How Do We Regard Bloodshot Records After Lydia Loveless Revelations?

It was South by Southwest 2011, and I stepped into a dive bar on Austin’s east side just off of 7th Street that has since changed hands probably half a dozen times. I was there to see singer/songwriter Austin Lucas perform, as well as the boys from Two Cow Garage and others. The unofficial SXSW showcase was being thrown by the now mothballed ninebullets.net, and the blog’s proprietor at the time, Autopsy VI. Of course this was back in the day when independent music blogs were a thing, and they were significant enough to be able to throw industry showcases and have artists line up to play them.

There was a good crowd assembled, but Autopsy was flustered. The venue was supposed to supply the PA system, but didn’t. After procuring a sound rig so the artists could at least put on some acoustic performances, the show went on, and was really good. Austin Lucas played a rendition of “Nevada County Line” accompanied by his sister Chloe (this one) that gives me chills to think about to this day. Autopsy at one point leaned over to me and said, “You know it’s a good showcase when other artists are attending. Do you see that girl over there? That’s Lydia Loveless. She was just signed to Bloodshot Records. She’s super young, not even 21 yet I don’t think, but they think she’s going to be their future.”

At that time, Bloodshot Records was everything, at least when it came to independent and underground country music. There were others that dabbled in the space of course, like Yep Roc, or maybe Sub Pop. But Bloodshot Records was the first sign Ryan Adams and Neko Case. They had the “Dirty Ol’ One Man Band” Scott H. Biram on the roster, and the “King of Juke Joint Swing” Wayne “The Train” Hancock. They also had Justin Townes Earle, who people still forget was the next big thing before Jason Isbell and Sturgill Simpson came up. It was a developing Jason Isbell that Justin Townes Earle invited to play guitar when Earle was invited to play Letterman. At the time, nobody had heard of Thirty Tigers yet, or Dave Cobb, or Cody Jinks, or Sturgill Simpson.

Bloodshot Records was a stepping stone, and a repository for artists who were too ornery to be signed elsewhere. And that was what was cool about them. It was a punk attitude imprinted on country, and their verbiage about leading an insurgency inspired others to pick up the charge to take country music back, including this very website. It gave artists a healthy alternative to the advantage taking that artists were susceptible to in the mainstream. Or at least we thought. Now we know that as far back as during that SXSW in 2011, Lydia Loveless was already being sexually harassed by a creep named Mark Panick, who was the life partner Bloodshot Records co-owner Nan Warshaw.

And Lydia Loveless put up with it in private, because this was Bloodshot Records, and her avenue to a music career. Though the fact that Mark Panick was never an employee of Bloodshot is probably an important legal note, it’s of little consolation to Lydia Loveless. Bloodshot Records was always presented as a family, both in public and private. Panick was in a position to take advantage of Lydia Loveless, and did so, knowing that Loveless had little recourse that wouldn’t have grand ramifications on her career, no different from the behavior existing on casting couches, and in the worst crevasses on Music Row in Nashville.

Make no mistake, the name of Saving Country Music is probably received with mixed feelings at Bloodshot Records Headquarters in Chicago, and in the Lydia Loveless camp especially. This is what happens when you take an objective role in music journalism. Bloodshot wasn’t too happy when Saving Country Music reported on a drunk Justin Townes Earle tearing up a green room in Indianapolis in 2010 in a situation that in 2019 might get him excommunicated from music similar to Ryan Adams. Lydia’s first record on Bloodshot, 2011’s Indestructible Machine, received a positive review here, but with a few caveats, including a rebuke of the idea that she was the next Loretta Lynn as asserted by some, as well as a concern about an underage artist singing so many songs about getting schnockered. Now we know that day drinking during Bloodshot functions could have played a role in the sexual harassment.

A lot of the pressure put on Loveless was because her potential was so great. This came to fruition when her song “Everything’s Gone” was named Saving Country Music’s Song of the Year in 2014. Bloodshot Records and its artists have been perennial contenders for many end-of-year lists and accolades, here and elsewhere, including Justin Townes Earle earning an SCM Album of the Year previously, and distinctions from the Americana Music Association. Saving Country Music’s 2018 Album of the Year is Sarah Shook’s Years, and like Loveless, Townes Earle, Ryan Adams, and Neko Case before her, you get the sense that Sarah Shook could be one of the next big things in independent country music coming out of the Bloodshot camp.

That is why the news about the harassment Lydia Loveless faced was so disturbing. There are many horses from the Bloodshot stable running in midstream at the moment, from Sarah Shook, to the Vandoliers who just released an album on Friday, February 22nd, to Jason Hawk Harris who just signed with the company recently, and on from there. Of course you can never forget or gloss over the actions of this Bloodshot-associated creep who harassed Lydia Loveless, and it’s easy to second guess the actions of both owners, and if they could have been more vigilant at the time to stamp down the harassment.

But the implosion, or even significant downgrading of Bloodshot Records in the independent country space due to the actions of one non employee could have great negative implications beyond the label. Yes, in this day in age, it’s fair to question if artists even need a record label, or if more streamlined, stripped down outfits such as Thirty Tigers couldn’t take up the slack. But getting signed to Bloodshot Records gave artists a street cred and validation that frankly no other emblem could convey, at least before the controversy. The label has definitely had its down years over the last quarter century, and their misses with certain artists. But when you see that Bloodshot Records just signed and artist or just released a record, you pay attention.

It does appear that co-owner, and now primary active owner Rob Miller worked significantly to address the situation as soon as he was made aware of it. Though some would love for Nan Warshaw to divest herself from her life partner over the issue, that’s easier said than done, and difficult to demand from the outside looking into a personal relationship. Warshaw has walked away from the company due to her actions, and has made the effort to take responsibility.

In this #meetoo era, not every case is the same. The issue surrounding Lydia Loveless is not a he said, she said situation. From the statements of both Lydia and the Bloodshot owners, we can pretty much guarantee the sexual harassment and inappropriate behavior occurred. But how much do we want to hold Bloodshot Records to account for the actions of one non employee? If the harassment had been revealed years ago, it probably would have been no more than a footnote, right or wrong. How far should this by proxy blame go? This all came out because of the revelations about Ryan Adams. For years Jason Isbell has been a close friend of Ryan, and many forget that it was a scheduling conflict that kicked Ryan out of the producers seat for Jason Isbell’s breakout record Southeastern, and put Dave Cobb in that position instead. This is how even the slightest stitches in time can go to shape history. Does Jason Isbell owe us a statement due to his friendship with Ryan Adams? Would we all-of-a sudden regard Southeastern different if Ryan Adams had been the producer? Or is this patently unfair to Jason Isbell?

It is a good thing that Lydia Loveless came out to tell her story, to protect women in the future, to shine a light on just how deep this harassment can go, and to remind independent music that it’s not insulated from these cases. But it would be a shame if this situation was the eventual demise of such an important independent country music institution as Bloodshot Records, especially for the important legacy they’ve sown over 25 years, and very specifically for their current artists, including ones with records in the pipeline, who have no culpability in the matter whatsoever. When the Vandoliers released their new album Forever last Friday, Bloodshot didn’t do anything to help promote it, probably either because they’re too busy re-assessing things at the company, or they didn’t want to get pounded on social media by posting anything that would give detractors a forum to chime in.

Bloodshot artists including Lydia Loveless, Sarah Shook, the Vandoliers, Jason Hawk Harris, and others deserve to not have their career arcs impacted, or their legacies sullied by the reprehensible actions of a life partner of one of the co-owners of a record label. Instead, hopefully lessons can be learned by all independent labels, and we can get back to the business of helping to save country music by taking the power over the music out of the hands of corporate overlords and corrupt individuals, and putting it back into the hands of artists like Bloodshot Records has done for 25 years, despite one huge, but (hopefully) isolated, lapse in moral judgement.