Friday, June 26, 2009

Spotlight: Fleming & John (1995)

(As published in B-Side)

Granted, Freedy Johnston's "Bad Reputation" was O.K. as bad-reputation songs go, but it had nothing on Thin Lizzy's, and it has even less on the one that can be found on Fleming & John's recently released R.E.X. Music debut, Delusions of Grandeur.

"I don't want to be a hero!" wails Fleming McWilliams. "I don't want to be a weirdo! Don't want to be Ms. Understood!"

Fair enough, but when your band makes music this rich and wacked-out, chances are you're going to be perceived as a hero--or a weirdo--by someone.

"Some of that song comes from growing up in East Prairie, Missouri," confides McWilliams, obviously the "Fleming" of the act. "John" is her husband John Mark Painter, a multi- instrumentalist whose name liner-note readers will recognize from the latest Nanci Griffith and Indigo Girls albums.

But back to "Bad Reputation" and East Prairie, MO.

"I've always been fascinated by people who want to have a bad reputation," says McWilliams, "because I've always wanted people to think well of me, that I'm nice and friendly and kind. That there are people who want people to think the absolute worst about them--I guess I've always felt a little bit square."

"Well," observes Painter, "there's always that I-may-be-square-but-I'm-not-dead thing."

"That's true," agrees Fleming. "I did have a lot of friends who died. I mean, there's nothing to do in a small town, so all people did was drink, do drugs, and ride around. But it's not until recently that I've realized how weird the place was."

Time out. Lest this examination of East Prairie get out of hand, it should be noted that "Bad Reputation" is not the only song on Delusions. There are, in fact, nine others, ranging from the shimmeringly plaintive "Rain All Day" to the subterranean-homesick-Led-Zeppelin blues of "I'm Not Afraid," the first single. And there are lots of rewarding stops along the way.

But back to East Prairie. Just how weird was it?

"Like, the girls would just go out to this road and fight all the time."

You mean duke it out?

"Yeah! You could go down to this road and just watch these girls fight."

Over what?

"They'd fight over these guys that were just--ugh!-- terrible, guys who'd graduated from high school five years before and now lived in some trailer."

McWilliams finds the memory amusing now. But what her growing number of fans will want to know is how many of these fights she won.

"I never fought, but I had friends--talented, nice girls--who really got into that. The place was called Piss Road."

Time out again. Lest the story behind the name "Piss Road" get out of hand, it should be noted that Painter really enjoyed the Griffith and Indigo Girls sessions. "It's a lot of fun," he admits. "Seeing 'Guitars by Mark Knopfler, Bill Dillon, and John Mark Painter' made me happy."

It should also be noted that in addition to Nanci, Amy, and Emily, Fleming & John's fans include Adrian Belew and rock's most famous bald bassist, Tony Levin, both of whom recently showed up at one of F&J's Nashville shows.

But back to Piss Road.

"It was called Piss Road," McWilliams continues, "because it was a dirt road, and if you were riding around town--and especially if you'd been drinking and didn't want to go to your house and use the bathroom--you had to use the bathroom there."

"But," Painter interrupts, "it really is a nice town."

One last time out. Before F&J go on about how nice East Prairie is, it should be noted that McWilliams has one of the strongest voices--countrified folk on the soft numbers, full-bodied shriek on the rockers--and some of the best hair in indie-rockdom. Now, for East Prairie ...

"We go back there," McWilliams explains, "and everybody's so happy that we have a record out. They don't care that we're not on MTV or that we're not on the charts."

Besides, it's probably only a matter of time.

"My mother is a high-school music teacher there, and she's sold close to two hundred copies of our album out of the house. There are wonderful people there."

"But you know," she adds, "it is a little bit hick."

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