Cowboy junkie

By MIKE MILIARD  |  April 8, 2010

‘Abandoned culture’
Langford describes his technique as “very based on printmaking but totally perverse.” In the past, in much more colorful language, he’s more specifically called it a “long process of layering, scraping, minute attention to detail . . . a very unstable surface with acrylics and pastel on top of each other and work on top of that with Sharpies, felt pens, white-out, gunk, snot, and whatever comes to hand.”

Laid down on wood instead of canvas, their palimpsest-like layers of chipped paint worn and abraded, Langford’s portraits of Minnie Pearl, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Dolly Parton have an invitingly tactile appearance to them. “When I went to Nashville the first time, I saw all these old publicity photographs,” he says. “These kind of neglected objects up on the walls of bars, ripped and covered in nicotine smut.” It’s that timeworn feel he tries to emulate.

While his paintings are iconic, though, they’re also deeply personal. They’re “kind of autobiographical,” he says, exploring thematically the capricious violations of being run “through the mill of the music industry,” but that’s done, for the most part, with worn and weathered portraits of bygone country superstars. “I wanted to do stuff about my experiences, but it took the shape of finding parallel stories in the music of people like Hank Williams, Bob Wills, Jimmy Rogers, Patsy Cline, and Kitty Wells,” says Langford.

Many of those artists were chewed up and spit out by the music industry, too. Worse, so many the country pioneers who stomped the stage of the Ryman Auditorium have been forgotten in favor of the overproduced bombast that constitutes so much of Today’s Hot CountryTM.

“I thought that was American culture, but America had sort of chosen to abandon it. The country music that I loved so much wasn’t there on the radio,” says Langford.

Langford’s paintings — with titles such as “Hank Signs His Contract,” “The Death of Country Music,” and “To the Last Dead Cowboy” — are rueful, funny, sometimes disquieting meditations on the ghost town that once was Music City USA, and the victims of its music-biz depredations. We see Hank Williams as St. Sebastian, shot through with arrows. Blindfolded singing cowboys. Spur-jangling skeletons. The central figures are surrounded by Langford’s lyrics, the surface spangled with crosses and dollar signs, burning hearts and coiled snakes, baleful words: NEGLECT . . . GREED . . . RUIN.

‘Branched out’
But his paintings aren’t only cowboys and country music. Langford’s provocative portrait subjects — early baseball great Honus Wagner, forgotten boxer Sam Langford (no relation), and executed labor activist Joe Hill — comment on everything from pop culture to capital punishment. “It’s really branched out to all sorts of weird areas,” he says. “The pictures are kind of broader . . . about my experiences living in America.”

As it happens, one corner of America that he’s particularly fond of is Maine. “Usually when I go up there, I spend a lot of time visiting my wife’s large Greek family. Her mother was from Portland, and her grandfather was a baker, had a bakery shop downtown. And they have funny, old ramshackle house out on the beach at Pine Point, so we spent a lot of time out there as well, eating lobsters and swimming.”

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