"In the mid-'80s, if you'd asked me to make a painting, or given me a blank piece of paper and a pencil and asked me to draw something, I'd have fucking run from the room screaming," says Jon Langford.
Fortunately, screaming—and other varieties of noisemaking—had long been his stock in trade by then. In 1977, Langford helped to form the Mekons. The band started life as a cacophonous punk act, yet later crafted the 1985 album Fear and Whiskey, often credited with kick-starting alt-country. And it was the ease with which the Mekons, despite more lineup changes than the Broadway cast of Cats, continued to work that helped Langford regain his courage.
"It was only thinking about songwriting that allowed me to get back into painting," he admits. He had become increasingly comfortable with "the process that went into making songs, and the ease with which we were writing whole albums, that I still really like now, in a couple of days." This ongoing accomplishment finally whittled the obstacles interposed between Langford and other media back down to size.
Today, Langford's pictures are almost everywhere. His brightly colored, stylized, and—for want of a tackier buzzword—distressed portraits of country-music icons from Wanda Jackson to Hank Williams can be found on album jackets; at art galleries like Yard Dog in Austin, Texas; and in his new book, Nashville Radio: Art, Words, and Music. This glossy, 144-page anthology incorporates many of Langford's best-known paintings, along with lyrics, autobiographical prose, and even an acoustic CD, The Nashville Radio Companion Earwig.
Despite its ambitious scope, the book does have a concrete theme. "I wanted everything to center around the subject that I'd chosen: the death of country music," he explains. "I even thought about calling the book The Death of Country Music, but that seemed a bit much. I liked calling it Nashville Radio better, because then it had a title track that I really enjoy playing."
Fans can expect to hear that original, his homage to the short life of Hank Williams, along with plenty of selections from Gold Brick and the Earwig comp at the Tractor. Just don't show up expecting a full-blown production of his acclaimed multimedia presentation The Executioner's Last Songs; even with band mates Sally Timms and Jean Cook in tow, Langford won't have the resources at his disposal for such ambitious tomfoolery; the piece isn't suited to intimate night clubs.
"The Ice Capades section makes things really difficult," he jokes. Nothing less than an Olympic-size rink will do, apparently. "Otherwise, the guys in dinosaur costumes can't see each other, and they end up crashing into one another."