One of the bands that introduced me to alt-country — or whatever you want to call old-fashioned acoustic American string music — is a group that barely anyone has heard of: The Last Straw. Who, you ask? Well, it was sometime around 1988 or 1989 when I recall hearing Paul Budin of the Champaign rock band the Outnumbered saying something about how he was starting a new band that was going to play country music. (Full disclosure: Paul is a good friend of mine.) I graduated from college around this time, and I despised most of the country music I’d heard, which was mostly 1980s mainstream Nashville stuff. But I’d recently been struck by the greatness of At Folsom Prison when I heard it on the stereo in a campus bar called Eddie’s, as if hearing Johnny Cash for the first time. It would be a few years before I discovered Uncle Tupelo, who were just starting around this time. So I recall my reaction to what Paul said about starting a country band: Huh?
The Last Straw (who also featured another member of the Outnumbered, the very talented guitarist Tim McKeage) played a good number of gigs in Champaign, Chicago and elsewhere in the early ’90s, and I saw them several times at the Clearwater Saloon and the Heartland Cafe. They quickly made me a fan of the older sort of country music played by the likes of Hank Williams and the bluegrass of Bill Monroe. With their combination of guitar, fiddle and banjo, they helped me to see all the charms of this music. They released a couple of cassette tapes … and then they faded away. I think they were a few years ahead of their time. If they’d still been around when O Brother Where Art Thou spurred a revival of old-timey music, maybe the Last Straw would’ve gained more recognition.
Last Saturday (July 30), the Last Straw reunited for their first show in a long time — a one-time show organized by Budin at the Highdive in Champaign. And what a fine concert it was — some two hours of rollicking and tuneful original songs as well as the group’s favorite covers, all drawn from a rather big repertoire for a band whose recordings you can barely find anywhere. (The Last Straw was selling a new two-CD collection at the merch table, combining those early ’90s cassettes with a bunch of outtakes and live recordings, but it isn’t commercially available. Parasol Records has one 45 by the Last Straw in stock.)
For this show, the lineup included Budin, McKeage, Karen Lee Larson. Louis Yockey, Alton Patches and Thad Bales. The set included several songs written by drummer/guitarist/singer Matt Quirk, who was unable to attend, but the Last Straw recruited Brian Reedy, known for his inventive work with Lonely Trailer, to sit in on drums.
This gig was part of a weekend celebrating an old Champaign folk and jazz venue, Nature’s Table. The opening set was a sort of variety show, featuring a couple of songs each from Eric Fields, Jeff Barnet, Jeff Michel, Rick Schattnik, Emil Boulos and … Jack Logan?!? Yes, the great singer-songwriter Jack Logan, who hasn’t toured in ages, made the trip from his home in Georgia to see this gig and perform a couple of songs, backed by Budin and Reedy. Logan told me later: “I had a blast with Paul and his cohorts… I will drive any distance to experience Brian Reedy playing drums on ‘Shrunken Head.'” Now, if we could just get Logan to do a proper tour. (He told me he’s recording new songs, but it didn’t sound like he plans to tour anytime soon.) Come back, Jack Logan!