September 12, 2012

High on a Hilltop

The Welfare Liners Stand Tall and Stay Grounded

The Welfare Liners

As the founder of Ghostmeat Records, the label responsible for the annual AthFest compilation CD, Russ Hallauer (also a Flagpole alum) has watched the Athens music community ebb and flow—and ebb some more—over the past two decades or so.

"The thing that I'm always most impressed with," he says, "[is] the people that have navigated from being 22 in a rock band to being 42 with a family and [are] still figuring out how to make themselves happy through music."

Local bluegrass outfit The Welfare Liners is composed of five men from different musical backgrounds—along with Hallauer, the group includes Rob Keller, Adam Poulin, Wayne Wilson and Mark Cunningham—who share a love for the traditional sounds of artists like Bill Monroe and The Stanley Brothers. For the most part, they are dudes who cut their teeth in harder-edged rock bands, before age and family life intervened.

"I don't think you can underestimate the fact that at some point in your life, when kids are involved, having the amplifier on all the time isn't really an option," says Hallauer.

In fact, The Welfare Liners came together after Keller, the group's principal songwriter and a longtime bluegrass enthusiast, learned his guitarist friend Hallauer had embraced a new, more delicate instrument.

"When [Rob] found out that I started playing mandolin, he came over and gave me… like, literally the entire history of bluegrass. All the sudden, he's like, 'Here's 800 songs. We're gonna play 60 of 'em.'"

After enlisting the other members and playing only traditional tunes for a year and a half, the group decided to take a step forward and pen its own material.

"I wrote one song… and right after that, the other songs just started flooding out," Keller says. "I think I announced it onstage—the band didn't know it, either. [Russ was] laughing, 'cause he's the record label. I was like, 'Next spring, we're gonna have a new album!'… And Russ was like, 'We are?'"

It took 'til fall, but the album has arrived. High on a Hilltop is a stellar collection of original numbers, a faithful exercise in old-time American music. But it's not paint-by-numbers pickin'. The record traverses disparate stylistic and emotional ground, from the true-tale murder mystery "Who Killed T.K.," about the legendary owner of an Athens watering hole, to the upbeat, light-love tune "Easy on the Eyes." As is typical for the genre, heavy themes of death and infidelity abound, often nestled amid deceptively joyful musicality.

Keller says it's all about telling a story. "Actually, my wife and I are fine, and all that, but I'm writing all these songs about cheating," he marvels, laughing. "There are some cheating songs on there, aren't there?"

"The history of bluegrass gives you a license to tell fictional stories in a way that other genres [don't]," says Hallauer. Keller points to traditional songs like "Knoxville Girl," wherein the tragic title character is beaten to death, her body discarded in a river. "It's kinda harsh," he says, "but it's kinda fun playing it. It has that contrast of darkness, yet it sounds kinda happy."

The group displays an appreciation for dark irony that only comes with experience. But it is also a testament to the idea that getting older and wiser doesn't mean slowing down. Aside from working on the album, The Welfare Liners have stayed busy with other endeavors—like their recent cover of the "Squidbillies" theme song, which they recorded at the behest of series creator/friend-of-a-friend Dave Willis.

Hallauer explains: "[Dave] called up one day and said, 'We're doing this wacky contest, and I need to have some bands cover the song so that I can solicit other bands to enter the contest…' He called me on a Wednesday and [said], 'It's gonna be on the air nationally this weekend, so I need it by Thursday.'"

In fact, the theme, with its hilariously depressing lyrics ("My dreams are all dead and buried/ Sometimes I wish the sun would just explode/ When God comes and calls me to his kingdom/ I'll take all you sons of bitches when I go") was a perfect fit for The Welfare Liners, and the TV spot was undoubtedly the most major piece of exposure the group has had to date.

Still, bandmembers remain practical.

"We've all got full-time jobs that no one intends to quit, and families," Hallauer says. "We've sowed those oats in previous bands. The great thing about this band [is that] it's very simple. I always call it our poker club. I've got guy friends who, once a week, they play poker, or golf, or whatever… We get together every Thursday and play music."

Their love of craft is honest and evident. In the basement studio that has also functioned as a children's playroom, The Welfare Liners say they might soon begin work on the follow-up to High on a Hilltop, another collection of stories told through song, the rare and unmistakable sound of musicians comfortable in their own skin.