Bloodshot Records hung out its shingle at the height of the alt-country movement, sometime between the disintegration of Uncle Tupelo and the launch of No Depression. Initially the label focused on locals like Jon Langford and Kelly Hogan, but it wasn’t long before it signed national acts like the Old 97′s, Neko Case and Ryan Adams. Even as the term “Americana” replaced “alt-country” in the 21st century, the label continued shepherding the careers of roots artists like Justin Townes Earle, Lydia Loveless and Luke Winslow-King.
Such an illustrious history deserves a big blowout, but with Midwestern modesty Bloodshot is downplaying its 20th anniversary: no massive catalog-spanning box set or extensive reissue campaign. Instead, the label recruited nearly 40 artists young and old to cover their favorite Bloodshot tracks, and the result is While No One Was Looking: Toasting 20 Years of Bloodshot Records. As with any tribute album, especially a two-CD set, there are gems and duds. Into It. Over It. render Case’s “Deep Red Bells” into a bloodless husk of a song — the kind of track you skip after a few measures. But Superchunk‘s bouncy rendition of Adams’s “Come Pick Me Up” (which he reportedly based on a song of theirs with the same title) is a clever reimagining that adds a shoulder shrug to the pathos.
Perhaps the biggest revelation here is the extent to which Bloodshot was a safe haven for some incredibly distinctive songwriters, including Alejandro Escovedo, Robbie Fulks and the Old 97′s, all of whom worked in country music but hated Nashville industry politics. There may be a preponderance of tracks from Adams (five total), Case (four) and Escovedo (two, including Jerry David DeCicca’s gently jagged “Broken Bottle), but some of the best pieces here were written by lesser-known songwriters. Koji tease out the concrete details and contradictory emotions in Ben Weaver’s quietly cinematic “East Jefferson,” while the Minus 5 detwang “Cherokee Grove” by former Screaming Trees drummer Mark Pickerel, but leave the self-lacerating humor intact. Both of those songwriters are relatively new to Bloodshot, the kind of young talent that ensures another eventful 20 years.