Beauty is in the eye of the beer holder, when it comes to sharing pints with Greg Miller. He's the frontman for the Cowslingers, the country-punk cut-ups who turn dry heaves into high art.
"You cannot be afraid to make a jackass out of yourself," Miller explains between swigs of Newcastle at Wilbert's on a recent Tuesday evening. He's warming up for band practice. "When you're a jackass, you know that you're being a jackass, and the audience knows that you're being a jackass. That's a beautiful moment, you know? That's what it's all about. We have never been afraid of being stupid."
The Cowslingers have never been afraid of much of anything. In the past 10 years, the band has toured the States well over a dozen times, in one van after another, playing in front of beer-swilling transvestites and drunk guys in diapers. They've hit Europe three times, and they performed in front of 60,000 people at the Ottawa Blues Festival, playing alongside the likes of Elvis Costello and Sheryl Crow.
"It was like being called up to the major leagues for a week," Miller chuckles. "It was like the starting third baseman blew out his knee, we got called up -- then sent back down to Buffalo."
And now the Cowslingers have made their boldest move yet. Their seventh LP, Cowslinger Deluxe, spikes their amped-up twang with fiddle, mandolin, and banjo. There's also a touching acoustic take on G.G. Allin's "Drink, Fight, Fuck."
"People should not be confused -- it's not like some kind of Indigo Girls trip here, where by acoustic we mean there's Melissa Etheridge singer-songwriter bullshit going on," Miller clarifies. "It's still us, it's still aggressive, still in-your-face, but as opposed to a big electric-guitar-playing rhythm, this time we have a banjo going, and it just adds a little something to the texture."
That little something helps make Deluxe the band's finest effort yet. The trademark loud, lead-foot rock and roll is still pronounced on the album-opening "Work Privilege," a debauched ode to double vision that rumbles like an 18-wheeler, and the love-'em-leave-'em kiss-off "Cheap Red Wine," on which Miller conjures Jerry Lee Lewis on creatine. Elsewhere, brisk accordion enlivens "Catfish Krusty," frisky fiddle playing jumps out of "Whistlin' Bob," and spirited piano buoys "I Got the Time." It all makes an already hard-to-classify bunch even more confounding. (Their trophy shelf includes multiple awards for Best Country Artist and Best Punk Band, with Best Rockabilly honors landing somewhere in between.)
"There'll be a magazine like No Depression, who will say, 'Well, it isn't really alternative country,' because they're down with the singer-songwriter stuff, and so they don't necessarily want to touch it," Miller explains. "Then you might have somebody like a Magnet, who won't want to run a feature on it, because 'Well, it's too twangy, it's kinda country.' Because you're a little bit of both, they don't know how to categorize you, and it flips everybody out."
In their 11 years, the Cowslingers have grown accustomed to flipping folks out. The band was formed by Miller while he was a telecommunications major at Kent State. (His degree has translated into a day job selling ads for 92.3 Xtreme Radio.) Born in Philadelphia and raised in Erie, Miller grew up a punk. Then he discovered the Walking Clampetts, a popular Cleveland rockabilly troupe.
"They played all these really obscure '60s covers of surf music and rockabilly, and it was the best," Miller gushes. "You'd just go out and hammer down 200 beers, wind up dancing with a bunch of different girls, stay up until three in the morning, and hopefully you took some girl back to your apartment. Then, a month later when they came back, you did it all over again. It was all this music that I never heard before, and it just knocked me out. I started tracking down all that stuff."
Soon the Cowslingers were born, and the band has been on the road much of the time since, averaging more than 100 shows a year.
"Our motto is that there's 150 retards in every city, and we have to go to every city and see them," Miller says. "It would be a lot more convenient if 20,000 of them lived in Cleveland, but there's 150 of them in Madrid, there's 150 of them in Champaign, Illinois, there's 150 of them in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, and that's the deal."
The Cowslingers have enjoyed modest success in the States, but they're something of a sensation in Europe, where they consistently draw crowds in the hundreds. They even hit the charts in Holland.
"There's something really cool about playing some obscure city in Germany and you have a hundred people in the crowd singing some stupid song that you made up on a couch in Lakewood," Miller says. "We had a record that was number 11 on Finland's rock-and-roll chart. I was sitting on my couch at home on a Sunday morning, the phone rings, and it's a guy who sounds like a James Bond villain. 'May I speak to Greg Miller? I'm calling from Radio Finland, it is so good to talk to you.' So I sat there and did this nonsensical three-minute interview, because his English was kind of shaky. He would ask me questions like 'When you most rock, how do you like to rock most?'"
Of course, chances for widespread success are slim, inasmuch as the Cowslingers specialize in rancorous, deep-fried din. But they're comfortable with that. During the mid-'90s boom in alt-rock, the band was approached by a number of sizable indies with deals in hand, but the group prefers to stick with their friends at Cincinnati's small Shake It Records, plowing on at their own pace.
"We keep putting out CDs and keeping it going. It's what we do," Miller says with a grin. "We climb in the van, we play music, we drink a shitload of beer, then we come home and do it all over again."