Kansas City — there Whiskeytown went

Exactly 15 years ago today, Whiskeytown ceased to be a “band” in the way that word is usually meant. It happened at a show in Kansas City, three dates before the end of the initial run of touring for 1997’s Strangers Almanac album. Tensions were high even before the show, things got worse onstage and a blowup ensued. Ryan stormed off after reportedly telling the stunned crowd it had just witnessed Whiskeytown’s last-ever show.

That wasn’t entirely true, because there was still a Whiskeytown after the dust settled. But it was a group, not a band, and well on its way to becoming the Ryan Adams Project. Even though Ryan insisted that wasn’t what he wanted, it was the undeniable truth. Over the next two years, Whiskeytown’s lineup became a revolving door with a near-constant shuffle of utility players coming and going from one tour to the next.

Probably the most momentous result of that 1997 implosion was the banishment of one of Whiskeytown’s original cornerstones, Phil Wandscher, whose primary role had been as Ryan’s guitar foil. As recounted in this 2005 interview, Phil endured a tough stretch after getting the boot from Whiskeytown, moving to Seattle and going back to the world of wage-slave dayjobs. He also struck a tone of measured conciliation when asked about his old bandmate:

People always ask me what it was like being in a band with Ryan. By now, I don’t think I need to fill in any more of the details. He’s a talented guy, I wish him all the luck in the world, and I hope he’ll figure it all out as he gets a little older. It’s a humbling experience to leave a situation like that and have to go back to the real world, making salads in a restaurant. But I also think that keeps you real, and more people need those experiences. You’ll only be successful if you can be a down-to-earth person that people can relate to. I get more praise from people at shows now than I ever did in Whiskeytown because there was so much other [expletive] going on: ‘Man, it was so cool when you [expletive] that song up, and he smashed the guitar!’

By then, Phil was already well into bouncing back with his post-Whiskeytown band, Jesse Sykes and the Sweet Hereafter, which remains a going concern (here’s a review I did of the last JSatSH album, from 2011). Phil has also done some studio work with a few well-known peers, including Death Cab For Cutie and Nada Surf. The last time Phil and I spoke was when I interviewed him for “Losering”  in early 2011, and he had some interesting and occasionally harsh things to say. He also told a pretty hilarious story about what it was like to open for Ryan at Red Rocks in 2007.

But you’ll just have to read the book for that.

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Ryan Adams, Lemonheads, Juliana Hatfield, Mammoth Records: It all connects up

Writing and publishing “Losering” has been kind of like my own personal version of “This Is Your Life,” because it ties together so many threads from over the years. And revisiting my back pages via Ryan continues to yield up further examples of the Fundamental Interconnectedness Of All Things. Or maybe there really is only six degrees of separation between everyone on earth.

So when I moved to North Carolina in 1991, there were a handful of local labels in Chapel Hill. Most of them were glorified DIY operations started by bands to put out records by themselves and their friends. With one notable exception (more on that later), most of them didn’t last much longer than a few years.

But one Chapel Hill label that stood out back then was Mammoth Records. Where most denizens of the town’s indie-rock community talked a good game about keeping The Man at arm’s length, Mammoth clearly had the big time in mind. The label would do things like buy ads in the trade magazine Billboard, which was expensive and made little financial sense — but made a lot of sense in terms of brand-building.

In the early 1990s, Mammoth’s biggest act was the Blake Babies, a Boston guitar-pop trio fronted by rising “alternababe” star Juliana Hatfield. Mammoth founder Jay Faires would leverage having Hatfield on his roster into a distribution deal with the major label Atlantic Records (later going on to a career in film and television; curiously, his wikipedia entry makes no mention of Mammoth). Hatfield had a solid run as a solo act, but her career never took off commercially.

Back before she went solo, however, Hatfield also played bass in the early-’90s version of the Blake Babies’ Boston neighbors the Lemonheads, who earned a couple of gold records during the grunge era before dissolving in the late ’90s. Frontman Evan Dando revived the Lemonheads name again in 2005, with occasionally decent results. And now a proper Lemonheads reunion is underway with Dando, Hatfield and co-founder Ben Deily.

That leaves the group in need of a drummer, which brings us back to our friend Ryan Adams. Ryan took to Twitter last week to announce that he’s producing as well as playing drums on the new Lemonheads album, promising that it will be a return “to the punker sounds.”

One presumes this will be harder than the sharp pop of 1992’s “It’s a Shame About Ray” (still a favorite of mine from that era), or the song he did with Hatfield in 2008. But Ryan should be just the drummer for that. Back in 1991, the year I arrived in North Carolina, teenage Ryan was playing drums in a Jacksonville hardcore band called Blank Label. The group’s three-song single stands as Ryan’s first commercially released recording.

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Demolishing the Ryan Adams Personality Quiz

Although it’s been around a while, I only recently happened onto the Ryan Adams Personality Quiz. So what the heck, I’m as obsessively dorky as the next DRA fan. I took it, and what came back wasn’t Gold or Heartbreaker, but this:

The odd part about getting this particular result is that, while most serious Ryan connoisseurs dismiss Demolition as a hodge podge, I’ve always loved it despite the bad rap. In fact, Demolition — which was released exactly 10 years ago today — might even be my favorite of Ryan’s major-label solo records. You can read a song-by-song explanation as to why in Chapter 14 of “Losering.”

At some point in the not-too-distant future, I’ll also do my album-by-album ranking of Demolition and the rest of Ryan’s catalog, inspired by this.

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More from Ryan Adams’ Triangle peer group: Tift Merritt

Continuing our examination of the musical ecosystem from whence Ryan Adams came, we have Tift Merrittone of the more prominent artists to emerge from the Triangle’s alternative-country universe in Whiskeytown’s wake. I first started seeing Tift on local stages in 1998, with her band The Carbines, and as with Ryan it was obvious that she was something special. Ryan thought so, too. After she opened some shows for him in 2000, Ryan rhapsodized about her in an online posting that began, “Tift Merritt makes me want to get right with God.”

Tift has had a fine career despite never quite breaking through commercially, although she’s come tantalizingly close a couple of times (most notably a best-country-album Grammy nomination in 2004, still her mainstream high-water mark). And she’s always doing interesting work and cool projects, which is one reason I’ve probably had more memorable interview experiences with her than anyone else. Over the years, I’ve interviewed Tift:

— On a TWA flight bound for the Grammy Awards in Los Angeles.
— At the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, while standing in front of a painting by Cy Twombly.
— In a cafe in New York City’s West Village.
— In a coffeehouse in Boulder, Colo., during a radio convention.

And over the phone, too, of course. Alas, that’s what I had to settle for this go-round. Tift has a new album coming out in Rocktober and she’s playing in Carrboro tonight. You’ll find a new interview from Friday’s paper as well as some back verbiage here. And speaking of stuff from my back pages, here’s a No Depression magazine feature I did on her way back in 2000, plus a review of her last album.

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Taking to the airwaves

With the local Triangle-area readings starting up next week, the “Losering” PR campaign is about to move into its multi-media phase. I’ll be on the radio talking about the book a couple of times during the coming week, so please do tune on in.

First up is this Saturday. If you’re an early weekend riser, tune in between 8 and 10 a.m. on WKNC-88.l FM, where I’ll be a guest on the psychedelic-rock show “Mystery Roach.” The station streams live from here.  Then next Wednesday, I’ll be back on WKNC at around 8 a.m. to talk to morning deejay Jacob Downey.

In between those two WKNC appearances, I’ll also be on “The State of Things” on WUNC-91.5-FM, talking to show host Frank Stasio about  local-music history as well as the book. That happens at noon on Tuesday, and you can listen to the live stream here.

And as long as I’m at it, here’s the schedule for readings in North Carolina:

Sept. 27 — Quail Ridge, Raleigh (7:30 p.m.)
Sept. 28 — Flyleaf, Chapel Hill (7 p.m.)
Oct. 4 — Bull’s Head, UNC-Chapel Hill (3:30 p.m.)
Oct. 4 — Regulator, Durham (7 p.m.)
Nov. 3-4 — NC Writers Network fall conference, Cary
Nov. 12 — Barnes & Noble, Greensboro
Nov. 16 — Park Road, Charlotte

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The Independent weighs in

When you’re the critic for a daily paper, snark from the local alternative weekly kind of comes with the territory. But I’ve had a mostly cordial relationship with The Independent Weekly over the years, although it has certainly had its, shall we say, less-than-pleasant interludes. Anyway, I’ve been curious what they’d have to say about “Losering.” And I’m stunned and flattered to say, quite a lot.

The review gets a two-page spread, penned by music editor Grayson Currin. It’s not a gush, but it’s certainly more positive than negative — even if it does include the phrase “simply terrible” about a chapter that happens to be my favorite; and I could take issue with some of his conclusions. Still, I’m not going to nitpick because my main reaction is one of gratitude that he took the time to read and respond to it. That’s all any writer can ask for.

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Jon Wurster’s voice carries

Jon Wurster is best-known as drummer for Superchunk, and he’s also played with Mountain Goats and Bob Mould in recent years. But he did a stint in Whiskeytown during the band’s late-’90s revolving-door period, including a semi-disastrous tour opening for John Fogerty in the summer of 1998. Jon shared some memories about it on his Facebook page last year under the self-deprecating tagline, “Career in Rock (I can’t believe I saved all this stuff),”  and also when I interviewed him for “Losering.”

“That tour with Fogerty had some rough moments because [Strangers Almanac] was so far in the past for Ryan and I don’t think he wanted to play those songs anymore,” Jon said. “It looked good on paper, Fogerty had done big business his previous tour with the old Creedence songs. Then he did this shed tour and there was not as much interest as they’d hoped. So we were playing in daylight in the middle of summer for crowds of 2,000 people old enough to be our parents finding their seats. It was too much for him.”

Never one to back down, Ryan took to bantering with hecklers at some of those ’98 Fogerty shows. It didn’t go well. “That worked about as well as yelling at your parents,” Jon said.

Jon’s a good egg, a very fine drummer and a sweetheart of a guy — a perfect combination of ability and affable comic relief — which is why he’ll always have work as a drummer. Plus he’s got mad style. Coming home from South By Southwest this past March, I came upon him getting a shoeshine at DFW airport and couldn’t resist snapping a picture (sorry about the blurriness, but that’s what you get when your camera is a crappy mobile phone).

As good a drummer as Jon is, however, it’s possible he’ll ultimately make a bigger mark in the world of comedy. He first got my attention as a comic back in 1999 when he played the role of clueless rock critic Ronald Thomas Clontle on “Rock, Rot and Rule,” arguably the greatest phone prank of all time. Thirteen years later, Jon and partner-in-crime Tom Scharpling are still doing radio comedy, earning accolades like “punk geniuses.”

This past June, Jon caused a minor sensation when he witnessed a flight attendant freaking out on a grounded flight at New York’s LaGuardia Airport and filed hilarious dispatches via Twitter and Facebook (and if you’re not his Facebook friend, you really should be because there’s nobody funnier to have in your news feed). That landed him on multiple media outlets to recount the story, which was hugely entertaining.

Jon’s latest gambit is even better, playing douchebag boyfriend “Denny Rock” in Aimee Man’s new video — which is a remake of her 1985 Til Tuesday video “Voices Carry.” It also stars “Mad Men” star Jon Hamm, lookin’ smarmy as “video director Tom Scharpling.” Maybe you have to know Wurster for it to register, but this just about put me on the floor the first time I watched it. Whatever he does next, the one thing you can count on is that it will be something hilarious.

ADDENDUM (7/19/2014): Speaking of hilarious, I was able to convince the paper’s editorial braintrust to let me do a Tar Heel of the Week profile on Jon, in advance of Merge 25.

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Relics from the mists of time (cont.): The Sara Bell party flyer

Out of all the Ryan Adams stories people told me, one of my most favoritest was Dana Kletter recounting how Ryan crashed a party at her house in the Raleigh neighborhood of Oakwood. It happened in May 1992, and the party was in honor of Sara Bell’s graduation from NC State University; Ryan showed up in a suit and made quite an impression. Kletter and Bell were big fish in the local music community 20 years ago, and they’ve both had plenty of notable musical accomplishments since — together in the band Dish, Bell with Regina Hexaphone and the wordly instrumental combo Shark Quest, and Kletter with Dear Enemy.

For my money, Kletter is about the most talented musician this town has ever seen, and it still kills me that she’s not better-known. She’s making waves in the rarefied world of literary academia nowadays, writing books and teaching at Stanford. At some point, Kletter will get a book out into the world and I’m quite certain it will be brilliant. In the interim, read about my favorite record of hers here; and download her latest album here, you cretins. For real!

As for that May 1992 shindig, it also also marked the first public performance of the band Motorolla (later Motocaster), a power trio that was the biggest band in Raleigh not too long after that. You can find more about all of this in Chapter Two of “Losering.” And an artifact from that party survives into the present day, a flyer:

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Ya can’t please ’em all

So yesterday was a mighty fine day on Planet “Losering.” The book excerpt ran in the Sunday News & Observer, to widely positive response — lots of nice comments and attaboys on Facebook. Another five-star review turned up on amazon.com. Even better, “Losering” climbed to its highest amazon.com sales chart position to date.

True, that was only No. 15,268 in the “Kindle store.” Still, that’s out of more than 1 million Kindle titles, and “Losering” jumped nearly 200,000 spots in one day. And however much the book sold was enough to get into the top-20 of books about “composers & musicians,” nestled at No. 17 between Duff McKagan and Buddy Guy.

No idea if that’s selling three books or 300, but it’s fun to see myself on there. I’ve always been a total geek for this stuff, devouring the charts in Billboard every week, so looking this up gives me ample cheap thrills. And even though the screen grab below isn’t my highest ranking, it’s still my favorite so far just because of the surroundings:

Anytime you’re ahead of the Beatles and The Boss, you’re doing okay in my book. But as we’ve covered before, humility is always just a mouse click away. That took me to  ryanadamsarchive.com, where response to “Losering” has been decidedly mixed among Ryan’s most faithful super-fans. This particular review wasn’t the least bit mixed, however:

dont want to affend anyone, but ive just finished it and didnt enjoy it at all. i actually found it an exhausting read which as it is only 200 pages is quite a feet. i thought the book was litirred with sly digs at ryan all way though and his opinion of nearly all Ryans post strangers almanac work was pretty annoying. the book is just pretty dull. im gonna sell my copy on ebay

“An exhausting read” — that, my friend, is the stuff of jacket blurbs (and word to the wise, I guess this means there will be a cheap copy on eBay soon). Ah well. In the immortal words of Tony Soprano: Whattareyagonnado?

ADDENDUM: in the wake of this, someone pointed out a much kinder review here.

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Home sweet home: The News & Observer

As I explain (or should that be confess?) in the preface to “Losering,” I’ve written about Ryan in a whole bunch of places over the years — on everything from slick magazine paper to electrons. But before this book, most of it ran in Raleigh’s daily newspaper, the News & Observer, where I’ve been working for nearly 22 years (!).

I went to work there in January 1991; started the same week the first Gulf War began, in fact. And the gig has changed a good bit since then because nowadays I’m as likely to be interviewing a bug expert as reviewing music. Still, my job at the N&O is a big reason why I wound up in Ryan’s vicinity when I did. So it seems fitting that an excerpt from the book appear in the pages of the paper. It’s in the Sunday paper today, accompanied by a Q&A interview. You’ll find both linked from here.

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