Austin’s Broken Spoke rolls on

AATWSpokeFor better or worse, Asleep at the Wheel’s longtime hometown of Austin, Texas, has changed an awful lot over the last 40 years. It’s depressing to tally up all the funky enclaves that have been paved over in the name of runaway growth, and it sure isn’t the same town it was during the Armadillo era I wrote about in my University of Texas Master’s Thesis. But Austin still has plenty to recommend it. I’m sure my “Comin’ Right at Ya” co-writer/subject/star Ray Benson will never leave, and I always love going back to visit. I’m already counting the days until next month’s South By Southwest.

The Broken SpokeOne lingering repository of how The Old Austin ™ used to be is The Broken Spoke, an old-style honky tonk that used to be surrounded by empty fields south of downtown. Urban sprawl swallowed up that stretch of South Lamar long ago, but The Spoke is still standing. Seeing a show there feels kind of like visiting a game preserve, surrounded as it is by high-rise condos and such.

Inside, however, the place feels pretty much the same as it did when I started going there during my circa-1980s college days, with ceilings low enough to make me glad I’m nowhere near as tall as Ray. And above right is a picture from a show I really wish I’d been able to make it to, Willie Nelson sitting in with the Wheel Thursday night to benefit Turk Pipkin’s Nobelity Project.

Great cause, and I can’t imagine the show was anything but great, too — and man, I can practically taste the Lone Star beer and chicken-fried steak. As long as The Spoke survives, a piece of Old Austin will live on. I find that comforting, y’all.

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In the vicinity of greatness

CactusMusicIt’s always fun to see the company one’s book is keeping on actual retail book shelves out there in the world. So thanks and appreciation go out to Keith Willis for sending along this shot from an emporium called Cactus Music in Houston, Texas.

Looks like they’ve got “Comin’ Right at Ya” shelved betwixt and between Texas demigod Joe Ely’s 2014 novel “Reverb: An Odyssey” (a book Ely and I talked about a bit when I interviewed him last fall); the “Oddball Texas” guidebook to “Some Really Strange Places” in the Lone Star State — starting with the cover shot of The World’s Largest Cowboy Boots, which are just a few miles from where I grew up in San Antonio; “Bun B’s Rapper Coloring and Activity Book” by Shea Serrano; ex-Del Fuegos guitarist Warren Zanes’ much-acclaimed “Petty: The Biography”; and “I’ve Been Out There: On the Road with Legends of Rock ‘n’ Roll” by Little Richard bandleader Grady Gaines.

Honored to be in the vicinity, y’all.

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A Heartbreaker of a box set?

HBdeluxeIt’s hard to know just what, if anything, to make of this. But for a period of time this week, a European music-vendor website called cdon.com had a “Deluxe Box Edition” of Ryan Adams’ 2000 debut solo album Heartbreaker listed. It soon disappeared, and hitting the link for it now seems to take you to the main cdon.com home page. But cursory, less-detailed listings for it can also be found on Amazon Germany and Amazon France.

Those are the only places I’ve seen it so far, and I’ve yet to find a trace of it anywhere in America. Interestingly, it has “April 1” down as a release date. So it’s entirely possible that the whole thing is some sort of April Fool gag. If it is, however, it’s one heck of an elaborate joke. There’s a track list with lots of rarities including “Oh My Sweet Valentine,” one of my favorite of Ryan’s lost classics. And it should surprise no one that the thing I find most enticing about the accompanying illustrative photo (which I screen-grabbed while it was still online) is the book. What’s in there, and who wrote it?

I put in a query to Ryan’s publicist, asking if this was for real and if so when it might appear in the U.S., but there was no response. So we shall see if or when this ever emerges — or if it winds up in the same black hole as Blackhole.

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Hava nagila, y’all

Way back in the early to mid-1980s, during my misbegotten collegiate “career” at various institutions around Central Texas, I’d regularly encounter Asleep at the Wheel playing honky tonks and dancehalls around the region. That was actually a down period in their career, when the Wheel was grappling with disco and punk and new wave, trying to survive by downsizing to ever-smaller lineups.

Being an oblivious young man, however, I wasn’t really aware of any of that. I just thought they were a lot of fun, especially that freaky-tall dude out front. Judging from his deep-voiced drawl and onstage patter, he seemed like he’d probably grown up on a cattle ranch somewhere in Big Bend country west of the Pecos.

StarOfDavidThat was Ray Benson, obviously. And as I discovered when I signed on as co-writer for his memoir “Comin’ Right at Ya,” he might have the least-likely background of anybody in country music. Even though he’s been a long tall Texan for the past 40-plus years, Ray actually grew up in a Jewish family in the not-so-Wild West Town of Philadelphia — where one of his childhood playmates was future Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu (a detail from the book’s opening prologue that never fails to make people’s jaws drop; you’ll find it on page 6).

One cool benefit of Ray’s Jewish background is that “Comin’ Right at Ya” has picked up some right-nice attention from the Jewish blogosphere (and no, I was not aware of the existence of such a thing before this, either). Last month brought a lengthy interview with Ray on a site called Jewish Exponent: What It Means To Be Jewish In Philadelphia. And this week, we have a quite positive review from the Jewish Book Council.

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“Dude, get back in there then.”

Despite plenty of recent ups and downs, Ryan Adams hasn’t seemed like that desperately sad kid he used to be for a long, long time. And while one hesitates to attach too much of the mojo of past glories to Ryan’s mental state, it sure is tempting. Thus we have this Instagram comment to a picture Ryan posted. Well-played, replikate34 — well-played. Although I hope it won’t get you blocked…

 

GetBackInThere

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Plane reading

Truly, Austin’s Bergstrom International Airport is “Comin’ Right at Ya”  Central right now. It already had the Asleep at the Wheel Road House, of course, featuring the lifesize Ray Benson cutout. And just down the concourse from there, Book People has a satellite store. Here’s what its front display table looked like early Sunday morning — and thanks to Henry Carrigan (a scribe who has already been exceedingly kind) for sending this picture along. Nothing better than seeing one’s work out there in the world.

AustinAirport

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Ink 19 by the barrel

Ink19Today brings a quite nice “Comin’ Right at Ya” review, in Ink 19 — an online publication billing itself as “The Glass-Bottomed Boat of the Cultural Press” (and one that also had kind things to say about my first book “Off The Record” way back when, almost 15 years ago). As the “CRAY” review notes, there might be stranger journeys out there than the Asleep at the Wheel odyssey described in this book, but you’d be hard-pressed to find another story that’s “as funny and uncensored.” I’d agree! Check the review here.

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Meanwhile, on Planet Pitchfork…

…Seven out of 10 readers (or at least respondents to its annual Readers’ Poll for 2015) prefer Taylor Swift’s 1989 to DRA 1989. Guess it’s not just Grammy voters that like Swift’s original better.

PF1989

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Going deep on Come Pick Me Up, the new DRA archive

CPMUA number of Ryan Adams sites have come and gone in recent years, and you can find some of them at the Ryan Adams Reference Library link above. But a new one that shows particular promise in the online DRA fan landscape is Come Pick Me Up. Subtitled “The Ryan Adams Archive,” Come Pick Me Up is a worthy successor to the old RAA (which lives on in Facebook form) and Answering Bell (which is no more but was an invaluable fact-checking resource back when I was writing “Losering”). It’s also a nice compliment to Mega-Superior Gold.

Come Pick Me Up is the work of Michael Niebuhr, a dedicated and avid Ryan Adams fan from Copenhagen. He writes:

I’m a longtime Ryan fan going back to Whiskeytown’s “Strangers Almanac,” which is probably still my favorite album of his. I’m also an amateur songwriter (though non-practicing for the past five years due to parenthood), and I do software development for a living. So the actual coding of the site is a no-brainer. The only effort is the time that goes into adding the data. It is a big project for sure.

The idea is to cover everything: reviews, releases, recordings, interviews, collectibles, news, writings. I started the site in October with a group of “Superfans” — Luke O’Sheary, Thomas Bauer, Trond Andersen and Darren Combs — who supplied the initial data set (songs, shows, about 700 setlists), before I decided to take it solo after a few weeks. I aim to respect the wishes of Ryan and his organisation(s), and that’s why there’s no news about his divorce or girlfriends (which is the same story every time anyway), or unreleased recordings/bootlegs. I’m contemplating whether a forum will be a good idea, or just a place to slag the poor Shining.

As the site takes shape, it’s dawning on me how much material is out there. I want to “sweep Youtube” for Ryan content and do the same for concert reviews and photos. The possibility of connecting it all is too tempting not to reach for. I hope this site will grow into something great, a go-to source for Ryan fans — maybe even a place Ryan himself will check from time to time, such as to see what he played the last time he visited a city.

Eventually, there’ll be a credit section with a big “thank you” to Answering Bell, RAA and everybody who’s gone before, tracking the shows and setlists over the years. And to the tapers. And Ryan himself, of course. Somehow he never gets enough credit.

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More affordable art

TRDRALast Thursday, New Year’s Eve, Ryan Adams posted a new-year greeting that traveled far and wide. One person who saw it and took inspiration was Tony Rodriguez, a Florida artist who decided that day to do this excellent portrait of Ryan. Rodriguez turned it around in a matter of days, hand-drawing the image into Photoshop using a Wacom Tablet, and I think he really captured Ryan’s overall vibe and demeanor pretty much perfectly — down to the Misfits jersey, rumpled mop of hair and crooked little smile.

If you’d like to own a copy, Rodriguez has made a limited-edition run of 10 signed and numbered gallery-quality prints to display at a gallery show this month in Tampa, Fla. They’re priced at $315 for the print (or $450 framed), and you can check pre-order details here starting Wednesday.

 

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