how to promote a record. But it’s going really well and I’ve got some new ideas that might pan out to be pretty interesting. I’m just trying to stay ahead of the curve. I want to put out CDs that people will want to buy, instead of just downloads. People see CDs as so disposable. It’s not like LPs…people never had that attitude with LPs. So we try to make the packages really nice. Every package we’ve done is really nice. I’m hoping there’s a market out there.”
As for Hudson, he released three well-received solo albums— The Phoenix (2001), Cool Breeze (2003) and last year’s Bittersweet Blues. He’s toured alone and with his Cary Hudson Trio pretty extensively. But none of those experiences had the punch of the magical chemistry that is Blue Mountain. “Blue Mountain feels like a real band,” Hudson says. “And there’s a real difference between a real band and a singer-songwriter and some hired guns. After [latter-day Blue Mountain and Cary Hudson Trio drummer] Ted Gainey retired from the music industry, I kind of felt like it was just me and pick-up bands. I’ve enjoyed everybody I’ve played with but you know, Laurie and Frank and I have played certainly over a thousand gigs. Probably over 1,500, and that’s pretty hard to replace. You really know each other well and know how each other plays. And it’s a special thing you can’t replace.”
That intangible quality shows not only on the stage but in the songwriting too. “I’m a fairly prolific songwriter, says Hudson “but somehow the songwriting comes out different when I’m working with Frank and Laurie. I’m not trying to write a Blue Mountain song but it just comes out differently, in a really good way”
In many ways, Blue Mountain 2.0 merely represents the maturation of the players. “When we were in our 20s,” says Hudson, “that was all that we had going on. Blue Mountain was just a full-time, 100 hour a week thing. At this point, I have a 5 year old. Laurie has a niece up in Chicago that she’s really close to. It’s more like we’re grown-ups now. Music and Blue Mountain will always be a huge part of my life. I want to write some songs from the perspective of being an adult or being a dad. That doesn’t mean I’m not a rock and roller any more. But a lot of our audience that used to come see us has new life experiences and will relate to songs about that.”
All of this has helped foster an environment conducive to the return of Blue Mountain.“I think that’s the important thing this time around,” says Stirratt.” We all have other irons in the fire. Frank is still playing with Tyler. Cary is still doing his solo shows. I’m still running the record label and plan to do occasional projects with John, and we specifically came into this like: This is going to be fun. It’s about fun”
Very quickly, it seemed as if they picked up where they left off. “What we’re excited about right now is writing the new chapter. It’s fun to play the old Blue Mountain songs but I’m not ready to do a nostalgia act. It’s time to write some new Blue Mountain songs.”
And so they have. The band has been busy woodshedding in between shows. The few new tunes they’ve debuted carry that distinctive Blue Mountain flair—that swagger that set them apart. They’re heading into the studio soon with plans to release a new album on Broadmoor within the year. Right about now, it seems as though what once looked like a break-up, now looks just like a break.
“We’re back, says Stirratt. “Yeah, we’re back.”