Column 64 — Life of an outlaw

Category: Blog — @ 1:18 pm February 16, 2006

I didn’t know what I was getting into when I ran into Brendan Hagberg at O’Leaver’s last weekend after Outlaw Con Bandana opened for Mi and L’au. I was talking to one of the editors at The Reader at the time. Brendan asked if there was any way the paper could do something for the album-release show that’s going on this Saturday at Don Carmelo’s on Farnam. Jeremy said the paper already was booked up. After just hearing his set, I quickly suggested we put it in my column, figuring we could focus on the recording, which was produced by Mayday’s Ted Stevens. After Brendan walked away, Jeremy, who’s known Hagberg for years, said, “Jesus, this could be a good interview,” but wouldn’t elaborate. I’ve already received negative feedback on this column, that it’s a bait-and-switch, that it’s too “insider.” Maybe so. I knew before I wrote it that it could be perceived that way. But I didn’t have much choice other than to ignore the album’s dark back story altogether. During our interview, I warned Hagberg that by not discussing the details readers might draw even more morbid conclusions about the events. He said he couldn’t imagine anymore more heinous than what happened. Point taken.

Column 64: Scars for All the Hear
Outlaw Con Bandana has nothing to hide.
Funny thing about the liner notes tucked inside the new Outlaw Con Bandana 12-inch, Life Without Outlaw. The Xerox paper containing the lyrics has been haphazardly trimmed — either accidentally or intentionally — so that some of the words are missing, forcing you to either listen more closely or fill in the blanks yourself.

This column has the same sort of requirements. There are a lot of missing pieces in this story of Outlaw singer-songwriter Brendan Hagberg that are left out mostly on purpose by the request of Hagberg himself, who gave me the details on a background-basis only. Unfortunately, those missing pieces make up the central theme that inspired his new album. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

A chain-smoking Hagberg, along with girlfriend and Outlaw member Pearl Lovejoy Boyd, met me at an almost-empty 49’r Tavern last Sunday afternoon to tell not only the story behind the record, but the story behind this sad-faced, curly-haired son of Woody Guthrie.

It starts at Hagberg’s youth. Growing up in Minneapolis and Omaha, Hagberg joined a class of musicians that includes Conor Oberst, Simon Joyner and Bill Hoover who got their start at the now legendary Kilgore’s on 32nd and California St. (now the Shelterbelt Theater). Hagberg’s debut came at the tender age of 15 as the result of some prodding by Antiquarium records store owner and Omaha music scene patriarch Dave Sink. Hanging with that group of musicians gave Hagberg the big idea that he, too, could be a troubadour.

Music wasn’t his first love. Baseball was. Hagberg had dreams of playing baseball in college, but growing up in a broken home killed the idea. “My dad’s career failed, his marriage failed, and me and my sisters were left without a stable home,” Halberg said. “I wasn’t going to sink, so I headed out on my own, infatuated with beat poets.”

He dropped out of school at age 15 and hit the road on a series of trips that took him to New Orleans, San Francisco, Seattle and points in between, learning about Woody Guthrie and Robert Johnson by busking on the streets in front of St. Peter’s Cathedral. “That’s the music you play if you’re a singer down there,” he said of New Orleans. “I’ve lived there three times over the years. I generally go for about four months before I burn out. It’s a real tough place to stick around.”

He moved back to Omaha in ’98 after having a child with a girlfriend and took on the job of running a baseball club — the Omaha Haymakers. Though only a summer league for college students and washed up big leaguers, it was a chance to stay involved in baseball when he wasn’t out wandering. Finally, after returning from a stint in Europe, Hagberg formed Outlaw Con Bandana with upright bass player Matt Rooney. “Through all that time, I never stopped songwriting,” Hagberg said.

Which brings us to the part of the story that I can’t talk about. The part that inspired Life Without Outlaw. I will say that it’s a story of desperation and futility, harrowing and grim. “I wrote almost all of this record in February of last year,” Hagberg said. “I was writing songs trying to work though (the situation). It’s better than having a rage directed at the people that hurt me.”

So desperate was Hagberg’s circumstances that he said he considered suicide. It’s only very recently that the matter finally came to a conclusion. “I didn’t think I would fall in love or make a record again,” he said. “These things are really surprising. There are some people looking out for me.”

Among them, Ted Stevens of Mayday and Cursive fame, who heard the demos for Life Without Outlaw and signed on to produce the album after Joseph Tingley of Grotto Records agreed to release it. The album, which also features Chris Fischer on drums and a slew of guest performers including Stevens, Dan McCarthy, Pat Oakes and Pete Weimerauner, is one of the best traditional folk recordings to come out of Omaha, driven by gritty lyrics that cut to the heart and bone.

Do you still want to know what happened to Hagberg? Just check out the record, available at the Antiquarium. Or better yet, hear the band perform it at the record release show Feb. 18, 9:30, at Don Carmelo’s on 35th and Farnam. It’s free.

Or just ask Hagberg yourself. He’ll tell you.

“Sometimes you get a scar from a really troubling time,” he said. “This one just happens to be right across my face. It’s not on my belly or somewhere covered up. It’s important to interpret that experience. Letting other people in on it will cast some light on some of the unmentioned tragedies. There’s not a lot on the front page of the paper about recovering deadbeat alcoholics and the falsely accused. I just want a chance to explain what happened. Hopefully people will give me a listen, as opposed to deciding on hearsay.”

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