Learning how to live
Independent / Sub Pop
Release date : August 1998
Ireland only

Mike Ireland knows that "Learning How to Live", the debut album by his band Holler, won't be an easy sell to fans of what, for better or worse, is usually referred to as No Depression country-- the kind of rock-based stuff perfected in the early Nineties by Uncle Tupelo and carried on today by groups such as Son Volt, Wilco, the Bottle Rockets, and Whiskeytown. But where most of those bands lean more toward Neil Young and the hard-edged sound of Fifties honky-tonk, Ireland and Holler romp, stomp, croon, and, well, holler within the broad spectrum of the music. Learning How to Live, the band's maiden release for Sub Pop, incorporates not just the swagger and swing of Ernest Tubb and Buck Owens, but the string-sweetened sound of countrypolitan. It's the pop-country hybrid best defined by the early Seventies productions of Billy Sherrill, who helped artists as great as George Jones and Charlie Rich create some of their finest work.

"The strings are something I think people will have to be prepared for. It seems that most have a strong reaction to them," says Ireland, the vocalist/bassist/songwriter who was formerly at the helm of the Starkweathers, a revered Kansas City group that issued a handful of fine records (including a single for Sub Pop) before disbanding in 1995. "Either they really like strings or they automatically decide that it's a problem. People are ready to write off Billy Sherrill as a hack, and yeah, he was the first guy to say, Let's add five tracks to this and put the perfunctory string section on it, but when he was on-- good god. There are a lot of recordings where the arrangements are as much a part of the song as George Jones incredible singing."

    "I grew up hating country music..."
Learning How to Live salutes Sherrill's innovative marriage of pop, rock, and country, particularly on the four songs with violins, viola, and cello. Rather than obscuring the urgency and emotion in Ireland's songs, the strings (arranged by onetime Association and Tom Waits collaborator Jerry Yester) actually enhance their effect. They swell around the pained weeper "Worst of All," and underpin the drama in Ireland's aching tenor on both the title track and the set-opening "House of Secrets." On the cynical "Headed for a Fall," guitarist Dan Mesh showcases his arsenal of classic honky-tonk riffs, while Ireland, guitarist Michael Lemon, and drummer Paul Lemon (both former Starkweathers) pound out the roadhouse rhythms. With or without the strings, Holler manage to find something new in the lexicon of country-music history.

Despite his mastery of the form, Ireland hasn't always been a country fan. "I grew up hating country music," he states. "It seemed like the most uncool music when I was a kid. But I'm not sure you can get what Merle Haggard is singing about when you're twelve years old. People tend to write off country as being mindless and cliche-ridden and always about the same things, but it seems to me that it tends to be much more willing to be overtly emotional. At least at one time; I'm not so sure about some of the hot new country groups. There's nothing particularly emotional in what they're doing. I guess it's still not cool to be that overt."

Ireland doesn't have that problem. Throughout Learning How to Live, he pokes around the darkest corners of his heart and soul, spinning tales and spilling his guts with resignation and sorrow. Songs such as "Biggest Torch, Christmas Past", and "Learning How to Live" ably chart the maturation of Ireland's writing since the Starkweathers days. "I'm much less likely to write rock-sounding songs these days," he says of his latest batch of tunes. "When this band got together I became more comfortable writing traditional-sounding things. I'm not trying to recreate something that's old, though. I'm drawing on those sounds." Whatever his inspiration, these songs establish Ireland as one of the finest writers currently working in country music.

Mike Ireland - vocals, bass, glockenspiel
Michael Lemon - lead guitar, lap steel, mandolin
Dan Mesh - rhythm guitar, lead guitar on "Headed for a Fall",
harmony vocals
Paul Lemon - drums