In 1987 or so, a pal of mine procured an LP by a band called Country Bob and the BloodFarmers. Titled “Goin’ To Hell In A Hatbasket,” it commanded the attention and imaginations of the really good weirdos in our circle of friends like little else. There was a vogue for all sorts of rural-coded rock music at that time, but the lion’s share of attention was paid to MTV fodder like Lone Justice and Jason & the Scorchers. The independent/underground scene boasted so-called “cowpunk” bands like Rank & File, the gothier Tex & the Horseheads, and the more gonzo likes of Elvis Hitler, Mojo Nixon and Skid Roper, and the Raunch Hands, but Country Bob and the BloodFarmers went miles farther than all of them in terms of musical extremity, Southern gothic death-trip lyrics, and driving sacred cows into the slaughterhouse (though Elvis Hitler certainly nipped at their heels).
It was clearly a jokey album, full of breakneck punk/hayseed anthems like the Ed Gein tribute “Bowl Full of Noses,” the no-holds-barred torpedoing of southern racism “Black Cowboy,” or the single gnarliest cover of Roger Miller’s “Dang Me” I know. The inner sleeve boasted a lyric sheet on one side and “The American Gothic Tribune” on the other, a police blotter style compilation of hilariously disturbing fake news items from the “South.” (The stuff would ring familiar to anyone who knows Michael Lesy and Charles Van Schaick’s Wisconsin Death Trip.) One involved the attempted murder of all of his children by one “Gomer P. Neighbors,” a joke I pray I don’t have to explain. Another item, the longest, tells of a drug-fueled misadventure from the life of Bung Hill, Arkansas’ Bob Ledbetter, Jr., who is also listed as the band’s singer/guitarist.
Band photo by Jill Greenberg, who has since become quite well known.
But who the hell was it making this elaborate joke? A credible rumor had it that Country Bob was a side project of Gargoyle Sox, a regionally popular goth band from Detroit, which made kinda sense—Detroit, like much of the Rust Belt, famously had a “Hillbilly Highway” influx of Appalachians when the auto industry needed a shitload of bodies in its foundries and on its assembly lines, so pockets of a rural migrant mentality had long existed in that town, and were probably ripe fodder for tribute or parody, whichever this was. Plus, the album was released on the Manster label, which a member of Gargoyle Sox actually owned. But the musicians named as members were all pseudonymous, so finding what other bands they may have played in was pretty well impossible in the pre-Internet era. Well, it’s not impossible anymore; through the non-pseudonymous songwriting credits and some attentive digging through Detroit Rock City and some online sources, I learned that the BloodFarmers indeed included Gargoyle Sox’s guitarist John Koester, but its actual prime movers were a Detroit artist/scenester named Tim Caldwell (who was also credited with the album art), and “Country” Bob Ledbetter Jr. himself, the alter-ego of RUR/Shock Therapy guitarist Tex Newman.
Newman and Caldwell were kind enough to fill DM in about the band’s conception.
NEWMAN: Basically what it was is that I had been in a lot of different bands, and it was born out of frustration. Me and Tim Caldwell had done a goth band, Danse Macabre, with some people. It imploded like most bands do and I was pissed off, wondering what I could do that was really fucked up. The hardcore scene sucked, I knew everybody, everybody in punk, hardcore and goth knew everybody, and it had turned into a big fashion show with little substance. I told Tim that there was this really awful punk/country band I knew in California, that all dressed up in cowboy clothes, so when it was time to do something again, I was thinking about this character of a real fucked up hillbilly punk, that no matter how hard he tried to be a badass punk, he was just a fuckin’ hillbilly and everything would come out Country and Western. And that fit with this rebellious notion that we should do something with NO CHANCE of success, something so fucked up that it’d be dead in the water upon release. So I came up with Country Bob, and Tim came up with the BloodFarmers.
CALDWELL: There’s a lot of people in Detroit who came up from Appalachia to work for the auto industry, the “big three.” Johnny Cash spent some time up here, that’s how you get that song about the Frankensteinian hot-rod [the song he means is “One Piece at a Time,” FYI—DM]. A lot of blues guys were up here working in the foundries, a lot of Motown funk guys worked on the lines, you name it. Any kind of band in Detroit, they’ve probably done their stint. I did it myself.
Tex, with his accent, and being from Texas, he had a lot of the “cool kids” saying “oh, you’re a poseur,” you know, fuckin’ guys in either fancy New Waver duds, or ARRRGH, I’M WEARING GROUND ZERO HARDCORE CLOTHES and their punk uniforms and shit. And people would piss and moan about the “relevance” of anything in New Wave or punk rock, and we thought “You know what? That’s really outside this whole thing.” We wanted to do a Country and Western take on punk rock, and there were bands doing it, I went to go see the Gun Club and it was great, but a lot of that Jason and the Scorchers kind of shit, hell, even the Blasters, we were kinda like “fuck that.” And we decided “let’s just go with this thing, fuck all these scenes, fuck all these people, we don’t care if people follow it or not.”
NEWMAN: I had some song titles, and Tim had some song titles, really sick nasty hillbilly song ideas about six six six shooters and a ghost in the outhouse, stuff like that. But we didn’t have a band. We started developing characters, and Country Bob was perfect for me, because THAT’S ME! Being from Texas, from a real conservative Country and Western background, I couldn’t think up a better alter-ego. Coming from that, you grow up with a lot that can’t be unseen or unheard, and it just creates something like that. And we knew that when we did it, and this is probably a year and a half before the record came out, we knew it wasn’t going to be easy. I didn’t want to do the Blasters, Jason and the Scorchers, Stray Cats, etc. etc. etc… To me all of those bands never touched on what real serious county attitude was about. You really have to be FROM there to realize how bad it gets.
CALDWELL: We liked cheap horror moves, that played into it. There’s a lot of that, I mean if you work in the factories, you see things, and you hear stories that sound like bad Stephen King from these old timers, “you know, this guy had one day to go before he was gonna retire and he got cut right in two.” Stuff like that. You work in these factories, life can be cheap and death comes quickly sometimes. Guys would end up in the baler, for real, you’d see a guy’s hand sticking out of a bale of metal. That kind of grisliness is around you regularly in the factories. So we developed a sick sense of humor, because that shit becomes so real it becomes surreal.
NEWMAN: We created all these characters so if somebody quit after a week and a half or something we could just put somebody else in character. The original band only lasted one show, and we wanted to do this record, and [guitarist John] Koester came along, he had a label and I’d known him for awhile. He was still doing Gargoyle Sox, but he was trying to build the label, and he offered us the record, so we threw together a band to do it. I put on a bunch of pelts and rat skulls, furs on my cowboy boots, and became a real horrible The Hills Have Eyes kind of thing, and we took the old time country styles and fucked them all up.
CALDWELL: We did this demo tape with Lenny Puch from Snakeout, he had the label Wanghead, and he was in the original Country Bob, he had this big Duane Eddy hollowbody guitar, and Tex was originally just the singer. But Lenny had this other band, and he was too invested in doing gigs with them, but they were even sillier than Country Bob, and we were like “DUDE, STOP.” God bless him, but it wasn’t our thing so he split and John from Gargoyle Sox joined, and he wanted to put us out on his label. There was another label that wanted to put it out but the guy had a really bad coke habit so he didn’t put a lot of money into promotion.
NEWMAN: We got such bad reviews. We had a press kit that Tim put together with some of the reviews we got, and people took this shit seriously! I thought it was so over the top, I mean people “got” the Cramps, why wouldn’t they “get” us? But we got what we wanted, a guaranteed flop with no chance of success.
CALDWELL: Someone’s idea of promotion was someone gave a copy of the Country Bob record to the Jesus and Mary Chain! This guy Moose gave them a record and they went out to the parking lot and put it right in the dumpster! When I heard that I thought “AWESOME! If those guys liked it we’re doing something fucking wrong!”
Reviews of the album were pretty terrible—it’s as though the humor that was screamingly fucking obvious to me and my friends as teenagers somehow flew right past the professional arbiters of musical opinion. One dismissed the band as “‘real sheep fuckers fer sure.” Another claimed the album was the aural equivalent of the pig-head chainsaw fight scene in Motel Hell, though I suppose one must allow that that comparison may not have been intended as a takedown.
Country Bob and the BloodFarmers have been an on-again-off-again concern for over 30 years, and they eventually even made a second album, a 2006 CD released in Germany and titled I Cut Out Her Heart (And Stomped On It) after a notorious National Enquirer headline. (Yes, that’s a 21-year gap between records, which I suppose is one way to avoid the sophomore slump.) The band continues to perform sporadically whenever Newman feels the calling and can conjure a lineup, but at this time, nobody threatens to reissue either of the band’s albums.
Here’s some footage of the band in 1987. They don’t even get through the first damn song before their set falls apart and devolves into violence.