Yet another project providing an outlet for the talents of eternally busy artist and musician Jon Langford (best known for his work with the Mekons and the Waco Brothers), the Pine Valley Cosmonauts were conceived by Langford as a vehicle for performing music written by others, with a membership that grows and shifts with the needs of each project, often featuring the cream of the Chicago alt-country and indie rock community. Langford originally coined the name in 1996 to credit his backing band on Misery Loves Company: Songs of Johnny Cash, which as the name suggests was a collection of covers of tunes made famous by the Man in Black; drummer Steven Goulding and bassist Tom Ray were the rhythm section, while Langford covered guitar and vocals and Tom Rice pitched in on guitar, banjo, fiddle, and mandolin. The album was originally released only in Germany, though a limited American edition was issued by Bloodshot in 1998.
An expanded version of the Pine Valley Cosmonauts, featuring a horn section and a wealth of guest vocalists (including Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Alejandro Escovedo, Robbie Fulks, and Neko Case) convened in 1998 to record The Pine Valley Cosmonauts Salute the Majesty of Bob Wills, an homage to the music of the Texas master of Western swing; Wills' daughter Rosetta Wills praised the album as "the best tribute to my father's music I've ever heard."
Langford's musical passions and outspoken political ideals found a meeting place (as they often do) in his next Pine Valley Cosmonauts project, 2002's The Executioner's Last Songs, a collection of songs about death featuring another stellar lineup of guest vocalists, including Steve Earle, Rosie Flores, Edith Frost, and Janet Bean; proceeds from the sale of the album benefited the Illinois Coalition Against the Death Penalty. Response to The Executioner's Last Songs was strong enough that Langford and company released The Executioner's Last Songs, Vol. 2 & 3 in 2003, which helped raise funds for both the Illinois Coalition Against the Death Penalty and the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, and included appearances from Otis Clay, Mark Eitzel, Dave Alvin, David Yow, and many more. The PVC also played a handful of live dates to support the album's release, although given the band's broad lineup and penchant for guest stars, it generally only does "special occasion" performances, mostly in the Chicago area. ~ Mark Deming, Rovi