Spotlight

Kurt Wagner: 'Damaged' but Still Determined

By Richard Harrington
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 15, 2006

Lambchop's Kurt Wagner concedes that some fans, and even some friends, were a little worried by the beautifully downcast nature of "Damaged," the latest album by the sprawling, ever-evolving Nashville collective of which he is the indisputable creative center. (Borrowing film hype, "Kurt Wagner Is Lambchop," despite the misdirecting title of Lambchop's 2002 album, "Is a Woman.")

A trio that has quadrupled (and then some) over 20 years, Lambchop has released a series of increasingly acclaimed albums that follow their own eclectic/eccentric course, melding country, rock, R&B and avant-pop in austere, intricately textured soundscapes harboring Wagner's fragmented but always finely observed lyrics. They are delivered in a hangdog voice that Time Out once described as "rough as a burlap bag and soft as fresh-picked cotton." Wagner has always been more hushed narrator than flat-out singer.

Still, there is something different about "Damaged." Lambchop has done spare before; the new album feels spartan, its emotions raw and exposed, as if Wagner has been through some terrible times -- which, in fact, he has. Wagner just hasn't talked about them, leading to much speculation leading up to the album's release in August.

"I guess that's partially my fault in not being very specific about what the hell was going on with me," Wagner said recently from Nashville. "I didn't want my personal problems to overshadow the issue of whatever this record is about and just the music itself. By not talking about things specifically, people started drawing these crazy conclusions and heading off into some weird tangents.

"Now there are things [on the album] that are more or less, in a loose way, based on fact."

Case in point: "The Decline of Country and Western Civilization," in which Wagner warbles, "Soon I can do just what I please / But I still hold my hip each time I sneeze." According to Wagner, "that's actually pretty factual and about as close as I get to descriptive of a particular thing that was going on."

What was going on was that as Wagner, 43, started work on the band's ninth album, a routine visit to the dentist's office became a lot less so when an examination revealed that his jaw had been eaten away by a virulent cyst. Wagner had surgery to replace his jaw with bone from the top of his hip -- a tough way to get a lyric.

After that, he survived a life-threatening brush with prostate cancer.

A cheerful album did not seem in the cards.

"What happens in your life informs the process of making music and making records, not just writing songs," Wagner says of the necessarily downcast and introspective ambience of "Damaged." "As I was constructing this record, I was even having to schedule it around particular things that I had to take care of, and obviously that was going to inform how the record ended up sounding. But it was more about a sonic thing, not necessarily any of these lyrical Bob Dylan-hunting clues. People either accept that about the way I write or don't."

Enough folks have accepted that to keep Lambchop going on a slightly above cult level since 1986. That's when the Brooklyn, N.Y.-born but Nashville-raised Wagner moved back to town after studying painting and sculpture up the road in Memphis, going to graduate school in Montana and working in the art trade in Chicago. Music, particularly country music, was not much of an interest until he returned and hooked up with a pair of high school classmates, guitarist Jim Watkins and bassist Marc Trovillion.

Even as Lambchop grew, Nashville never paid much attention, though other locales did, particularly after the band's 1994 debut, "I Hope You're Sitting Down," a showcase for Wagner's finely wrought, populist songs and unconventional vocals.


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