If you’re driven to be a truth-teller, you might, at some point, find yourself blacklisted. I’ve only been blacklisted once (that I know of), and it was after I did an interview with a band that went very, very south. I wove what happened into the article — a risk to be sure, and one that was met with both praise and a smidge of industry blacklisting. (In retrospect, it could’ve been way, way worse. But I had never dealt with that at the time, and the whole ordeal made me want to disappear into the nearest cave.) The thing about being blacklisted, though, is that while it absolutely sucks in the moment, it is nonetheless a defining moment. It lets you know who your real friends are, and where you should go moving forward.
Blacklisted also happens to be the name of Neko Case’s standout third album, which came out 20 years ago this Saturday. At the time, the project was rumored to be called Blacklisted because she’d allegedly been banned for life from the Grand Ole Opry after taking her shirt off during an August 2001 performance at one of their outdoor “Opry Plaza” shows. Case always denied that, saying in 2004 that she’d “had heat stroke. People would love it to be a ‘fuck you’ punk thing. But it was actually a physical ailment thing.”
Even though it does not allude to the incident fans think it does, Blacklisted marked a major turning point for Case’s entire solo career. It’s the moment she went from country traditionalist via 1997’s Virginian and 2000’s Furnace Room Lullaby to forging her very own country-noir sound, one that legions of younger artists have sought to emulate in the years since it came out.
Like other musicians who would subvert traditionalist country songwriting, Case has a fair amount in common with the outlaw community. Born in Virginia, she moved around quite a bit as a kid and ultimately left home at age 15. She gigged around the Northwest in punk-rock bands and decamped to Canada, where she attended art school in Vancouver. She didn’t finish her Bachelor’s, and thus couldn’t stay in the Great White North for visa reasons. Before moving out, she laid down some vocals for a little-known group called the New Pornographers, who were recording a new project called Mass Romantic.
As a solo performer, Case quickly earned comparisons to alt-country progenitor Lucinda Williams, honkey-tonk hero Loretta Lynn, and rockabilly pioneer Wanda Jackson — artists who, in their own individual ways, were lauded for tinkering with an otherwise conformist format like country music. The irony of Case’s own DIY leanings did not escape her, as she told the Las Vegas Sun in 1999: “I think now is the time for change in country music; hopefully it’ll change for the better. It really burns that all the bands that inspired me were part of a national country music culture that was really admirable and fairly diverse at one time. I want to have the same avenues open to me. It’s like having this beautiful old building in your neighborhood and coming back to find that they’ve torn it down and built a Walmart in its place.”
Unfortunately, any country-leaning artist who dares defy the absolutist status quo tends to find themselves blacklisted from something, large or small-scale. The Chicks are intimately familiar with this gross reality, and in 2003 Case stuck up for them in grand fashion, telling EW:
They’re fellow musicians, and they’re fellow women, and I’m going to stick up for them. I was on a plane to Nashville and I was reading a magazine that the Dixie Chicks were on the cover of. The guy next to me said something about how the Dixie Chicks are so goddamn stupid, and I said, “You don’t know a fucking thing about me, leave me alone.” And then he just went off blah-dee-blah about the President, and I said, “I hate the President and I’m not sorry, so leave me the fuck alone.” I’m all mad. [Laughing] Sorry, I can get a little ranty.
On Blacklisted — which was produced by alt-country studio leader Craig Schumacher (the Jayhawks, Calexico) and features assistance from Giant Sand’s Howe Gelb, Calexico’s Joey Burns and John Convertino, and vocalists Kelly Hogan and Mary Margaret O’Hara — Case gave the proverbial wheel a sharp left turn, off Nashville’s convention-seeking Music Row and into the unknown.
For all of its then-new experimentation, Blacklisted sounds instantly familiar, which you can attribute to Case’s unmatched vocal soar and pioneering ability to mesh multiple genres with ease, its inherent edginess molded by her history in punk bands. Tonally, Blacklisted is equal parts warm and foreboding, with songs like opener “Things That Scare Me” and “I Missed The Point” holding both truths perfectly. On the latter, Case admits over twanging banjo, “Dark clouds gather/ Velvet holes/ Gaping wide oh/ And they pour it down/ And they sing to me/ Of wonders/ Unseen.” Before long, Case apologizes for her inability to be the sort of unblemished performer they’d surely welcome at the Opry before concluding, “But I’m grateful that you love me.”
Maybe I’m editorializing the above, but “I Missed The Point” is definitely railing against something, whether it be the country mainstream, religion, or just about anything in the status quo. Around this time, Case was in her early 30s, which does tend to be a time in life where you figure out more acutely who you are and how you fit into society’s framework. A few years after Blacklisted came out, Case spoke about her love of tragic storytelling, which is fully embedded in Blacklisted and its follow-up, 2006’s Fox Confessor Brings The Flood.
The gloomily jangling “Deep Red Bells” is a true-crime tale about the Green River Killer, whose murders Case had said affected her childhood in Tacoma, Washington. “I remember I cried really hard when he got caught,” Case told the A.V. Club in 2006. “It was opening up a chapter in my life. I grew up while he was killing women, and on the news, they never talked about them like they were women. They just called them ‘prostitutes.’ Myself and other little girls in my neighborhood didn’t make that distinction; we thought the Green River Killer was going to kill us. We were scared of him. We’d go to school with steak knives in our pockets and stuff.”
As much as she carved out a new place for herself on Blacklisted, Case also paid homage to her heroes, reworking Aretha Franklin’s “Runnin’ Out Of Fools” and Sarah Vaughan’s “Look For Me (I’ll Be Around).” The way Case rebuilds both songs, though, is in keeping with the overall foreboding quality to Blacklisted, with “Runnin’ Out Of Fools” reaching a rare breaking point where she really lets her voice rip on the condemnation-filled chorus.
Meanwhile, the still-stunning “I Wish I Was The Moon” acts as something of a template for all future Case singles, but that doesn’t mean it has become any less extraordinary with time. Against a bed of mournful strings and steel guitar, Case sings of lost youth and “bloodless veins.” She describes the irony of being “a free man with no place free to go,” capturing in one couplet the way so many people wake up one day in middle-age and find themselves trapped in domesticity, in complacency. By the time you realize what’s happened, it’s too late to make a change; any choice made now comes with consequences. It aches for what has past and longs for something else. What that is, who can really say? All Case knows is, the conventional will not suffice. The punk in her lives on, and being Blacklisted will give her something to say for decades to come.