Next up: “The Big Book of North Carolina Music”

ncblueNot quite a year ago, I found myself at an industry convention gathering with some of my rock-writing peers, doing what we all do at these things — swapping stories, telling lies and catching up about projects we had in the works, real as well as imaginary. Talking to another writer I knew, I mentioned that I was working on a book proposal for a history of North Carolina music. His reaction was…surprising.

“Yeah,” he scoffed, “that’ll be a short book.”

Words were exchanged, some of them unpleasant; no, it didn’t go especially well. But almost a year later, I am pleased to report that this “short book” has taken a major step from abstraction to reality. I’ve come to terms and shaken hands with University of North Carolina Press for a book with the working title “The Big Book of North Carolina Music,” which will have a format similar to UNC Press’ 2008 best-seller “Holy Smoke: The Big Book of North Carolina Barbecue.”

uncpressWhile this won’t be an encyclopedic A-to-Z history of North Carolina music, my “Big Book” will cover a lot of ground in its 16 chapters — from Charlie Poole in the 1920s to “American Idol” nearly a century later, with Blind Boy Fuller and Rev. Gary Davis, Arthur Smith, “5” Royales, Doc Watson and Earl Scruggs, the dB’s and Let’s Active, Superchunk and Squirrel Nut Zippers and Ben Folds Five, Nantucket and Corrosion of Conformity, beach music, 9th Wonder and J. Cole and more in between. It should come in at close to double the heft of my Ryan Adams book “Losering”; and while that still isn’t nearly as long as it could be, it’s nevertheless the most ambitious book project I’ve ever taken on.

But the beauty part is I’ve already been working on this book, piecemeal, for more than a quarter-century. I moved to Raleigh in 1991 to take the News & Observer music-critic job, and my first day was Jan. 15 — two days before Operation Desert Storm started in Kuwait. That was a time when the Worldwide Web wasn’t much more than a gleam in Paul Jones’ eye, back when most people still got their news by reading it on paper or watching the 6 o’clock news.

I must confess that I didn’t come here thinking the News & Observer would be a long-term destination, but it just worked out that way. Back when newspapers were still prosperous, the desired career trajectory was to spend five years or so at a mid-sized paper like the N&O before trying to move up to the New York Times or some other prestige publication. For a variety of reasons, that never happened. Most of the opportunities that came my way over the years felt like they would have been lateral moves rather than upward ones, although I did get a call from the Washington Post in 1999. But that was right after the birth of my twins, Edward and Claudia. At that moment, starting over in a big city was just not in the cards.

So I stayed in Raleigh and I’ve never regretted it, in large part because North Carolina music turned out to be fascinating and beguiling in ways I never imagined before I lived here. When I arrived, I was fairly well-versed in the North Carolina music I’d heard from afar on college radio — Connells, Let’s Active, Flat Duo Jets and such — without knowing much of anything about the history from farther back. So I’ve spent my years here filling in the history, bit by bit, learning as much as I could about North Carolina’s wildly varied music.

Despite the many variations of this state’s music, I do see all of it as of a piece and part of the same continuum — and “The Big Book of North Carolina Music” will, I hope, tie it all together as one story. I’ve spent the past few months going through my archive of stuff to get it organized (see below), and now begins the real work. TBBoNCM will be my side-project for the next two years, the thing keeping me up late nights and weekends and days off. If all goes according to plan, it will be done and dusted by the end of 2018, with publication to follow in 2019. Fingers crossed!

And yeah, whenever it’s done: I’ll be sending an autographed copy to that colleague.


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Ryan Adams, autobiographer

LoseringI still get asked with some regularity what, if anything, Ryan Adams thought of “Losering.” And the answer remains the same as it’s always been: Your guess is as good as mine. More than four years after my book was published in the fall of 2012, Ryan has yet to express an opinion about it in public, at least that I’ve heard (and if anyone out there has heard, I’d love to hear from you).

Funny thing, right now Ryan seems to be in the midst of one of his periods of occasional interest in his old band Whiskeytown, which is something that seems to happen every couple of years. He did an interview recently where he talked hypothetically about a Whiskeytown reunion, which I can’t imagine happening but would nevertheless love to see. And now comes word that, wonder of wonders, Ryan (who has published a couple of books himself) is supposedly going to write his own book about Whiskeytown. This came during a BBC interview in which Ryan said the following:

“I think it’s going to be really funny, but it’s going to be about my sort of first years, with my first sort of known band, Whiskeytown, and all of the crazy funny things that happened. And [it’s] going to hopefully have a thing where some of the other members and I talk about different specific things – I mean it was mostly just really funny and fun.”

I have my own reasons for thinking that’s funny. It was not too many years ago that Ryan claimed he actually didn’t remember much about the old Whiskeytown days, at least as it was relayed to me. In early 2011, I had a conversation with Ryan’s lawyer Josh Grier about whether or not Ryan would agree to be interviewed. “He just doesn’t want to revisit that time,” Josh told me in explaining why Ryan wouldn’t participate, and he also said that Ryan’s memories of his time in Raleigh had grown “fuzzy.” For the record, Josh reportedly remembers that conversation differently and claimed to have used the word “faded” rather than “fuzzy” in describing Ryan’s memories.

Either way, the official story as of six years ago was that Ryan didn’t really remember the Whiskeytown era well enough to talk about it. But now, apparently, he does. Which is perfectly fine, and I’ll be curious to read his take on it. As I wrote in the “Losering” preface, I subtitled my book “A Story of Whiskeytown” rather than “The Story” with this very reason in mind:

Maybe Ryan himself will write that someday. Until he does, consider this to be one longtime fan’s perspective on the most interesting part of Ryan’s career: when he was almost famous, and still inventing himself. In a lot of ways, Ryan himself is the best song he’s ever written.

Let a thousand tales bloom.

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Ryan Adams: Doomsday comes

doomsdayPerhaps the timing is entirely coincidental, but it’s hard not to take this as commentary on what is going to happen at noon (Eastern Time) today. At any rate, now is when Ryan has chosen to unveil “Doomsday” — the aptly titled third single from his upcoming album Prisoner. And while I hadn’t previously thought of “Doomsday” as a political song, its stoic references to standing together as the world collapses in flames seem appropriate on this uneasy day. Take a listen below.

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Ryan Adams’ NC boycott continues

NCupsidedown.jpgIf you were hoping that Ryan Adams’ apparent contemplation of a Whiskeytown reunion might signal a softening of feelings toward his native state, forget about it. U.S. tour dates are starting to come together for this spring, and once again North Carolina is nowhere to be found on his itinerary (at least not yet). A stretch in the first half of March finds Ryan playing two dates each in Virginia, South Carolina and Florida — but none in The Old North State, which he will presumably have to drive through to get from Richmond to Columbia.

This is pretty much standard operating procedure for Ryan on the road nowadays. During his last major stretch of touring in 2014-15, Ryan made it to every adjoining state without playing in North Carolina, where he’s not played a show since 2005. Come June 8, it will be an even dozen years since the last time.

Anyway, looks like road trips will once again be in order for anyone in North Carolina who wants to see a show this go-round. Maybe I’ll get lucky and he’ll do South By Southwest again this year, because I’d really love to hear the new Prisoner songs live. Here’s the schedule so far:


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Whiskeytown reunion? Don’t count on it

wtLike any sensible person, I do my best to resist click-bait in all its forms. But here’s a headline that I just could not resist:

Ryan Adams Says Whiskeytown Might Actually Get Back Together

What a wonderful world this would be if such a thing were possible. I cannot imagine it ever happening (although, if it did, I sure as heck would be lobbying University of Texas Press about updating “Losering”). Anyway, this came up in an interview with Ryan where the primary subjects were his upcoming Prisoner album and current studio project with Liz Phair. And here is what he said in response to a question about whether or not Whiskeytown might someday reunite:

“Well I mean maybe. It’s so funny that you mention [Whiskeytown] because there is something going on with that, but it’s still kind of on the down low,” Adams said. “Some of the folks that were in the band, and myself, feel like we have such funny stories to tell about how and in what way all of that happened and it was so funny it happened to US and I think we were all acutely aware, going ‘Wow, not only are we unprepared, but we suck on some level that we’re also aware of, and we were just having fun, so how do you temper that?’ Also being so young and so green to the thing that is the music business. It’s very strange to think that was sort of a side thing we were just trying out and that would’ve been the first sort of trip. I’m funny in the way where I have a dry sense of humor, and I think I’m probably a little bit more sarcastic than people can realize, especially in print, and I once in a humorous sort of way but I sort of meant it, I said ‘Oh i hate country music’ and there were a lot of purists that said, ‘Oh Ryan Adams has forgotten where he came from.’ Ironic baseball hats across America were probably chiming in on some message board somewhere and I thought, ‘yeah but that’s a funny statement to make cause it’s still pretty rooted in what I do — that sort of Grateful Dead, [Gram], The [Byrds] — finding those influences. I love the storytelling and I love what it is, but I think it’s been so long now if Whiskeytown were to ever try to make a record, and me carrying on with making the music I made from the beginning, before those sort of side things, it would be weird. It could be weird good but I don’t know. If it was the original lineup. We talk every year, a couple times a year. Everybody’s cool. It’s the same as it ever was.”

Same as it ever was, huh? Okay, then, here’s hoping.

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Been there, got the T-shirt!

draculaOne of the best results of writing “Losering” has been to introduce me to a boatload of great people all over the world, fellow Ryan Adams superfans whose enthusiasm for his music manifests itself in lots of really cool ways. One of those fans is Thom Bennett — a gentleman and a scholar who was kind enough to send along the last T-shirt from his latest batch, which is emblazoned with four of the alter-ego names that Ryan has used over the years. Here I am posed with it on. This is a followup to his previous shirt (see below), which I have to say is pretty genius.

Thanks, Thom!



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George Lawrence, fare thee well

GeorgeL.jpgWriting is a mostly solitary pursuit that involves a lot of what Stephen King (among others) calls “ass in chair time.” But there are times when other people do enter into it and leave their mark, especially when they turn up at a particularly opportune moment. That goes for George Lawrence, a former News & Observer co-worker of mine who passed away in his sleep Monday morning at age 58.

Not quite six years ago, I was slogging through the obligatory horrible first draft of “Losering” and doing what one does: trying to convince myself it would be worth the agony while dealing with the usual cocktail of insomnia, insecurity, self-loathing and various other emotional goodies induced by book-writing. In the midst of all that, I bumped into George at a Neil Young show in Durham that I was reviewing for the paper.

I hadn’t seen George in a while and we got to talking about Ryan Adams, who he’d known well enough to be one of his local party buddies back in the day. And as soon as he found out I was writing a book about Ryan, George perked right up and provided just the dose of enthusiasm I needed to get over the hump. George wound up being one of my best sounding boards as I worked to wrestle “Losering” to the ground, which earned him a place of honor in the “Acknowledgements” section on page 202:

A special few went truly above and beyond the call of duty: Dean Dauphinais, Tracy Davis, and George Lawrence for being extra eyes, and voices of enthusiasm when I was at my lowest ebb.

rsglLong before all this, George was an N&O fixture by the time I got there in 1991, holding multiple editing and managerial jobs in the newsroom. What I remember most about George back then was him being the life of the party at out-of-office gatherings or pickup softball and basketball games, always quick with a quip and a backslap.

Eventually he left journalism to go into PR and consulting, but it was a choice he seemed to regret. I’d hear from him intermittently, and he’d talk wistfully about how much he missed writing and wanted to get back to it. He’d send me the occasional piece of rock memorabilia, too, like this vintage framed Rolling Stones album cover (which I’ve got hanging on the wall right next to my record collection at home).

George did have his struggles in recent years, and he was in and out of the hospital repeatedly with a lot of health problems. But he’d still pop up now and then on Facebook, to lob a song lyric my way or ask a question about some band or other. Several times over the past year, I had the thought that I really ought to check in on him; right now I’m feeling a little guilty for not making more of an effort to follow up.

Of course, if George were here, I expect he’d brush that off with a self-deprecating joke — or maybe he’d drop another lyric. His last words to the world on his Facebook page came a few weeks back, a quote from the late great Texas troubadour Townes Van Zandt’s epic of betrayal “Pancho and Lefty”:


Somewhere in the great beyond, I picture George seeking out Townes to have a word about that.

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Putting the anger in “Strangers Almanac”

Last night, I threw out a very silly (even by my standards) status on my Facebook page:


Lots of folks replied with variations — “laughter in manslaughter,” “fun in fundamentalism,” “punk in punctual” and even “bomp in the bomp bomp bomp” — which made for some fun back-and-forth. But my favorite response by far came from Phil Wandscher, Ryan Adams’ old left-handed guitar foil in Whiskeytown, who made reference to his former band’s 1997 magnum opus:


To that I say: Amen.

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Ryan Adams’ “Prisoner” as canvass

andyaaronartMy eldest son Aaron is really good at a bunch of things I’m pretty terrible at, like writing poetry. And where I can’t hardly draw a straight line, Aaron is quite adept at drawing, too, rendering semi-surreal figures that look like outlines for the sort of paintings that Chris Mars has done over the years. In this, I think Aaron might take after his uncle, my brother Andy Menconi, a crackerjack multi-media artist and musician (whose heartbreakingly adorable daughter Cleo is also a rising star).

Anyway, Aaron dashed off a sketch inspired by the cover of Ryan Adams’ upcoming album Prisoner (based on the alternative apple version) and gave it to me for a Christmas present, and I really like it. So before framing and hanging it, I took a picture, which is below. At right is what it looks like on the wall alongside a few of Andy’s cartoons; Aaron did the two on the bottom.


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Ryan Adams on the record for his record

drainstagramprisonerA few days before Ryan Adams’ next album was to be released on its original Nov. 4 street date, word got out that it had been postponed for reasons unknown. Eventually, Feb. 17 was set as the new D-Day. But that didn’t stop bootleg versions of Prisoner from leaking out and showing up online in early December. By now, Prisoner has been heard and discussed enough that I decided to go ahead and publish my take on it, even though the album won’t be “officially” released for close to two months. My feeling is, no harm no foul — if someone still hasn’t heard it, wants to wait and keep their listening experience untainted by anyone else’s opinion, well, my review is certainly easy enough to avoid.

It’s worth noting, however, that Ryan himself strongly disapproves of this whole business of Prisoner being in premature circulation. Right around the time that Prisoner’s songs began appearing online, he published a plea via Instagram imploring people to wait and buy the thing when it actually comes out. But given the rabid loyalty of the DRA fanbase, I doubt the leaked version of Prisoner will cut into his sales too much; the people listening now will probably be the first to buy it as soon as it becomes available. And while I have some sympathy for Ryan’s viewpoint (especially since I’ve been bootlegged myself), there’s still no un-ringing that bell once something is out there.

Anyway, below is what he had to say about it.

I know you can stream this record 
I don’t know to stream records, personally 
It’s worth it to buy this. It’s worth it to buy a record you can hold, so you can feel it exist. So that you can have a moment with that record in a room. So it can age with you.
MOST IMPORTANTLY!!! It will help us get shit tons more lasers, keep our crew and band paid, keep us on the road 
ART MATTERS! THERE IS HOPE THERE. It’s a place for us to dream togeher.
But no matter what, no matter how you listen… Thank you. You’re the smartest, most unpretentious, sweetly brash misfit toy bunch of fans an unsophisticated spazz like me could ask for. This thing we built, YOU guys, these songs, our crew, the bands… It’s a blessing. It’s the MOST metal sad music is ever gonna get. And I am gonna be here with you Til I can’t do it anymore. We need this shit back home right now and I’m ready to throw down and bring the dream. LETS DO THIS!
Maybe I’ll have that custom Strat done by then ; ) 
Maybe even than custom pedal!!! ; )


Happy Holidays: PEACE 

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