Stranger than fiction 

Former Fibbers stay true to a Willie Nelson classic

Willie Nelson and Carla Bozulich are separated by age, sex and artistic intent, to name just a few things. Bozulich, the former frontwoman for the Geraldine Fibbers and Ethyl Meatplow, has made a career out of creating confrontational music to carry words that are evocative and obscure. And yet she finds herself out on the road performing Nelson's lyrically direct, sonically sparse 1975 concept album, Red Headed Stranger.

In keeping with the stark simplicity of the source material, Bozulich will be joined on tour by fellow fibber Nels Cline and his new band, the Nels Cline Singers, with Cline on guitar and lap steel, Scott Amendola on drums and Devin Hoff on upright bass. This isn't the first time Bozulich and Cline have covered Nelson. The Geraldine Fibbers included Red Headed Stranger's "Hands on the Wheel" on a 1994 EP.

"It's just basically one of my favorite records," Bozulich says of Red Headed Stranger. "There's a lot of noise in my head, all the time. And for me, the simple beauty of that kind of music and the whole storytelling thing, it's just very lulling."

Obviously, covering a mid-'70s country classic is an exercise in art. And the music you'll hear Bozulich and friends playing won't be a note-for-note facsimile of the original. But she says the songs will be recognizable.

"It's super-highly respectful of the original piece," Bozulich promises. "There's only a couple of tunes where I change the arrangement very much. And in the context of where they fall during the show, it's really obvious what they are. For the most part, I'm doing a pretty straight interpretation -- as much as you could say that coming from who I am."

The tour and upcoming album mark a defiant public return to music for Bozulich. Like dozens of other indie acts that showed even an ounce of promise, her best-known band, the Geraldine Fibbers, got scooped up in the music industry's post-Nirvana buying frenzy. The group, though, was an acquired taste that mixed country and punk into a sonic soup that showed little commercial potential. In 1998, Virgin dumped the Fibbers after their two critically lauded albums didn't move enough units.

After nearly a decade's worth of touring 10 months a year -- combined with the nasty view she got of major-label business practices -- Bozulich was mentally exhausted. So she withdrew from public view.

"They did all the sleazy stuff that you hear about record companies doing, without skipping any of them," Bozulich says with a laugh. "At the same time, I got a lot out of it that I never would've gotten. But the bottom line is, they pulled me through the ringer -- so did my manager, and so did my attorney. An artist like me has really no business getting involved with people like that, because those people, they are very clear about the fact that they want you to -- quote, unquote -- succeed and really go somewhere. What that means -- to really make that your No. 1 priority as a musician -- is that you are willing to make major compromises. Not minor compromises, but major compromises. And the thing is, I have never been an artist that was willing to do that."

Her confidence now restored, Bozulich booked the current tour by herself -- out of necessity. And the hard-earned perspective she's gained reads like a cautionary tale for every indie act wondering what life might be like married to a major.

"I think that after a few years with the Fibbers, the record company and everybody realized that I didn't care about becoming huge," Bozulich says. "So why the fuck are they wasting their time with me?"

Carla Bozulich and the Nels Cline Singers perform Tues., April 23, at the Echo Lounge, 551 Flat Shoals Ave. 8 p.m. (doors). $8. 404-681-3600.


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