Over the past 25 years, Chicago-based Waco Brothers have made a name for themselves through a rumbustious brand of alt-country and punk. As the saying goes, the more things change, the more they stay the same, and for the Wacos, that includes a contentious political environment. To get ready for the upcoming election, they compiled a collection of their political-minded songs for their new album “Resist!”
“Some of those songs were quite unavailable, and they certainly weren’t available on vinyl,” says lead singer Jon Langford. “And, with the election coming up, and the primaries, we felt that there was a lot of material that we’d written that was relevant, probably more relevant now. Songs that were written in the ’90s and the ’00s and for the last decade that are almost more relevant now under the current situation.”
For example, “Bad Times Are Coming ‘Round Again” was a song written at the start of gentrification in Chicago, “when Wicker Park was kind of turning over,” he says.
“Now you see gentrification on kind of a mass industrial scale throughout the city,” Langford says. “The last mayor wholeheartedly threw his weight behind the property developers and people who have basically destroyed much of the North Side and forced people out, in favor of young, white people moving in.”
Likewise, “Blink of an Eye” was written during the George W. Bush administration but Langford feels the line, “the president’s just half a man, riding in some giant’s hand,” is more applicable today. “I’m not sure he’s even half a man,” he says of Donald Trump.
For the Wacos, punk and alt-country are perfect vessels with which to convey a political message.
“Both forms of music engage their audience,” says Langford. “Basically, confronting day-to-day politics. Country music is a great storytelling medium. Other forms of music are great, but maybe don’t tell narratives in such a way as country music does. Also, it all comes out of a kind of folk tradition. Punk and country [are] types of music that come from the grassroots up, not like some other music that’s probably more interested in pedaling myths and selling records.”
Protest music has been influential throughout Langford’s life. When he was 18, he became a fan of The Sex Pistols and The Clash because they were “speaking to things I understood and frustrations I had as a kid.” He’s also influenced by Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan and reggae music.
He feels his views on politics are strengthened by the fact that he’s lived in two different countries, Great Britain and the U.S. For example, he feels socialism is a misunderstood concept here.
“Moving over here in the first place was a bit of a shock because I grew up in South Wales, which was staunchly socialist, and then you move here to America and it’s like socialism is almost satanic; people are so afraid of that concept,” says Langford. “The fact that someone like Bernie Sanders is sort of terrifying over here, it’s a shame really. ’Cause I don’t think what he’s proposing is all that radical, to me.”
The band also has used their music to support various causes, including abolishing the death penalty.
“I moved to a place where they were executing people willy nilly, like a production line,” says Langford. “And I felt I had to make a stand on that. So, we did a bunch of records that raised money for the Illinois campaign against the death penalty. Thankfully they abolished it. I just think there’s no excuse for barbarism wherever it occurs.”
He hopes people continue to be entertained but also informed by their songs.
“A Waco Brothers show is a really good time. People enjoy themselves — doesn’t need a lot of explanation,” says Langford. “It’s just a really good, live, rock band. But so many of the songs carry both critical and positive social messages. I don’t think necessarily you write a song that changes the world, but I think there’s some conversation going on there which provides some sort of solidarity for likeminded people.”
Joshua Miller is a local freelance writer.