Jeanine O’Toole of The 1900s
The local rock ’n’ roller on her not-so-secret passion for square dancing, “Goodnight, Irene,” and sad songs
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As a member of The 1900s, Jeanine O’Toole is a first-order rocker. The band’s latest record, Return Of The Century, might not shred Slayer-style, but it’s got heavenly melodies and a thin sheen of depth and drama.
Of course, all cool kids have a secret geeky shame, and O’Toole’s is a doozy: She loves to square dance. As a member of The Golden Horse Ranch Band, she entertains wedding parties, old timers, and drunk young people, all the while teaching the fine art of the do-si-do.
As intrepid journalists, The A.V. Club just had to know more, especially with The 1900s show Dec. 3 at the Empty Bottle. We caught up with O’Toole on tour in New York to talk about the difference between country fans and rock fans, the perfect venues to square in, and the macabre majesty of “Goodnight, Irene.”
The A.V. Club: So, what’s The Golden Horse Ranch Band and how did you get involved?
Jeanine O’Toole: The band started eight years ago, and it’s mostly made up of bluegrass instruments—like mandolin, fiddle, snare drum, guitar—plus a lot of singers. I’d known about the band for years, because I saw them at their annual square dance in the city, which they used to have at AV-Aerie.
Then I met with Annie, the caller, because she’s in Reds And Blue, and The 1900s played with them. We were talking, and she asked me to join the band. It felt crazy to say yes because I was already so busy, but I couldn’t resist. The dances are just so amazing, vigorous, and hilarious, that I had to join.
AVC: What’s your role in the band and what kinds of songs do you guys do?
JO: I’m a Ranchette, which is one of the extra female singers in the band. I sing some country and bluegrass standards. We do a really wonderful Dolly Parton song, “Dumb Blondes.” I sing all the Patsy Cline songs that we do, too. We also have an amazing bluegrass cover of “Sweet Child O’ Mine” that’s a real crowd pleaser.
It was just a huge honor to be asked to be in the band, and I had no idea what I was getting into. They told me they did some hired gigs around town, and I could make a few extra bucks, but it’s been just really wonderful. They’re some of the most talented musicians I’ve ever played with.
AVC: Are they better than some of the rockers around?
JO: Country and rock are just totally different scenes. It’s a whole different community. I mean, I grew up on the South Side of Chicago, and there’s just no country scene down there. I was totally naïve when it came to country songs before I joined the band. If you’d asked me my favorite, I couldn’t even think of one. I grew up listening to hip-hop and metal.
The country community’s just so unified and warm. They play music for fun rather than playing music to become successful. There’s a lot more enjoyment going on, and they work hard at being good, not at becoming cool or being the next big thing. When what you’re doing has already been done, like our band, it’s a fun niche, too.
AVC: So how are your square dancing skills?
JO: Part of my role in the band is to be a square-dance facilitator. I go out in the crowd and get people into position, show them how the moves look, and I’m like a coach during the dances. It gets a little crazy, trying to get drunk, happy people to follow directions. Things go awry very quickly. I tend to just be there to nudge people in the right direction, and usually they get it. Square dance is, for the most part, very easy once you get the hang of the style of it, kind of like crosswords. You just have to know a few key terms and moves.
I fancy myself a pretty good square dancer now. Every time there’s a gentleman without a lady, I step in as their partner. I do more dancing than anyone else in the band. There are people in the group who have never danced because they’re always playing.
AVC: What are your favorite square dancing moves?
JO: The do-si-do comes up in a lot of dances. I really like the “grand right and left,” which is when you’re in a square, and turn to the person on your left, and you take each other’s right hands, and then you move forward and take another person’s right hand. There’s also this really cool move called “dip the oyster,” which is where two couples dip each other under the other couples’ arched arms.
AVC: Did you learn square dancing in school growing up?
JO: I didn’t. I went to Catholic school in the city of Chicago, and we didn’t have the same kind of P.E. that public schools tended to have. The first time I went to see Golden Horse before I was in the band, I thought square dancing was really confusing and frustrating, but it gets much easier if you’re paying attention.
AVC: When’s the next Golden Horse Ranch Band show?
JO: We’ve been trying to find the right space to have a big square dance. The last one was in Millennium Park a couple of years ago, which was beautiful, and people really get into it. We do a big private square dance at a friend’s farm in Indiana every year, but in the city, we’re hoping to find a space that’s big enough to hold a couple of hundred dancers, and that’s hard. We do some sets where we play country and bluegrass songs pretty frequently at The Hideout and The Whistler, but there’s not much dancing there. We recorded a record of standards, and we’re trying to have a record release show in 2011, hopefully with dancing.
AVC: Why is it so hard to find a good square dancing space?
JO: It’s hard to get a space that understands the event. We really just need a large room and some booze, though. People square dance much more fluently when they’ve had six whiskeys.
AVC: What’s the difference between square dancing and contra dancing?
JO: Square dancing is four couples in a square, and I think contra is a circle dance, like where there’s an outer circle and an inner circle. There’s supposedly quite a contra scene in Chicago, but I’ve never been to any of those dances.
We do a couple of circle dances in the band. Those dances are easier to follow because everyone can see everyone else. We have a big one called “Bingo,” where there’s a part where everyone yells “B-I-N-G-O” and when you get to the “O,” you hug.
AVC: Let’s talk about The 1900s. I read that this record was inspired by the Christine “Licorice” McKechnie story. Is that true?
JO: There are two people writing lyrics in the band, and I think Ed [Anderson]’s lyrical contributions leaned far more than mine toward Licorice and the cult and being lost in the desert. Mine are more about reconciling a past with a present, and that inability to go back home.
I think the record, as a whole, is more about figuring out where you stand with your roots, your family, and close friends. Sometimes you lose those people. Sometimes you try to get them back, and sometimes you try to get away from them.
AVC: Are you writing from experience?
JO: I think that departure from home and getting lost is something everyone can understand. I write pretty intimately lyrically, so when I’m writing, I usually have a specific circumstance and relationships in mind, almost to the point about being about myself and an individual and where we stand in the world together. It’s not a big grand notion, but it’s just what I know and understand in my life.
I think it’s because I write lyrics pretty fast. Ed will come to me and say, “I need lyrics for this song,” and I write them that night. It’s just the most comfortable thing that’s in my head will come out.
AVC: Do you have favorite songs on the new record?
JO: This is probably the first time we’ve made a record where I can honestly say that I like every song on it a lot. I feel really happy listening to it, and I don’t cringe at a single song. Instrumentally, my favorite song by far is “Babies,” which I think utilizes the best of the individual band members’ talents. Andra’s violin lines are really incredible and special, and Ed’s guitar is very him. The bassline is really strong and groovy.
I’m also really attached to “Overreactin’,” because it feels really personal to me. Ed and Caroline and I put it together in an afternoon really quickly without thinking too hard about it, and it’s great to play live. It’s fun to sing. It just means a lot to me.
AVC: You guys write some pretty depressing songs, but with pretty fun melodies. Where do you think that comes from?
JO: I’m a pretty melancholy person. I sort of enjoy that sad good. I like reading books that are a bit somber, but still funny. I laugh at things that are sad at their core. I’m probably way more guilty than anyone else in the band at enjoying the melancholy nature of the songs. Lyrically and instrumentally, I love a good sad note.
I think most people do, though. There’s a reason that sad songs are what everyone feels so attached to. They’re a little romantic in the end. There’s something really life changing about feeling alone and figuring things out by yourself. That kind of sadness is really interesting, and you can learn something from it.
AVC: Do you see any similarities to country music in your work in that way?
JO: Country music is about as sad as it gets. There’s this one country song, “Goodnight, Irene,” which is one of my favorite songs. It was written by a guy who went to prison for killing his wife, and he loves her, but he doesn’t feel bad about cutting her off because she did him wrong.
A lot of country music is about pain, loss, and regret, and those are really beautiful musical themes. They’re something that a lot of people have used over time, like “I got drunk, cheated on my wife, gambled my house away.” When you put the right melody to it, it sounds beautiful, and almost joyful.
I guess one of the reasons that I like being in a country band, though, is that it just feels so different from being in The 1900s. Instrumentally, they’re worlds apart.
AVC: Have you learned anything from The Golden Horse Ranch Band that you’ve brought to the 1900s, though?
JO: The singing style of country has broke me loose in a lot of ways in the 1900s. I used to sort of mute myself when I was singing with the rock band, but now I’ve gotten more comfortable letting it out a little more. I’ve crossed over.
They’re both such different bands, though, that they each feel like a vacation from the other. They’ve both taught me how to perform better and sing better, though.
I recently wrote my first country song, which is mind blowing to me, like that I understand how country music works now. It’s probably not any good, but it felt pretty good to let myself get that involved to even start writing it.
AVC: What’s your country song about?
JO: It’s called “The Sweet Buy And Buy.” I named it after a thrift store I saw in California, MO, because I thought the name of the store was so endearing. The song’s not about shopping, but it is about that town.
I haven’t showed the song to too many people yet. I’m afraid to unleash my country music songwriting; I’m still feeling kind of vulnerable about it. It’s nice that I’ve grown to love country enough, though, that I want to be involved in that way.