Parallel universes: “Lonesome Lies Before Us”

LonesomeA time or two over the years, I’ve had the idle thought: What if, after Whiskeytown disbanded and its members went their separate ways, Caitlin Cary rather than Ryan Adams had been the one to hit it big? How might Ryan’s life have turned out then?

While it doesn’t offer a hundred-percent accurate analog for either person, something like that alternative reality is the backdrop to Don Lee’s very fine new novel, “Lonesome Lies Before Us,” which is as tragicomic and shatteringly sad as, well, a Ryan Adams song. The main character in “Lonesome Lies Before Us” is Yadin Park, an alternative-country singer/songwriter modeled roughly on the real-life musicians Damien Jurado and Richard Buckner. But like Ryan, Yadin suffers from Miniere’s Disease — only Yadin’s case is severe enough to have forced his retirement as a professional musician.

Having retreated from the spotlight, Yadin lives a quiet life in small-town California. The story opens with him drifting into middle age while working as a carpet installer, and trying to keep from going numb in a loveless relationship of convenience with his boss’s daughter. Lee’s portrait seems pretty much exactly how things might have gone for Ryan if music hadn’t worked out as a career.

From afar, Yadin follows the career of his long-ago bandmate and girlfriend Mallory Wicks. Caitlin was never Ryan’s girlfriend, but she and Mallory are both fiddlers who learned the instrument by the Suzuki method. And in this book, Mallory is the one who went on to a high-profile and glamorous career involving stage, screen and radio hits. In the grips of a crisis of spiritual faith, and with his hearing beginning to fade as his life threatens to fall apart, Yadin suddenly finds himself writing songs again for the first time in years.

So he resolves to make one last album to put out into the world before disappearing from the scene for good (which he has to keep secret from his disapproving boss and girlfriend). That’s when Mallory unexpectedly reappears, in a reckoning that forces both of them to contemplate their individual and shared histories as well as motivations about music, art and life. It’s a fine read and a tale well-told, with a conclusion as tragic as it is inevitable.

I was honored to discover that “Losering” played a small role in “Lonesome Lies Before Us.” After hearing that author Don Lee had acknowledged my book in his “Author’s Note” (which is below), I got in touch to ask him about some of the background. Here is what he had to say:

I first got the idea for the novel when I read that Ryan Adams had contracted Ménière’s disease and was afraid he’d have to quit music. That really intrigued me, so I embarked on this story about an indie singer-songwriter losing his hearing to Ménière’s, who wants to self-release one last album. But the model for Yadin was more Richard Buckner and Damien Jurado, homely guys who don’t have much stage presence.

The model for the Yadin-Mallory duo was more Jason Isbell and Amanda Shires,  Mandolin Orange and HoneyHoney (all with female fiddle players). Also I thought a lot about the Civil Wars, and Damien Rice and Lisa Hannigan, and of course Gram and Emmylou. That film about Gram, “Fallen Angel,” was a big source of inspiration.

 “Losering” was instrumental as a source. A chapter toward the end is a flashback to when the characters had been alt-country musicians in Raleigh, and I cribbed much of the local flavor from your book. I wouldn’t have been able to write that chapter without “Losering,” which really is terrific. I loved it.

 

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June madness: The “DRA Best Song” bracket

Well, now, here’s some good superfan fun: a tournament-style bracket to determine Ryan Adams’ best-ever song through 2017, as determined by fan vote. I could quibble about some of what’s missing from “Best DRA Song 2017” — what, no “Hey There Mrs. Lovely”?! — and there were more than a few selections I had to agonize over (“Prisoner” versus “To Be Without You,” that is a tough first-round matchup). But on the whole, I’d say this is pretty solid; I was particularly glad to see “Jacksonville” as a darkhorse entry in the “2011-Present” region.

Anyway, looks like the first round is open through 11:45 p.m. Tuesday, June 13. Vote here,  check out the entire bracket here (or below) and take a listen to the accompanying Spotify playlist. Go Whiskeytown!

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All your base are belong to us

LoseringOn the one hand, yes, it’s always nice whenever a five-star review turns up on amazon, because one can never have too many of those. But on the other hand…well, the review below is so obviously not about the purported subject that I have difficulty believing it was written by an actual person. What on earth is Abel Tobias on about here? It’s a mystery, wrapped in an enigma (and very possibly a Seinfeld reference).

So anyway, yes, I am happy to know that this reviewer found “Losering” to be perfectly sized and spectacular-looking — I agree! But truly, amazon works in mysterious ways…

UPDATE (6/15/2017): Sometime in the past week, that review disappeared. Fortunately, however, the screengrab will live on here.

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John Prine — out in paperback, in spite of himself

If a hardcover title subsequently comes out in a paperback edition, that’s a solid sign that the book in question book has done pretty well. So congratulations to Eddie Huffman, whose 2015 book “John Prine: In Spite of Himself” is the second American Music Series title to make the hardcover-to-soft transition (after Kristin Hersh’s “Don’t Suck, Don’t Die: Giving Up Vic Chesnutt,” also from 2015 and our top-selling AMS book to date).

The “In Spite of Himself” paperback has a June publication date, but you should be able to find it in better bookstores already. And in an interesting twist, Prine himself has a book of his own coming out in June, “Beyond Words.”

 

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No Depression in Whiskeytown

Opinions shouldn’t be static or carved in stone, and two decades past Whiskeytown’s prime I do sometimes catch myself wondering: Were they really all that? And pretty much every time, something will cross my field of vision that feels like the universe answering back with a reminder: Um, yeah.

For example, there’s a vintage video that surfaced a few days ago, posted by Michael Niebuhr — the superfan behind the very fine and almost comprehensive archival Ryan Adams fan site Come Pick Me Up. This video is from a Whiskeytown show that captures an optimistic moment in time, the St. Louis date of the “No Depression Tour” sponsored by the magazine; April 5, 1997, and it’s kind of an only-in-St.-Louis artifact right down to Ryan’s nasty set-opening shout-out to Post-Dispatch critic Chris Dickinson over an unflattering Uncle Tupelo comparison (plus the onstage dancing cameo by Beatle Bob).

This is from the period that is pretty much the heart of “Losering,” shot when Whiskeytown’s major-label debut Strangers Almanac was recorded but not yet released. And even though Strangers wouldn’t be out for another three months, Ryan already seemed to be getting a little bored with it; that night’s set included just three Strangers songs to go with two from 1996’s Faithless Street, plus a cover of Iggy and the Stooges’ “I Wanna Be Your Dog” and three “lost” songs that I don’t believe ever turned up on any other album before or since.

The audio quality isn’t great, and there’s not a lot of variety to the visuals. Nevertheless, you still get the idea of what a wonderfully shambolic mess of ragged glory the Whiskeytown live experience could be back then. I do, anyway. Your mileage may vary, but seeing this made my tired old heart go pitter-pat.

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“Wild Wild Love” for Flat Duo Jets

FDJWWLBefore I moved to North Carolina in 1991, there were only a few local bands I knew much about. But one I had already come to know and love was Flat Duo Jets, the guitar-and-drums duo of Dexter Romweber and Chris “Crow” Smith. I’d caught the Jets on tour the previous year in Denver, opening for The Cramps, and their space-age bossa-nova rockabilly still stands as one of the most amazing spectacles I’ve ever witnessed. It also turned out that the News & Observer editor who hired me for the paper’s rock-writer job just happened to be married to Dexter’s manager, which was something else I considered a major selling point.

Once I got here, I became even more of a Flat Duo Jets acolyte, writing about them every chance I could in the paper as well as magazines including No Depression and Spin. And when I wrote my novel “Off The Record,” I modeled the unhinged rock-star protagonist as a mixture of Dexter and Ryan Adams.

All of which has led up to my latest and possibly most ambitious non-fictional spiel about the Jets to date, as part of a new reissue being released this week — Wild Wild Love (Daniel 13), an honest-to-God vinyl box set centered on their 1990 full-length debut album Flat Duo Jets. Along with abundant outtakes and rare tracks, the package includes a beautifully illustrated 40-page booklet featuring vintage photos and three essays, one of them a scene-setting band history by me that weighs in at more than 9,000 words. The other two essays are by Flat Duo Jets producer Mark Bingham; and Josh Grier, who produced the Jets’ 1984 cassette-only EP (In Stereo), which will be on vinyl for the first time in this box set.

Look for Wild Wild Love in better records stores on Saturday, April 22, as part of Record Store Day.

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Next up: “Woman Walk the Line”

WWtLNow that “Chrissie Hynde: A Musical Biography” is out in the world, attention here at the American Music Series turns to the next book up. And this will be an especially good one, “Woman Walk the Line: How the Women in Country Music Changed Our Lives.” It’s our first multi-author anthology in the series, with essays about everyone from Loretta Lynn to Rhiannon Giddens, and it’s a fantastic collection, thanks to the Herculean efforts of editor Holly Gleason. It may say, “Edited by Holly Gleason” on the cover, but “Lovingly sherpheded by” would be closer to the mark because Holly has done a spectacular job pulling this together.

One early fan is Americana icon (and noted author) Rodney Crowell — former husband of contributor Rosanne Cash, son-in-law of her essay subject June Carter Cash and longtime Emmylou Harris collaborator. He writes:

“‘Woman Walk the Line’ is tender, tough, raw, informative and emotionally intelligent, carefully framing twenty-seven of country music’s most evocative and enduring artists. It delivers truth and beauty on every page. I bow in earnest.”

Look for “Woman Walk the Line” in September as our fall release, and the 12th American Music Series book overall.

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Publication day for “Chrissie Hynde: A Musical Biography”

sobseyA few years back, I wrote a News & Observer story about a really cool project called “Bull City Summer: A Season at the Ballpark.” A year-long chronicle of the Durham Bulls minor-league baseball team, “Bull City Summer” brought together more than a dozen photographers, writers and artists to document what went on over the course of a season — not just on the field but in the stands, behind the scenes and even on the streets outside. By all means, buy the book because it’s really worth your time even if you’re not a baseball fan.

I was immensely impressed with everyone on the “Bull City Summer” crew, but especially journalist Adam Sobsey, a baseball reporter who penned a series of insightful essays that brought the world of Triple-A baseball to life. The subject was more sports than music, but I loved Adam’s writing and was also kind of in awe of his ability to turn around fully thought-out essays literally on the spot. I got in touch with Adam because I figured he had a book in him, and that definitely turned out to be the case.

Tuesday is the official publication date for the hardcover version of Adam’s “Chrissie Hynde: A Musical Biography,” a modestly titled but nevertheless brilliant look at the Rock and Roll Hall of Famer and iconic leader of The Pretenders. Among other things, “Chrissie Hynde” fills in a lot of time periods that Hynde herself didn’t cover in her own 2015 memoir “Reckless,” and Adam’s music criticism throughout the book is absolutely first-rate.

This is the 11th entry in the University of Texas Press American Music Series (with  No. 12, the anthology “Woman Walk the Line,” set to come out in September). Adam covered some of the background to his book here, and there’s a link to an excerpt here.

Adam will also be conducting readings (accompanied by a live band playing Pretenders songs, of course) at Greensboro’s Scuppernong Books on May 4, and Durham’s Global Breath Studio at a date to be announced later.

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“Solo Sounds” — Ryan Adams songs as you’ve never heard them

SoloSounds.jpgA few months back, I heard from Scott Ambrose Reilly, an old friend I first met many long eons ago back when he was managing roots-rock madman Mojo Nixon and answering to the name “Bullethead.” Nowadays, he’s involved in a very cool and offbeat new music series called Solo Sounds, which digitally releases cover versions of classic albums with the songs remade as solo instrumentals. His partner is longtime roots-rock god Eric “Roscoe” Ambel, and each Solo Sounds project comes with an unexpected twist — Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours as played on cello, Bob Marley’s Legend on marimba, Squirrel Nut Zippers co-founder Jimbo Mathus rendering the classic 1984 Replacements album Let It Be as solo blues guitar and so forth.

Scott told me they wanted to give Ryan Adams the Solo Sounds treatment with a set of his songs transposed to piano, an instrument Ryan rarely plays. So they came to me for input on which of his albums to cover, and that turned out to be a deceptively hard decision. The obvious choices would have been either Ryan’s 2001 commercial high-water mark Gold, or Whiskeytown’s 1997 magnum opus Strangers Almanac; but somehow neither felt quite right for this. So I suggested a third option, a Ryan Adams album that doesn’t actually exist: 29 Cold Jacksonville Roses.

As recounted in Chapter 16 of “Losering,” 29 Cold Jacksonville Roses is my 2005 mix for Ryan — an imaginary best-of with songs cherrypicked from the three albums he released that year (Cold Roses, Jacksonville City Nights and 29). Now I realize that the very idea of carving these albums up like this remains the ultimate act of apostasy in some quarters of DRA super-fandom. Nevertheless, I found it a fun exercise to select a track list and running order, imagining what might have been if these songs had been recorded as a single album-length unit.

DRA2005.jpgThanks to Solo Sounds, the Spotify playlist that was 29 Cold Jacksonville Roses now exists as Selections From Ryan Adams’ 2005 Trilogy, an actual unified body of work. The artist is Bette Sussman, a pianist with a long and illustrious resume — that’s her playing piano on Whitney Houston’s 1992 version of  “I Will Always Love You,” which was one of the biggest hits of all time. She shows a spare and elegant touch throughout Selections, beginning with the Cold Roses kickoff “Magnolia Mountain” and ending with 29’s “Night Birds,” and I think these versions have a nicely elegiac feel and a lovely flow from track to track.

Selections From Ryan Adams’ 2005 Trilogy is the third Solo Sounds album that Sussman has recorded, following a set of Elton John’s greatest hits and Leonard Bernstein’s “West Side Story” soundtrack. The project also served as her introduction to Ryan, who she was not at all familiar with before being enlisted to cover his songs.

“That’s one good thing about this project, learning about people like him,” Sussman says. “I’m now a fan of Ryan Adams and I think he’s quite brilliant. Harmonically, this was a little simpler and easier to interpret than something like ‘West Side Story,’ which was about the hardest thing ever. But I really enjoyed learning this material  and putting my spin on his songs.”

The release date is March 24, and you can check out some samples here.

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Love and happiness with Radiohead

OKCIt’s always amusing when something you wrote a long, long time ago unexpectedly comes back around. To wit, the passage below, which comes from a piece I wrote about Radiohead’s OK Computer more than a decade ago. Try as I might, I’ve just never been able to connect with OK Computer despite years and years of listening. So I decided that OKC is arguably the most overrated album of all time and wrote an essay to that effect for the book “Kill Your Idols” (2004, Barricade Books).

Even now, coming up on the 20-year anniversary of OKC‘s release, I’ll still dust it off now and then for another spin to see if I like it any better. Hasn’t happened yet, I’m afraid. So anyway, someone posted this on Twitter today with the lament, “I wish my grade five projects had been as interesting as this.”

Me too!

 

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