Before either of their bands achieved major national prominence, Screaming Trees’ Mark Lanegan and Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain were briefly members of a tribute band honoring the great blues artist Leadbelly. The band, called “The Jury,” was ill-documented, but it’s been mentioned in passing in numerous articles, like this one in the old Seattle music mag The Rocket.
That’s also how he [Lanegan] describes the events that led to his two highly-acclaimed solo albums on Sub Pop. He says the solo records came out of some work he was doing with his close friend Kurt Cobain, and that he felt it was pretentious to release a solo album. “It happened because Kurt and I were going to do this thing—with Krist Novoselic and Mark Pickerel—of Leadbelly covers. And that just kind of fell apart. But Pickerel and Jonathan Poneman kind of dreamt up the idea of doing the solo thing. I had some demos that I’d been working on and a bunch of demos I’d done with Kurt, that I never really gave him credit for.”
Those demos were recorded with Skin Yard guitarist Jack Endino, then and still the go-to producer in Seattle for heavy rock, during two sessions in August of 1989.
Easily the best-known expression of Lanegan and Cobain’s Leadbelly fandom was Nirvana’s MTV Unplugged version of “Where Did You Sleep Last Night,” a/k/a “In the Pines.” If you were breathing, sentient, and reasonably conscious in 1994, you saw the footage of that performance about twelve million times in the months following Cobain’s suicide, but Cobain had previously recorded that song with the Jury, and it was released on Mark Lanegan’s 1990 solo debut, The Winding Sheet. Cobain appears here on guitar, and shares vocals with Lanegan, though it’s Lanegan’s voice that dominates. It’s much more stylized and menacing than Nirvana’s more organic Unplugged take on the song—and one of the doomiest versions of that much-recorded old song there is.
Other recordings of the Jury that have surfaced are an instrumental version of “Grey Goose,” a solo acoustic Cobain performance of “They Hung Him on a Cross,” and a full band version of “Ain’t It a Shame to Go Fishin’ on a Sunday.” They turned up on the completist’s goldmine 2004 Nirvana boxed set With The Lights Out, the last one’s title truncated to “Ain’t it a Shame.” Cobain is out in front on that one. Some Internet sources have it that Lanegan played guitar on this, but as far as I can tell that credit is absent from the release, and I’m unaware of Lanegan playing any instrument. When you have a singing voice like his, who needs to?
Happy 50th birthday to Mark Lanegan! Also, happy birthday and bottomless gratitude to Beth Piwkowski, whose idea this post was.