Top-10!! Sort of…

So I have no idea how amazon.com reckoned this, and I expect it was either a mistake or some bizarre statistical aberration. But however it happened, on Monday evening “Losering” came to rest at a pretty lofty perch on one of amazon’s specialty charts — at No. 7 in country music books, right between Willie Nelson and (I love this) a book called “Bluegrass Mandolin for the Complete Ignoramus!”

Now it’s hard to get too excited about this, given that the book’s overall amazon ranking at this moment was…um, No. 31,029. Still…don’t it look pretty sitting there on a sales chart next to a single-digit number?

ADDENDUM: A day later, it’s somehow at No. 5, right behind Johnny Cash. Squeeee!

Amazon7

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New York: If you can make it there…

Photo courtesy of Holly Gleason

A fun ritual of the publishing process is friends sending you pictures of your book when they happen upon it in bookstores in far-away places. And it’s dorky of me, but I must confess that I still get a cheap thrill or two out of that. Writing any book, even a short one like this, is an ungodly amount of work, so its physical manifestation out in the world feels like payoff, you know? Maybe the closest thing to “official” validation that you’ll get, and it means less in the era of electronic publishing than it used to — but it still means something.

Even if you never make the bestseller lists, well, at least you’re in the store. You made the field; or perhaps got the late-season call-up to make your big-league debut and have an at-bat. And it doesn’t matter if you miss the cut or strike out, because you’re still part of the official record (even if it’s only in the fine print). In my case, that means a copy of “Losering” is in the Library of Congress and will be available for perusal long after I’m gone. Cool!

Anyway, here’s a picture that the fabulous Holly Gleason sent from the Union Square Barnes & Noble in New York City, showing “Losering” in the vicinity of books about the Beatles and Arcade Fire (as well as one subtitled “The Miserabilist Guide to Music”). If you write books, you like to see ’em on shelves out there — especially readers’ shelves, of course.

But getting onto store shelves is step one.

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Reading rainbow

Photo courtesy of Kevin Currin

Major thanks to everyone who came out for the first two “Losering” readings, this past Thursday at Quail Ridge in Raleigh and Friday at Flyleaf in Chapel Hill. They were both lovely events with attentive audiences, especially Quail Ridge, although that night got off to a somewhat unpromising start. I read a passage, which seemed to go over well enough, and then I asked for questions. The only person to raise a hand was a young man who apparently thought I was Ryan Adams.

Ummm…!

The thought flashed through my mind that this was going to be a long night — or, worse, a very short one. Fortunately, as I tried to explain that I just wrote a book about Ryan and could take no credit for his songs, I spied a rock star in the house. Bless his heart, Mr. Kenny Roby showed up; I was surprised and touched to see him there. So I gave Kenny a shout-out and a plug for his show the next night.

After that, the next hour flew by with lots of fine and thoughtful questions about the book and Whiskeytown and Ryan, leaving just enough time for me to sign a stack of books in a flurry before closing time. My great and loyal friend Scott Huler also threw an after-party where his band the Equivocators played a few Whiskeytown songs including “Faithless Street” and “Midway Park.” It was truly, truly awesome, and a big honor — a night I’ll never forget.

Photo courtesy of Jonathan Lee

Friday night at Flyleaf didn’t draw quite as big a crowd; didn’t help that the heavens opened up just before showtime. But there was still a nice nucleus of folks — including Glenn Boothe, owner of Chapel Hill’s Local 506, a club where I saw Ryan play one of his best-ever solo shows in October 1999 (recounted in chapter 11 of the book); Steve Balcom, who used to run the aforementioned Mammoth Records, where the Backsliders recorded back in the day; and noted computer guru/poet Paul Jones. My American Music Series co-editor Peter Blackstock did the introduction, and I was glad to have him there.

The next readings will be Thursday (Oct. 4), at UNC-Chapel Hill’s Bull’s Head at 3:30 p.m. followed by The Regulator in Durham at 7 p.m. So if you’re over that way, please do come out and say hey.

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Backsliding away

Back in the mid-1990s, Whiskeytown was hardly the only great alternative-country band on the scene. There was the aforementioned Kenny Roby’s 6 String Drag, as well as the Backsliders — dear Lord, THE BACKSLIDERS — who could give any band on the planet a run for their money on a good night. They were a bit older and more grizzled than a lot of their fresh-faced peers in the Triangle, but the Backsliders were just so damn good that they inspired awe far and wide.

As good as they were, however, the Backsliders rivaled Whiskeytown when it came to bad interpersonal vibes between their co-leaders, Chip Robinson and Steve Howell. Oil and water, Hatfields and McCoys, Tar Heels and Wolfpack — whatever metaphor suits ya, they just did not mix.

“Those guys,” Backsliders bassist Danny Kurtz once told me, “are both their own worst enemies.”

Commercial success might have been enough to keep the Backsliders together, but it was not to be. After 1996’s brilliant Throwing Rocks at the Moon (produced with great aplomb by Dwight Yoakam guitarist Pete Anderson), Howell left the band. And while that wasn’t a mortal blow, Howell did take a lot of the Backsliders’ cool country flavor with him. Robinson carried on with replacements, releasing 1998’s still-good-but-not-as-great Southern Lines; neither album sold, however, so that was that.

(ADDENDUM: Producer Eric Ambel says of Southern Lines that, “90 percent of that record was cut with Howell, Chip, Brad, Danny and Jeff. Changes happened before the record was released with one song getting re-cut and a couple others overdubbed; but the bulk of that record is the original band.”)

The Backsliders dissolved, and Kurtz and lead guitarist Brad Rice wound up in one of the umpteen late-’90s versions of Whiskeytown. Rice later played with Ryan in various incarnations, including the Pinkhearts. He was Ryan’s lead guitarist on “Saturday Night Live” in 2001; and as Rice told me when I interviewed him for “Losering,” he was just starting a guitar solo at the 2004 show in Liverpool where Ryan fell off the stage and broke his wrist. Brad has done plenty more sideman work since then, including a long stretch with Keith Urban a few years back.

Robinson and Howell kept busy with bands and projects of their own, all of them good — especially Robinson’s terrific  solo album Mylow — but neither was as good apart as they had been together. In 2003, they did reunite to play a benefit show for Alejandro Escovedo (who was ailing and without health insurance, a sadly common situation in the music business nowadays). They were still great and it felt as if no time at all had gone by, but it was a one-off…

…Until now. Saturday night, four-fifths of the classic mid-’90s Backsliders lineup (everyone except Brad Rice) will play as the Howell/Robinson Quartet at Slim’s in Downtown Raleigh. It’s another benefit, this one for the Inspirality Elder Project; and I’m told it’s the first time the co-leaders have spoken since that 2003 reunion.

This will probably be yet another one-off with no followup, the Backsliders scattering to their separate corners afterwards. But hey, I can dream.

ADDENDUM (9/30/12): I was otherwise occupied Saturday night, but multiple witness reports say that Backsliders drummer Jeff Dennis went up to Chip’s microphone toward the end of their set and hollered, “David Menconi oughtta write a book about THAT shit!”

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Recalling the 2001 Guitartown firestorm

Eleven years ago this week, Ryan Adams was pretty much on top of the world. His album Gold was out and earning the best reviews of his career, launching him into the rock-celebrity jetstream. For the next year, Ryan would be an inescapable presence in the rock press, which devoted seemingly millions of words to breathlessly covering his doings in interviews, features, reviews, previews and gossip-column items. After years of hardscrabble struggle, Ryan had finally arrived.

But on Sept. 28, 2001, three days after Gold’s release, Ryan found time to settle a score via one of his former hometown’s online watering holes, Guitartown. No Depression magazine co-editor Peter Blackstock was one of the few critics in the country who hadn’t gone gaga over Gold, penning a column in which he likened the album to pyrite. I wasn’t too fond of Gold myself and expressed a similarly lukewarm assessment in a News & Observer album review published around then, too.

Anyway, Ryan dropped on into Guitartown with an expletive-laced tirade that excoriated Peter and vowed that his label’s corporate overlords would put No Depression out of business with a boycott. I’ve got this printed verbatim on page 151 of “Losering,”  and you can also find it in the Guitartown archive — along with the ensuing firestorm it triggered, which went on for days with Guitartown denizens blasting Ryan and Ryan blasting back. Finally, Ryan threw out a parting shot before taking his leave for the last time:

…you just cant stand it because its not about your lousy fucking internet groups anymore, peter you are getting old and jaded but worst of all, you are Ross Grady, with a zine, or maybe like a David Menconi but just no balls

After Ryan called me out by name on Guitartown, I decided I’d had about enough and I did respond. For better or worse, I chose to leave that response out of “Losering” because I didn’t want the book to be “Ryan and Me” and it just felt like calling too much attention to myself. But hey, that’s what blogs are for. So here it is:

<sigh>…

hey, somebody tell Ryan that Courtney Love’s been in here posting under his name.

Ryan, babe, I simply *love* your new direction — Andy Kauffman-style confrontational performance art, wow, whoda thunk it? but to quote one of those literary types you’re suddenly so fond of invoking, you have delighted us quite enough for one evening.

so before you fire your next salvo, hear me out. I’m asking you, not as a critic but as one of your fans of longest standing:

stop. please. because right now people aren’t laughing with you, they’re laughing at you, and not in a nice way.

allow me to direct your attention to something you yourself said not too long ago. the following is a quote from your very own current Lost Highway Records bio:

“But I do have two new rules. One is not to analyze what I wrote. The second is not to read my own press. I just want to make it and not fuss about it. No excuses for it. Just make it and there it is. That way, the process is more pure. And even if people hate it, well, it doesn’t matter. Because I’m just doing it to do it.”

okay, then: prove it. “do it just to do it,” make whatever records you want to make, put ’em out there, take your lumps & move on. and if somebody doesn’t like it, oh well, right? you said so yourself.

in the grand scheme of things, the opinions of critics & pundits don’t amount to a hill of beans. the Rolling Stones aren’t in the hall of fame because some ink-stained wretch liked ’em; they’re in there because they made music that stood the test of time, despite getting plenty of less-than-flattering reviews over the years. you think Keith Richards spent much time tracking those people down to berate & threaten them?

“And even if people hate it, well, it doesn’t matter.” so prove it. because this is supposed to be about the music, right?

right?

still the best fan you ever had,

David Menconi

NP — Ryan Adams, Born Yesterday

For all I know, Ryan never read that because he never responded. He did, however, stop posting, so maybe. There was plenty more said after that, but Ryan was gone and it was mostly Guitartowners talking amongst ourselves. My favorite postscript came from the late Tim Kimrey, who posted what he called a “G’town-inspired PR photo of Ryan.” The picture doesn’t seem to be in the Guitartown archive any longer, but it was something like what you see here.

“It seems a little wrinkled-y for a young feller like him,” Tim wrote, “but perhaps it’s had lots of exposure.”

Ryan’s old Whiskeytown bandmate Skillet Gilmore piped in with the perfect closer: “Yup. That’s him.”

Ah, memories…


ADDENDUM (3/17/2015): Ryan may not come around Guitartown in its modern-day Facebook incarnation, but his name still gets dropped there — even if it’s as “HWSNBN” (“He Who Shall Not Be Named”). For example, there’s the post below. And I have a comment, all right: I can’t decide if “16 Days” or “New York, New York” would be a more appropriate heckle for Bryan Adams when he plays Raleigh.

Screen Shot 2015-03-17 at 9.56.27 AM

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Kenny Roby rides again

The story that “Losering” tells goes back about 20 years, which is an eternity in terms of the half-lives of most bands and clubs. And yet I feel strange calling it “history” because the threads extend into the present day, and so many participants are still at it; and I’m not just talking about Ryan. Indeed, it’s still possible to see Kenny Roby, one of Ryan’s best ’90s-era peers, in clubs around the Triangle with some regularity.

Kenny gets mentioned in a couple of places in “Losering” and he’s always been one of my favorite singer-songwriters in this town, starting with his time in an early-’90s band called the Lubricators — a name I still think is stupid (and they never let me forget it after I said so in print way back when). But they did have a saying that made me giggle: Live to lube, lube to live. The Lubricators played amped-up rock with room for hooks, the guitars turned up to “roar,” and they’d moved up to Raleigh from Clemson, S.C. They set up shop in a house on Daisy Street, where Ryan would reside with their roadie/pal Tom Cushman after the band moved out.

Kenny’s next band after the Lubricators broke up was a killer, 6 String Drag. To this day, it disappoints me that 6 String Drag’s rocket-fueled country soul didn’t break big. Kenny’s vocal harmonies with bassist Rob Keller were exquisite; and after they added a horn section for live shows, pretty much no band on earth could touch them. Steve Earle signed 6 String Drag to his label and produced a spectacular album with them, 1997’s High Hat, which I asked Earle about when I interviewed him last year.

“This girl drug me to Atlanta to see Whiskeytown,” Earle said, “and 6 String Drag was opening. I signed them instead. Not that I thought Whiskeytown was bad, 6 String Drag was just more interesting to me and I wish to [expletive] they could’ve lasted. Their record was my favorite we made on that label. They were really special. Had this thing like The Band, where it’s so loose it’s tight, and I liked the way Kenny and Rob sang together. But they were doomed to come apart.”

Alas, High Hat didn’t hit and 6 String Drag dissolved before making another record. But Kenny kept at it with 1999’s Black River Sides (which he recorded with Ryan’s future Cardinals main man Neal Casal) and 2000’s Mercury’s Blues, both reviewed here. In 2000, when I published a novel called “Off The Record,” the aforementioned Holden Richards and I put together a fake fansite for the fictional band in the book. Kenny was kind enough to play along and record some tracks posing as said band, bashed out in a single well-oiled evening. All these years later, I still get a giggle out of  “Band Town” and “Dumb and Number.”

A couple of years after that, Kenny made a stunning album called Rather Not Know that, were there an ounce of justice in this world, would have set him up with a nice Randy Newman-sized career. I’ve written a fair amount about Kenny over the years, and the best story of the bunch is probably this 2003 No Depression feature that came out around the time Rather Not Know was released. Ryan was singing his praises back then, too, telling Rolling Stone that Kenny was “the best songwriter that not enough people have heard yet.” He also gave Roby’s record label a quote:

I knew Kenny in Raleigh, NC, where we both had bands, his was better than mine. We shared a few jobs, the most notably a plumbing job. I have been made to understand this record is partially inspired as the result of his father’s death. Kenny has great internal dialogue concerning his relationship to God and to the more tangible ways of man. I think it’s woven into the fabric of this record in more subtle ways than previous albums. The entire record really does more for any argument to this record’s impact as a great piece of art, but this track is the first track on the album and the one that touches me even when I think I’m not listening. Also he is quite a good dancer apparently.

Unfortunately, the acclaim didn’t turn Kenny’s commercial career into something sustainable and fulltime, leading to a few long-ish stretches of musical inactivity (in public, at least) over the past decade. But he’s back on track with an excellent new album that should be coming out before too long. Kenny has grown tremendously as a singer, and on this new album he pulls off some quiet nuances that were once beyond him; great to hear him recording with horns again, too.

Friday night, he’ll play his first full-band show in Raleigh in more than three years, at the Pour House. Funny thing, the guy running sound for that show will be Jac Cain — who played bass with Kenny in the Lubricators all those years ago.

Like I keep saying, it all connects up, past to present and beyond.

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MusicTomes.com is music to me

Today brings another nice “Losering” review — this one from Music Tomes, a blog that covers music-related books. Eric Bannister writes that, even though he still has major misgivings about Ryan’s general demeanor, the book makes him “want to dig into the music in-spite of that moodiness. For me, that’s a feat.”

Anyway, check it out.  And while you’re there, also give a look to the Music Tomes interview with my American Music Series colleague Don McLeese about his Dwight Yoakam book. A “Losering” interview is scheduled to run on Music Tomes next month in two installments.

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New Raleigh and “The State of Things”

Continuing on with the “Losering” campaign for world domination, Tuesday brings some kind words from the fine folks over at the all-things-local news and arts blog New Raleigh, penned by Mr. Jedidiah Gant — much-appreciated even if he does prefer Ryan’s Heartbreaker to Whiskeytown’s Strangers Almanac (but hey, that is a more-than-defensible position); as well as a nice little hit from Blurt (thanks, Fred!!).

Also, I was on radio station WUNC-FM’s “The State of Things” Tuesday afternoon, talking to show host Frank Stasio about the book as well as local-music history. The show will air again at 9 p.m. Tuesday night, or you can listen via the online archive here.

Meanwhile, I’ll be back on the radio Wednesday morning, talking to Jacob at about 8 a.m. on WKNC, 88.1-FM, in advance of Thursday night’s Quail Ridge reading, Friday night’s Flyleaf reading and the Oct. 4 Regulator reading. Get on up, tune on in and come on out.

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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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