Lydia Loveless Knows the Value of a Bad Attitude

Don't call her 'punk,' country will do just fine

Most of the early reviews of Lydia Loveless' new album, Indestructible Machine, describe the Ohio singer/songwriter and her band as some kind of combination of punk rock and country music. Perhaps it is because the new disc was released by Bloodshot Records, the Chicago "insurgent country" label that has represented such true country-punk pioneers as Alejandro Escovedo and the Mekons. Loveless herself thinks the "punk" part of that equation understates just how rowdy and foul-mouthed country music can be.

"I definitely think country has just as much of a rock 'n' roll side to it as much as anything else does," she says. "I would never describe my music as punk. Maybe rock 'n' roll or country, but country has just as bad an attitude as punk does."

Take, for example, the fact that six of the nine songs on the radio promo of Indestructible Machine have FCC warnings for explicit language. Or "Jesus Was a Wino," a 21st-century descendant of late-'60s and early-'70s country kiss-off songs like Cal Smith's "The Lord Knows I'm Drinking" and Jeannie C. Reilly's "Harper Valley PTA" that appears on Indestructible Machine. "If people knew, they would look down on you," Loveless sings as her band cranks out a heavy, chugging freight-train rhythm. "Don't they know that it's true/That Jesus was a wino, too."

"‘Jesus Was a Wino' is pretty much an idea I had regarding uppity Christians who think you're going to hell if you drink," she says. "I was laughing, thinking of all the references to wine in the Bible. That pretty much wrote itself, poking fun at judgmental people."

Loveless' music career started when she picked up a bass as a teenager to join her older sisters in an indie-rock group. She eventually switched to guitar, and then started writing songs, which sparked her initial interest in country music. Until just a couple of years ago, Loveless, then a teenager, was performing with her father at bars and small clubs around Columbus, Ohio. Then her manager introduced her to a few local musicians who quickly gelled as her full-time backing band. (Her father still plays drums in the band.)

"I think it's made me more confident as a songwriter, to have to introduce my songs to a band, as opposed to just, ‘I like it, it must be good,'" she says. (It shows. When asked what kind of response she expected to the new album, she says, "I expected people to like it. If I had released it independently, it probably wouldn't be as well received. Just having the label on my side to promote it, I expected it to do pretty well. I was excited about it so I figured everyone else would be, too.")

Her debut album was released in 2010, followed by Indestructible Machine in September of this year. Response so far has been uniformly positive, and with good reason. The pint-sized Loveless, now 21, has a big voice, reminiscent in particular of Neko Case, and in her songs she has the perfect bad attitude for the kind of music she plays. Think of Miranda Lambert, without the polish and slickness of the Nashville machine. Her songs alternate between desperate ballads, like "Crazy" ("I'm going to try so hard not to look like a drunken fool"), and raging country rockers like "Do Right." And then there's "Bad Way to Go," the album's best song— "What a bad way to go/For you to love me and never let me know"—where Loveless expresses a profound, reckless longing that matches anything by just about any recent country singer, alternative or not.

But the song that everyone who hears Indestructible Machine will end up talking about is "Steve Earle," a picaresque about the godfather of contemporary alt-country stalking Loveless at her shows, trying to lure her back to his place with drugs and promises of a jam session.

"‘Steve Earle' was actually about a guy who played music in Columbus. He would come to my shows and refer to himself as the Steve Earle of Columbus. He'd say I should come over and jam and really just creeped me out. In one part I say, ‘How'd you get my number?' It's hilarious, because he really did just randomly get my number and it was like, ‘What the hell? I wish this really was Steve Earle.'"