Renaissance Man 

Musician Jon Langford is in the spotlight—as a painter—at TAG and Tennessee State Museum

The Chicago-based visual artist and musician Jon Langford has been to Nashville many times over the years, but last week’s visit was especially memorable.
The Chicago-based visual artist and musician Jon Langford has been to Nashville many times over the years, but last week’s visit was especially memorable. It began with the June 5 opening gala for Marty Stuart’s “Sparkle and Twang” exhibit at the Tennessee State Museum, which sprinkles Langford’s paintings of such country icons as Johnny Cash and Hank Williams in with Stuart’s legendary collection of country music memorabilia. Over the course of the next five days, Langford presided over an opening of his work at Fifth Avenue’s TAG Art Gallery, played a raucous gig in the intimate confines of The Basement and stepped onto the Ryman Auditorium’s stage as a performer for the first time in his musical career. His spare time was spent painting in the basement of the museum and drinking beer in the honky-tonks on Lower Broadway, whose weathered publicity stills of country icons were the initial inspiration for his signature style of portraiture.

It is ironic, if not wholly random, that Langford’s busy week coincided with the annual CMA Music Festival, which took over Lower Broadway just a few blocks from the gallery showing at TAG. While the fest showcased the big-name acts dominating contemporary country music radio, Langford’s music is nowhere to be found on any mainstream stations. In fact, in both his music and paintings, he is a spirited critic of mainstream country’s indifference to its own past. A few years ago, a traveling exhibit of his paintings was titled “The Death of Country Music.” In a sort of companion song for the TAG exhibit, “Nashville Radio,” Langford channels the ghost of Hank Williams: “They don’t play my songs on the radio / it’s like I never was.” The same sentiment—“it’s like I never was”—is painted coming from the mouth of a young Hank Williams in a piece now hanging at TAG.

Though he was an art student at the University of Leeds, the Welsh-born Langford has mostly channeled his creative energies through music, not painting. He was a founding member of the British punk band the Mekons in the late 1970s. Mike Grimes, operator of The Basement, still calls Langford “the closest thing we’ve got to a living Joe Strummer.” But while they were contemporaries of The Clash and the Sex Pistols, the Mekons have since gone in their own distinctive direction, pioneering an alt-country genre that combines punk sensibility with the minimalist influence of artists such as Williams. For Langford this is not a stretch. He argues that both country and punk are at heart folk genres, sharing a stripped down and raw musical style as well as a populist, class-conscious ethic.

It was only after moving from the United Kingdom to Chicago in 1992 that Langford turned seriously to painting, and, as in his musical evolution, country traditions were a central preoccupation. Langford’s visual art is not limited to depicting country music stars of yore—the TAG show includes figures such as the Velvet Underground’s John Cale and neglected old-time boxer Sam “the Boston Tar Baby” Langford. It also features paintings of generic American folk heroes, especially cowboys and astronauts. Nevertheless, his paintings of Hank Williams, Johnny Cash, Minnie Pearl and Charley Pride stand out in the exhibit.

While visiting Nashville during the 1990s, Langford first got the inspiration for what has become his signature style of sullied, scratched-up images. “It was walking into Tootsie’s, and seeing all the publicity stills on the walls of all these old-time stars,” Langford explains in his gentle Welsh brogue. “And they were so great, they were faded, they were stained with tobacco, y’know, they’d been hanging there forever.” He insists that his paintings are not really portraits, but rather depictions of those venerable stills. The effect is striking. As TAG owner Jerry Dale McFadden, himself a former musician, puts it: “Here’s a guy who’s painting these iconic figures that you know, but in a really unusual way. He has his own unique style, and people recognize it immediately.”

Just like the surprising affinities between punk and country that Langford and his collaborators identified musically, the postmodern elements of his art—portraits not of people but of publicity stills—go better with country than one might expect. Country music, after all, has long combined an ethos of rural authenticity with showbiz artifice and self-conscious mythmaking. Of the spangled costumes displayed in the “Sparkle and Twang” show, Marty Stuart says, “It’s our version of Hollywood—hillbilly glamour.” Langford’s scratched images combine seamlessly with Stuart’s often gaudy memorabilia. “It creates an upper atmosphere around all of these treasures,” as Stuart puts it. In fact, Langford’s smudged, scratched-up canvases serve to ground the more flamboyant artifacts on display.

Langford is grateful that Stuart was able to recognize the depth of genuine sentiment that infuses his mythic depictions. “I’m glad that he could see that I’m not just some left wing punk rocker making fun of these people,” Langford says with a laugh, though he does not shy away from either his punk heritage or lefty politics. For his part, Stuart compares Langford’s contemporary paintings to the legendary 1970s album art of Thomas B. Allen. “Country music is a natural setting for folk heroes, and Jon’s the Michelangelo of country music folk heroes.” Further noting the classic themes of sin and redemption that infuse the tradition, Stuart adds, “He gets the spiritual battle of it. His work comes out of the spirit world of country music. And that’s where I hang out mostly.”

The irrepressible Stuart’s eclectic tastes within the expansive country genre were on further display in the lineup for his Late Night Jam on June 6, held at the Ryman each of the last six years to help kick off the CMA fest. The bill included Country Music Hall of Famers Charley Pride and Porter Wagoner, contemporary superstar John Rich, and alt-country acts including Langford and the fiery red-haired chanteuse Neko Case. Still, Stuart insists that this lineup was not incoherent.

“Porter Wagoner and Charley Pride, they’re American originals,” he says. “And Neko Case is a student of all this stuff. She can sing you Carter family songs all night as well as Neko Case songs. John Rich can sing you Hank Williams songs all night as well as Big & Rich songs. And Jon Langford can stand there and sing you Bill Monroe songs all night. Basically what you had is a bunch of authenticity and also a bunch of students of history.”

Certainly, the mystique conferred by the Ryman’s rich history was not lost on Langford, who was moved almost to tears recalling his performance the next day. The event was so important to him that his wife flew in from Chicago just for that night to see it. Asked if he thinks country music is really dead, he smiles and says, “It’s always a bit more complicated than that, isn’t it?”

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