You can read it in your Sunday papers: News & Observer excerpt

N&OlogoThe book-writing gig is fun and all, but it’s still a sideline project to my main occupation — arts reporter and music critic at Raleigh’s daily newspaper, The News & Observer, my primary professional address for the past 24 years. My editors there were kind enough to consent to running a “Comin’ Right at Ya” excerpt, which is in the Sunday paper.

Check that out here, and then come on out to one of this month’s reading-type appearances for “Comin’ Right at Ya”:

Thursday, Oct. 8 — Books & Brew at The Roost in Pittsboro (5-8 p.m.). Also appearing will be Eddie Huffman, discussing his John Prine book; and Elliott Humphries playing a few songs.

Sunday, Oct. 18Texas Book Festival at the State Capitol Auditorium in Austin, Texas (4:15 p.m.). Co-writer/subject/star Ray Benson will be at this one, too, so it should be well worth checking out. I expect he’ll play at least a song or two.

Wednesday, Oct. 21 — Quail Ridge Books & Music in Raleigh (7 p.m.). I’m doing this one solo, so maybe I’ll break out the cowboy hat.

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The “Comin’ Right at Ya” playlist, on largehearted boy

LHBIf you read “Comin’ Right at Ya” (and I sure hope you will!), you might find yourself seeking some of the music to listen to while turning pages. Well, folks, I’m here to help. At the behest of the very fine book/music blog largehearted boy, I’ve put together a playlist of songs from Ray Benson and Asleep at the Wheel as well as some of the group’s key contemporaries from throughout their 45-year history. That’s LHB’s “Book Notes” column for today, and you’ll find it here.

I also did one of these LHB playlists for “Losering” back in 2012, which you can find linked from here.

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Publication day!

Today, Oct. 1, is the “official” publication date for “Comin’ Right at Ya: How a Jewish Yankee Hippie Went Country, or, the Often Outrageous History of Asleep at the Wheel.” I’m marking the occasion here because I won’t have any time for celebrating. Today will find me scurrying around all day and long into the night covering the big World of Bluegrass festival here in Raleigh, which is keeping me plenty busy this week — especially with Hurricane Joaquin apparently bearing down on us. Fun!

As for how co-writer/subject/star Ray Benson will mark his authorial debut, it should come as no surprise that he’ll do it onstage. Asleep at the Wheel is playing its traditional opening slot for this weekend’s Austin City Limits Music Festival, taking the stage just after noon Central Time Friday.

Down the road a bit, Ray and I will both do some bookstore-type events, separately as well as together. You can find me Oct. 8 at Books & Brew in Southern Village and Oct. 21 at Quail Ridge in Raleigh; and Ray is doing a hometown reading at Austin’s Book People on Nov. 18. And on Oct. 18, Ray and I will also appear together at the Texas Book Festival in Austin, at the State Capitol Auditorium.

Y’all come!

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Co-writing history

WalterMagMy name appears on the cover of “Comin’ Right at Ya,” but below Ray Benson’s name and in much smaller type — and rightly so. This is his story, not mine, and he’s a lot more famous (not to mention taller) than I am. It’s not unusual for autobiographical memoirs like this to involve co-writers; and if you’re curious about what the co-writing gig is like, I penned an essay about the experience. It appears in the October issue of Walter, Raleigh’s city magazine, in a spread that includes a short bit of excerpted text from the book. Check that out on page 104 of October’s Home & Garden Issue, or here.


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Comin’ right at Luke Bryan

LukeBryanThis should be interesting, a moderate media imbroglio just in time for this week’s publication day of “Comin’ Right at Ya.” I can tell you from experience that subject/star/co-writer Ray Benson is a man who speaks his mind. And in a recent interview with the Lowell Sun in Massachusetts to preview an Asleep at the Wheel show up that way, Ray was quoted saying some not-so-glowing things about modern mainstream country music in general, and bro-hunk Luke Bryan in particular:

You can relate to picking up girls, drinking beer and hot pants. The thematic stuff is what bothers me. I don’t like Luke Bryan and those guys, because there’s no originality. Every song follows pretty much the same chord progression. That’s not a bad thing, in and of itself. Hank Williams used the same four chords, but there’s no melodic integrity and the words are just silly.

You listen to Hank Williams, Merle Haggard, Patsy Cline or Willie Nelson. None sound like the other. It’s individuality at its best. Patsy Cline was a pop singer, but with country sensibilities.

Let me qualify this by saying there’s great country music made today by lots of people, it’s just not getting on mainstream radio.

That quote has since been been picked up elsewhere, so…I guess we’ll see if Bryan has anything to say in return — and if that moves the needle at all once the book comes out.


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DRA 1989 on the charts: no peak, but ahead of Taylor Swift

Screen Shot 2015-09-25 at 3.07.46 PMWell, Ryan Adams did not set a new personal chart high-water mark with his version of Taylor Swift’s 1989, which he released this past Monday. It sold 56,000 copies in its first week to debut at No. 7 on the Billboard 200 album-sales chart dated Oct. 10. While that’s a fine showing (and his fourth top-10 album overall), it’s still three notches below what last year’s Ryan Adams debuted and peaked at — although if you compare their sales figures, DRA 1989 actually outsold RA by more than 10,000 copies in their respective opening weeks.

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For all the acclaim garnered (or at least discussion generated), DRA 1989 still debuted behind new albums by Drake/Future (No. 1), singer Lana Del Rey (No. 2), rapper Mac Miller (No. 4), Pink Floyd guitarist David Gilmour (No. 5) and Florida hard-rock band Shinedown (No. 6). But in a delicious bit of synchronicity, DRA 1989 comes in one notch ahead of Swift’s original quintuple-platinum version of 1989, which is at No. 8 with 42,000 sold in its 48th week on the chart. This is, I believe, the first time that two different artists’ versions of the same set of songs have been in Billboard’s top-10 simultaneously.

ADDENDA (9/30-10/2/2015): Along with the Top 200 showing of DRA 1989, seven of the album’s 13 songs have made Billboard’s Hot Rock Songs Chart simultaneously. Previously, Ryan had a grand total of three songs on that chart. And yes, this is indeed the first time two versions of the same set of songs have been in the top-10 together.

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My trunk is Asleep at the Wheel

If I say so myself, I was the perfect choice to be Ray Benson’s co-writer for “Comin’ Right at Ya,” and here is just one of many reasons why. I got this trunk when I was a kid for trips to camp, but beyond a certain age its primary purpose evolved into a resting place for stickers I acquired over the years. And as you can see, Asleep at the Wheel is one I picked up along the way, prominently placed in the lower left corner. While it’s held up better than a lot of the others on there (not to mention better than the trunk itself), I think that Wheel sticker is not too many years newer than the Mondale/Ferraro sticker on the right, which goes back to the fall of 1984.


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Kissa me baby

CamRaleighAs a deejay, I think I’m a decent writer. Nevertheless, for the first time ever I’m going to give actual live, public deejaying a whirl this week at the Contemporary Art Museum in downtown Raleigh. As part of the museum’s current “Big Bent Ears” (which is billed as a “multimedia installation about listening,” showing at CAM until Dec. 3), exhibit co-curator Sam Stephenson is inviting different people to come in for guest-deejay shifts. My turn in the rotation will be 8-10 p.m. this Thursday, Sept. 24.

The guest-deejay part of “Big Bent Ears” is called Kissa, referring to the listening salons that originated in Japan in the 1950s. These deejay shifts have been happening at CAM since early June, tapping a wide range of guests including Whiskeytown alumni Steve Grothmann, Caitlin Cary and Skillet Gilmore, plus Branford Marsalis and members of Hiss Golden Messenger, Chatham County Line, Superchunk, Mountain Goats, CousinsArt of Cool and other local-music notables.

My playlist is still a work in progress, but I expect it will have a song or two from Asleep at the Wheel and Ryan Adams/Whiskeytown. And since the preferred Kissa medium is vinyl, I’m going to do my best to make my shift an all-vinyl experience. Not playing anything on compact disc will impose some limitations, of course. But as you can see from the picture at the bottom, at least I’ve got a decent amount of vinyl to draw from. Come on out…

EPILOGUE — and here’s what I ended up playing:

1 – Peter Case, “Steel Strings”
2 – Tift Merritt, “Mixtape”
3 – Marvin Gaye/Tammi Terrell, “Good Lovin’ Ain’t Easy to Come By”
4 – Pete Townshend, “Mary”
5 – dB’s, “Black and White”
6 – Vincent Guaraldi, “Cast Your Fate to the Wind”
7 – Josh Moore, “May It Ever Be”
8 – Don Henley, “Bramble Rose”
9 – Whiskeytown, “Heart Is Broken”
10 – Little Feat, “Easy to Slip”
11 – Asleep at the Wheel, “House of Blue Lights”
12 – Del Lords, “Love Lies Dying”
13 – Sly & the Family Stone, “Luv N’ Haight”
14 – Big Audio Dynamite, “Relativity”
15 – Kinky Friedman, “Sold American”
16 – Feelies, “Everybody’s Got Something to Hide (Except Me and My Monkey)”
17 – Spinners, “One of a Kind Love Affair”
18 – Ry Cooder, “She’s Leaving the Bank”
19 – China Crisis, “Wishful Thinking”
20 – Ryan Adams, “Magnolia Mountain”
21 – The Balancing Act, “Adventure”
22 – Let’s Active, “Counting Down”
23 – T-Bone Burnett, “Quicksand”
24 – The Lucy Show, “A Million Things”
25 – Peter Case, “Satellite Beach”
26 – Drive-By Truckers, “Heathens”
27 – Tift Merritt, “Papercut”
28 – Robyn Hitchcock, “Madonna of the Wasps”
29 – Sam Phillips, “Out of Time”
30 – R.E.M., “Perfect Circle”
31 – Ryan Adams, “Hey There Mrs. Lovely”


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Covering Whiskeytown seems like the least Taylor Swift could do…

Yesterday, Ryan Adams’ long-ago bandmate Skillet Gilmore posted on Facebook that he and Caitlin Cary were “assuming that Taylor Swift is holed up right now learning all of Faithless Street” — and it’s definitely hilarious to imagine Swift returning Ryan’s 1989 favor by recording Whiskeytown’s ragged-but-right 1996 alt-country classic as immaculate pop. But this morning, Skillet took it to the next level by posting the picture below on Instagram, with shout-outs to @misterryanadams and @taylorswift.

Come on, Taylor, make this wildest dream come true! Phil Wandscher might appreciate it, too!


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Worlds colliding: My ‘hood is Asleep at the Wheel


Chris Boerner onstage at Raleigh’s Pour House nightclub with The Hot at Nights. Photo by Robert Pettus.

It’s always fun when acquaintances from different quadrants of my world brush up against each other, especially in far-away places. So it is that “Comin’ Right at Ya” star/co-writer Ray Benson is playing with Asleep at the Wheel tonight at a club in Pawling, New York, which is almost 600 miles north of my hometown of Raleigh. Opening tonight’s show will be Jeanne Jolly, a very fine Americana singer/songwriter from around these parts — whose guitar player, Chris Boerner, lives right around the corner from me. Chris is one of the coolest guitarists in this area and also plays with electronic soul group The Foreign Exchange and his own jazz band The Hot At Nights.

Anyway, I look forward to hearing a Ray Benson story or two the next time I bump into Chris around the ‘hood.


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