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The War of The Bruces' Alex McManus

 
story by tim mcmahan


 

 

Lazy-i: January 29, 2003


Sometimes a mirror is a mountain and I've got to get over it
But then I get to the top and still can't see shit
Then there's nothing at all for me to do but fall
Spinning away to the bottom of the valley
Then to your arms I crawl

Words of Omahan Alex McManus, performing as The Bruces, from his recently released CD, The War of the Bruces.

McManus could well be Omaha's least-known renowned musician. The first time I heard him was when he played "scratchy fiddle" on Simon Joyner's '93 breakthrough record, The Cowardly Traveler Pays His Toll, released on tiny Omaha label, Sing Eunichs! McManus had met Joyner through The Antiquarium, an indie/punk record store where Joyner worked.

"I was teaching myself scratchy fiddle, and he asked me to play some scratchy fiddle on his record," McManus said. "We recorded it in the living room of an old house in Benson." His slightly off-kilter fiddle added about a mile's worth of loneliness to Joyner's sullen folkie confessions.

It was early in a career that would take McManus throughout the United States and Europe numerous times as a sideman for two of underground music's more important folk artists: Vic Chesnutt and the quirky ensemble known as Lambchop.




 

 

Before he picked up his scratchy fiddle, McManus had played the baritone horn and euphonium throughout high school at Omaha's Northwest High. He said he picked up a guitar while living at his mother's house in New Orleans and taught himself a handful of chords.

That led to playing guitar in his first band, The Acorns, in the early '90s, a band that included musicians such as Jeannette Morgan, Jeff Heintzleman, Joe Kobjerowski, Bob Garfield and Mike Fratt.

"We managed to go on some crazy trips and it gave me the bug to travel and play music," McManus said. "From then on, things have just fallen in my lap and I've been real lucky."

McManus might be the antithesis of the rock star. He's soft spoken, humble, almost self effacing. Shy of the press, he rarely does interviews. "It's great to have a chance to talk about music, but I'm probably not very good at it," he said.

After the Acorns, McManus played bass briefly in Omaha tractor-punk outfit Frontier Trust. Then came his first recordings with Joyner. It was at an Omaha concert that he first met Vic Chesnutt, the Athens, Georgia-based singer-songwriter whose quiet, introspective acoustic ballads had caught the attention of R.E.M.'s Michael Stipe in the early '90s, and vaulted him to national attention.

"I had known him for a couple years before that," McManus said. "I liked the honest, spare simplicity of his music. I had no idea that he was in a wheelchair and had a paralyzed hand. I thought his lyrics were really smart and creative without being calculated, and that he had the ability to write a real simple song and make it sound sublime."

On one of Chesnutt's return trips to Omaha opening for Bob Mould at The Ranch Bowl, McManus, sick with a fever, had his friends Joyner and Sing Eunichs label head Chris Deden slip Chesnutt a copy of Family Day, a recording he had done as The Bruces. Delivered with the tape was a message that he was moving to Athens. "I said if you need a guitar player, find me or I'll call you."

McManus moved to Athens in '93 and met up with Chesnutt a few months later, eventually going on tour as his sideman in April '94. For the next two few years, McManus would tour with Chesnutt constantly, mostly in Europe but also in the United States.

"I toured with him through '98, but really intensely from '94 through '96. One year we were on the road at least eight months. When we first went to Europe we were playing tiny clubs; over time it just got bigger. We played a few indoor festivals in France with 3,000 people seated. Every show was different. We could be really terrible sometimes and fall apart at any moment, and that was the thrill of it. It was a fragile thing."





"We could be really terrible sometimes and fall apart at any moment, and that was the thrill of it. It was a fragile thing."


 

 


"It's a really challenging thing to work with Lambchop. You have to have a great deal of restraint to not step all over everyone."


 

 

At the same time, McManus had met Kurt Wagner, the frontman for the Nashville-based ensemble Lambchop, a backporch orchestra that contained as many as 15 members playing a sort of avant-garde form of country music. Before long, McManus was also touring with Lambchop, which was building a sizeable following throughout Europe. "It ballooned from there and I ended up amicably parting ways with Vic to play more with Lambchop," McManus said.

His relationship with Wagner and the band continues today, having gone out 13 weeks in 2002 with Lambchop's mini orchestra. "It's a really challenging thing to work with Lambchop. You have to have a great deal of restraint to not step all over everyone. I can sit back in some songs and just listen and then make a peep or squawk, and then step out again. It's fun to be able to know your little part is going to make a difference."

McManus would play a similar roll as part of the Bright Eyes' 14-piece band that toured this year in support of their new CD, Lifted, or the Story Is in the Soil Keep Your Ear to the Ground. The tour also featured The Bruces as an opening act in support of McManus' new CD, The War of the Bruces, released on Misra Records.

War… started as a collection of 8-track recordings McManus had made in his Athens home. Conor Oberst, the singer-songwriter behind Bright Eyes, had heard the demos and urged McManus to rerecord them. "He was important for getting me to go to Nashville and record the album," McManus said.

Recorded at Beech House studios in January 2002 with the help of fellow Lambchop member Mark Nevers, The War of the Bruces features dusty folk songs like the bouncy opener "Do Si Do," the subtle banjo plunker "Two Dogs," and the warm, sprawling "Mountain," all showcasing McManus' humble, quiet voice and acoustic guitar. Some tracks are backed by Curtiss Pernice, another Vic Chesnutt sideman.

In June 2002, McManus moved back to Omaha "for a lot of reasons," he said. "My girlfriend and I wanted out of Athens. We wanted to buy a house, which just wasn't affordable in Georgia."

It wasn't until he got here that he realized what an institution Saddle Creek Records and Bright Eyes had become. "I had seen Conor when he came through Athens a few times, and we would always chat," he said. "Going on tour with him really blew my mind."

McManus played euphonium with Bright Eyes on a tour that was, at times, chaotic. "I guess I thrive on that," he said. "At first everyone was a little bit nervous and the first show was a bit rickety, but what band isn't on their first show? After the first couple shows, everyone had their parts down so well, it was a blast."

He said the opening slot as The Bruces (a name influenced by his father, who's also named Bruce), was well-received, and so far the CD, released in November, is in its third pressing at Misra (which equates to about 3,000 copies).

These days, McManus is busy fixing up his just-purchased Benson home, easy work for a former contractor's assistant. He plans on building a home studio and playing on a number of his friends' recordings, including Simon Joyner, who he hasn't recorded with since Joyner's '98 double album, Yesterday Tomorrow and In Between. "Simon and I have talked about doing a record over at his house," McManus said, "and hopefully I'll be playing guitar with Bright Eyes later this year, but that's not 100 percent."

Though he's seen a big part of the world thanks to his music, McManus continues to thrive in obscurity, even in his home town. "I love the people I play with, the friendships," he said. "I've been able to keep doing this for awhile. I'll always be involved in music, whether it involves touring or not. I can't really imagine myself not playing music."


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Published in The Omaha Weekly-Reader Jan. 29, 2003. Copyright 2003 Tim McMahan. All rights reserved. Photographs copyright 2003 by Bill Sitzmann, used by permission.