Song of the Vulgar Boatmen

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The strange tale of a genre-blending college rock phenomenon who never quite made it to the canon.

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Robert Ham | November 24, 2015

Vulgar Boatmen

Every music obsessive has a handful of artists that never got widely known but that they love and champion at any chance they get—those bands or solo players that get added to every mixtape or that get brought up in conversations about another act that might have a similar sound. For this writer, one of mine was a unique collective of musicians and songwriters called The Vulgar Boatmen. I stumbled across a cassette of the group’s debut album You And Your Sister in my local library and was, from the first play, a fan for life.

To be fair, this band wasn’t completely unknown. The Boatmen were critically revered, getting warm reviews in The Village Voice, where Greil Marcus praised their 1989 debut full-length You And Your Sister as “insinuating songs orchestrated by a quiet band… tunes very ‘50s in their cadence, present-day in their insistence on doubt,” and Rolling Stone, who lavished their 1992 follow-up Please Panic with a four-star review. At the same time, they were a consistent concert draw and, in their native Midwest, their songs were regularly requested on left-of-the-dial stations.

Yet, for all that critical acclaim, the Boatmen never earned the mass appeal that they could have. Even though they provided the vital sonic bridge between the jangly, post-punk-inspired college rock of artists like R.E.M. and Guadalcanal Diary and alt-country firestarters like Old ‘97s and Whiskeytown, they got lost in the wind due to long waits between albums, record company fumblings, and the somewhat strange wrinkle that there were two versions of the band—one based in Indianapolis, led by Dale Lawrence; the other fronted by Robert Ray in Gainesville, Florida—that shared songs and sensibilities. (More on this bizarre circumstance later.)

Though I was content to have the Vulgar Boatmen remain my secret, only to be shared with my likeminded friends, I was pleasantly surprised to get the news last month that the band was reissuing You And Your Sister in a slightly remixed form and with some additional tracks from the era tacked on.

The unusual working arrangement produced some impressive results. You and Your Sister is a masterful collage of genres. On tracks like “Cry Real Tears” and “Drink More Coffee,” rockabilly morphs into art pop and back again.

“It’s not like we made a conscious decision not to bring these back out sooner,” Lawrence says of this new edition of his band’s debut to be released on the 28th of November via TimeChange Records. “It just didn’t seem like it made the most sense since we were footing the bills for all this. This year, we realized it was the 25th anniversary [of You And Your Sister] so we thought at first, ‘Let’s build a couple of shows around that.’ And then we thought: let’s remaster it and redo it.”

There was a resigned tone to Lawrence’s voice, just as there was with Ray when I spoke with him about the band a few weeks later. They’re both happy to see their work put back out into the world in some form, but it’s obvious that their expectations are miniscule. They’re happy enough to talk about the album and its creation. They’re even happier when they start quizzing me about what music I’ve been listening to.

The Vulgar Boatmen perform in 2011.

The Vulgar Boatmen perform in 2011.

The harsh truth is that they’ve been down this road before: the excitement of releasing an album that gets slowly dulled by obstacles both big and small. With You And Your Sister, it was the frustration that being on a small label—Record Collect, the imprint run by original Boatmen member Walter Salas-Humara—meant that pressing fresh copies of the album to meet demand was slow. “‘Drive Somewhere’ got real airplay in Chicago on WXRT in 1990,” Lawrence remembers. “It ended up being one of the top five most requested songs of the year. But the reason it was requested so much was because nobody could buy it!”

Worse was the fate of their third and final LP Opposite Sex, which never came out here in the States. The group had a deal with Warner subsidiary EastWest in Europe, with the understanding that part of the contract included a deal with Elektra Records in the U.S. That helped get them tour dates in Germany and Austria, and a spot on Later…With Jools Holland. But at that same time, a new regime took over their American label and all new signings, including the Boatmen, were axed. This, at least for Ray, was the final straw.

“I couldn’t keep making records that no one is going to hear,” he says. “I couldn’t commit myself to this thing that didn’t seem to be going anywhere. Dale thought differently. It was his livelihood. But by this time my academic career where I was writing books and I had children in school. So when he said, ‘We need to write more songs,’ I told him, “I think I’ve retired from that.’”

Up to that point, Ray was content to be something of a part-time rock ‘n’ roller;he has long been concentrating his efforts on his comparative literature and film theory studies. In fact, it was through his academic work that Ray met his future songwriting partner in the late ‘70s, when he was helping to teach a class about song lyrics at the University of Indiana.

“Robert taught us a survey of American popular music in the 20th century,” Lawrence says. “And at one point, he let it drop that he had seen Elvis in 1954 or ‘55, so I immediately went to his office hours to talk.”

The pair bonded quickly over mutual musical interests like Southern soul and R&B, early rock, Tin Pan Alley songwriters, and the work of Broadway hitmakers such as Rogers and Hammerstein. It was a few years before they started collaborating together, which was slightly complicated by the fact that Ray was now living in Florida. This, though, started their practice of mailing cassettes to each other, bashing together songs transnationally.

We could record until we got what we wanted and you don’t really have that luxury unless you can afford it, and certainly not in an expensive studio. We did it completely at our leisure.

Here’s where things start to get tangled up. At the time, The Vulgar Boatmen were a going concern in Florida, led by Salas-Humara. Ray joined the group in 1982, and was soon promoted to front man after their former leader decamped for New York. In need of material, the Boatmen started working in songs co-written by Lawrence, who was already performing them with his band, Right To Left.

“As we wrote more and more together,” Lawrence recalls, “the two bands’ repertoires were largely mirroring each other. We just decided to pool our resources.”

That also led him to change his own band’s name to The Vulgar Boatmen, a decision made easier by the knowledge that Ray’s version of the group would only play live about four times a year.

The unusual working arrangement produced some impressive results. You and Your Sister is a masterful collage of genres. On tracks like “Cry Real Tears” and “Drink More Coffee,” rockabilly morphs into art pop and back again. “You And Your Sister” and “Katie” are honky tonk born and college rock bred. And through it all, tightly knit Everly Brothers-style vocal harmonies and crystal clear instrumental performances shine.

Sister is also one of the most relaxed records you’re likely to hear, a byproduct of the easygoing atmosphere that they were allowed while recording it in Ray’s Gainesville home studio with member of the Boatmen’s Florida chapter.

“We wouldn’t really try to rush anything,” Lawrence says. “We could record until we got what we wanted and you don’t really have that luxury unless you can afford it, and certainly not in an expensive studio. We did it completely at our leisure.”

After all this time, the Vulgar Boatmen are back in that same kind of position. Though the Florida version of the group is done, Lawrence still carries the torch in Indiana. It just doesn’t burn as brightly as it once did, as the group usually only plays private functions and the occasional club gig (they will be doing a small run of shows to promote the new edition of Sister before the end of the year, however). And while Lawrence does not hold out much hope that this reissue is going to reignite things for the band, he’s at peace with the twists and turns that his artistic career has taken.

“It’s been 20 years since the third album, and, yeah, you kind of have to come to terms with it,” he says. “Our experience is certainly not unique. You’re rolling the dice with a major label. It’s going to make you or likely break you. And it broke us in a bad way. Right now we’re just putting this out there to see if there’s any interest. Beyond that…we’ll see.”

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