Since the start of his prolific career, Jon Langford hasn’t shied away from venturing into new creative territory.
The Welsh-born musician, now based in Chicago, is a founding member of the first-wave British punk group The Mekons and the alt-country outfit The Waco Brothers; he’s also an esteemed visual artist, radio host and playwright.
His latest album and project, “Jon Langford’s Four Lost Souls,” allowed him to delve into a sub-genre of American roots music he hadn’t previously explored: the blend of gospel, soul and country perfected in Muscle Shoals, Alabama.
Along with fellow Chicago-based musicians John Szymanski, Bethany Thomas and Tawny Newsome, Langford will perform songs from the album starting at 9 p.m. on Tuesday, Oct. 17, at PK’s in Carbondale.
The project sprang from a chance meeting with legendary Nashville producer and original Muscle Shoals session player Norbert Putnam. In 2015, the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville commissioned Langford to produce artwork for a long-running exhibit called “Dylan, Cash, and the Nashville Cats: A New Music City.” Langford performed with the Cats for the exhibit’s opening ceremony and caught the ear of Putnam, the band’s bassist.
“After the first rehearsal, he said, ‘You sing like a pirate. You should come down to Muscle Shoals,’” Langford said.
When Langford sat down to write the album, he found he didn’t want to write pirate songs — he wanted to draw on Muscle Shoals’ history and unique groove.
“I thought a lot about the South and the history of race conflict, and also the history of unsegregated music-making that epitomized Muscle Shoals, and tried to kind of write songs that broached both my love for the South and all the things that have come out of it — the sort of incredible cultural things that have come from the South — and the terrible, repressive history as well,” Langford said.
As he was writing the album, Donald Trump’s presidential bid was picking up steam. Langford said some of the rhetoric from the campaign seeped into his work.
“I’m pretty sure the kind of vile racism and bigotry that he was tapping into, that was an influence for me. I didn’t think all the graves would actually open and all the zombies would crawl out like we’ve seen happen. So it was that kind of unease about the South and how the Civil War seems to have not really ended for some people,” he said.
On Nov. 8, the day after the 2016 election, he and the other Lost Souls headed down to Alabama to cut the record. Langford said the timing contributed to some apprehension.
“My band (includes) two very strong-willed women of color, Tawny Newsome and Bethany Thomas. They’ve lived in the North all their life, haven’t been to the South very much. So I think for them it was a feeling of dread, fear. … We didn’t know what it might be like, you know, who would have been emboldened. But fortunately Muscle Shoals is a sort of cultural bubble of brilliance, and we didn’t run into anything, we didn’t have a problem,” Langford said. “I’ve always loved the South, and the album’s about music as well as politics, and I always see music as this really incredibly positive thing that links people.”
Stace England, a Southern Illinois musician known for his historical concept albums, invited Langford to the region for Tuesday’s show, he said.
“I like the way (England’s music) transcends pop music and it gets deeper into politics and history in a really profound sort of way, so with this album I was definitely thinking along those lines,” Langford said.
England said he’s been a fan of Langford’s work since his days in The Mekons.
“It's a combination of insightfulness, fearlessness and tenacity, delivered by someone with an outsider perspective yet with a deep understanding and appreciation of American music and culture,” England wrote in an email. “In that way it's entirely unique. You can't listen to a Waco Brothers recording without a smile on your face. On top of all that, Jon is one of most entertaining live performers you're ever going to see. A club show like PKs is the man completely in his element.”