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Magic 8 Ball

Cowpunk music queen Lydia Loveless leaves no place to hide

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The mighty Ohio River wraps around the lower half of the Buckeye State, forming the border between Kentucky to the south and West Virginia to the east. There must be some compound in that river's water that leaches into the soil of a state that could produce artists as iconic and disparate as Dwight Yoakam, Chrissie Hynde and Devo. Now the national spotlight is beginning to find another potent product of Ohio, a big-voiced country-punk spitfire named Lydia Loveless.

Never heard of her? You're not alone. Although she's released two critically acclaimed albums on Bloodshot Records and played hundreds of shows to thousands of fans across the country, the Columbus-based Loveless is not exactly a household name. It'd be hard, then, to find a more apt title for a movie about her than Who is Lydia Loveless?, the new Kickstarter-funded documentary by Gorman Bechard that gets a sneak-peek screening Feb. 24 as part of the Big Sky Documentary Film Festival. Loveless makes an appearance with a live solo show the next evening at the Top Hat.

"I'm trying to figure out if I'm shy or, uh, massively obnoxious," says the 24-year-old musician in the trailer for the film. Appearances don't lend much in the way of clues to her true self, as her look vacillates between coy and chaotic. Sometimes she's the boots-and-skirt cowgirl queen, other times she's the punk clad in black leather, wearing dark Ray-Bans and a T-shirt that reads "I Have the Pussy, I Make the Rules." It's this duality that makes her music so immediate and so powerful. And she does it with a fearless honesty you rarely hear from an artist so young. Songs like "Just Want to See You Again" from 2014's Somewhere Else sound like they were found in the diary of a tormented girl in the grip of anguish over a busted romance. "There were times I was such a bitch/ I can be so insensitive," she sings. "I really want to make it up to you now so I just thought I would call/ As I was cleaning up my room I found a Magic 8 Ball/ I asked if I'd ever get to kiss your lips again and it said, 'I'd better not tell you right now'/ so you know I had to call." Who among us hasn't succumbed to that late-night surge of regret and woulda-coulda-shoulda and picked up the phone to drunk dial an ex? It's hilarious and heartbreaking, and it makes you a little uncomfortable because the details are so on the money.

Ohio-based alt-country singer Lydia Loveless performs in Missoula Thu., Feb. 25,—the day after a documentary about her screens as part of the Big Sky Documentary Film Festival. - PHOTO COURTESY OF TODD COOPER
  • photo courtesy of Todd Cooper
  • Ohio-based alt-country singer Lydia Loveless performs in Missoula Thu., Feb. 25,—the day after a documentary about her screens as part of the Big Sky Documentary Film Festival.

Another thing that makes Loveless so compelling is her unapologetic approach to the music. Signed to Bloodshot, Chicago's pioneering alt-country label, she's produced unvarnished rock that's way more punk than prairie. Check out the feedback-drenched intro to "Boy Crazy," the title song of her 2013 EP, recorded at the tender age of 21. "We rehearsed for about a week and then went into the studio with a couple 30-packs and knocked it out," she wrote on the Bloodshot website. Probably not something you'd hear from Emmylou. Which is not to say Loveless isn't fully capable of pulling off a traditional country weeper, even tossing in an effortless yodel when the song calls for it.

But it's that shotgun wedding of country and punk that drives her band and informs her music. She's not exactly a progenitor—Jason and the Scorchers and Rank and File were blazing this trail more than 30 years ago—but Loveless has created her own space in the genre. She can sometimes be a little too punk to be contained under the umbrella of Americana, maybe cutting her off from some radio play. She couldn't give less of a shit. She's a force of nature who won't be steamrolled by corporate whims. With a voice that can go from a quavering murmur to a thrilling wail, she cannot be overpowered by even the most raging guitar rock her band can produce.

The album cover of 2013's Indestructible Machine features a cartoon of a redhead with jeans and high heels kicked back in the sand of a desert wasteland, tipping her head back to guzzle from a gasoline can. A hazy typewriter is prominent among the rocks in the background, suggesting a writing approach that might have more to do with Bukowski and Thompson than with Dolly or Loretta. And judging by some of the observations made by her bandmates in the trailer, she might be just as unpredictable.

"She's like your greatest fantasy and your worst fucking nightmare all in one," says bass player Ben Lamb. He should know. He's married to her.

Punk and country might seem like oil and water, but their power comes from exactly the same source: straight-up, uncomplicated music paired with honest, simple lyrics. Loveless seems to have an instinctive grip on the common ground, and her songs about desperation, lust, drunken rebellion and pain sound like they come from a tortured soul who's lived several lifetimes. When she opens her mouth and that big voice delivers the truth, there's nowhere you can hide. Lydia Loveless knows where you've been and she knows how you feel.

Who is Lydia Loveless? screens at the Top Hat Wed., Feb. 24, at 8 PM. Lydia Loveless performs a solo acoustic performance at the Top Hat Thu., Feb. 25. Doors at 7:30 PM, show at 8. $12/$10 advance.

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