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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I’m your man

When I go to a convention, I’m usually there to cover it — typically for the News & Observer but occasionally for someone else. Coming to Nashville for this week’s Americana Music Association Festival & Conference has been different because I’m here in a marketing capacity to launch “Losering.” As part of the N&O’s financial struggles, the paper’s employees have to take unpaid furlough weeks this quarter. I chose mine to coincide with AMA so I could focus on book matters. That’s been good, but it also feels weird not to be filing AMA dispatches for my work blog.

So I did my first reading the other day, on the mezzanine of the AMA conference hotel, and it went well. About 15 people came, paid attention and asked questions; and we sold into double figures on books (thanks to Nashville’s Parnassus Books). Some of the people who came, I didn’t even know. Every writer has war stories about readings they’ve done where the only attendees were friends or relatives; and as glad as you are to see them, it’s even better when strangers come because then you feel like you’re making progress. Still, we’re grateful when anybody at all shows up.

I guess you could say I’m here on behalf of UT Press, too. My American Music Series colleague Don McLeese did a reading for his Dwight Yoakam book (at the Country Music Hall of Fame, no less). So I put on my co-editor’s hat and introduced him, talking a bit about the series. I’ve connected with a few other scribes at the conference, and we’ve had some really good discussions about potential future titles. Here’s hoping they continue on-course.

Another writer who did a reading at AMA was Sylvie Simmons, whose “I’m Your Man: The Life of Leonard Cohen” is just out and earning raves in all the right places. Of course I’m green with envy — this is the kind of New York Times acclaim every author dreams about, and her book is also in amazon’s top-100 — but not resentful. Simmons is much-beloved in the rock-write world, and she has definitely earned the acclaim. What I’ve read so far of  “I’m Your Man” is great, and Simmons went through quite an odyssey getting the book done. At her reading, she broke out a ukulele to do a lovely rendition of Cohen’s “Famous Blue Raincoat,” a very charming touch that made me feel awkward about the stammery reading I’d done the day before. But we endeavor to persevere.

I was proud I could give Simmons a copy of “Losering,” and she was kind enough to accept it with enthusiasm. A cool thing about participating in something like AMA is seeing your name in the event program alongside people you admire, musicians as well as other writers; it’s probably the equivalent of getting the late-season call up to the big leagues for the proverbial cup of coffee, but a thrill nevertheless. And after Simmons’ reading, as folks were standing around in clusters making plans for Friday evening’s shows, two people who hadn’t been at my reading came up to me with copies of “Losering” they wanted signed.

That was pretty danged cool. And so was this, the first local review to turn up in the Triangle. On we go…

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Ben Folds Five: Chapel Hill, represent!

I think one reason I was able to write this book so quickly was that I’d already been writing chunks of it for 20 years, kind of. Not specifically for “Losering,” of course. But Ryan emerged from the Triangle music scene, which I’ve been covering for the newspaper since the early 1990s.

That gave me a front-row seat to watch a lot of very cool things from close range, like the improbable rise of Ben Folds Five. The trio emerged in the mid-1990s as a genuine oddity, a three-piece pop band with piano as centerpiece instrument. I wrote a bunch of stories and reviews about them for the N&O, as well as a short feature for Billboard magazine when their debut album Ben Folds Five came out in 1995.

Like everyone else, I had no idea just how huge they were going to be back then. But danged if they didn’t go and get enormous in 1997-98, with a platinum album and the first “Saturday Night Live” appearance in local-music history. Somewhere in there, Folds also found time to contribute piano overdubs to Whiskeytown’s never-released 1998 album Forever Valentine.

Ben Folds Five ended abruptly in 2000, citing burnout as the reason for disbanding. But the trio of Ben Folds, Darren Jessee and Robert Sledge is back together, with their first new studio album of this century. You’ll find details of that, and also a 2008 story previewing a one-off reunion show they played that year in Chapel Hill, here.

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Remembering the “Summer of ’69” at the Ryman

Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium figures into Ryan’s story as site of one of his most infamous onstage meltdowns, the “Summer of ’69” incident. Reports vary as to just what happened that night in October 2002, when Ryan played the former home of the Grand Ole Opry. But it started with somebody in the crowd keeping up a line of heckling that culminated with a mocking call for the mid-’80s Bryan Adams hit. Ryan got angry, words were exchanged and the heckler was either thrown out or moved to a seat farther from the stage, with Ryan reportedly giving the guy his money back.

Critic Peter Cooper reported on the incident in his review of the show in the Nashville Tennessean (visible here), which went out over the wire and caused a minor sensation that rippled far and wide. For a while back in Ryan’s former hometown, it became fashionable to yell out “Summer of ’69” at shows in Raleigh, as a mocking stand-in for “Freebird.” And Ryan’s alternative-country peer Robbie Fulks, who is always up for a joke, offered to reimburse the ticket price for anyone who made Ryan mad enough to get themselves thrown out of a show. A decade later, it’s still the one thing even non-fans seem to know about Ryan.

In one of his online post-mortems about the incident, Ryan later claimed that Cooper made the whole thing up for the purposes of sensationalism (which I don’t believe). He also had some harsh words for the Ryman, the fabled cradle of country music, swearing he’d never play there again (nevertheless, he has). See Chapter 15 in “Losering” for more on this. Nobody asked me, but I thought Ryan could have defused the whole thing by working up a speed-metal version of “Summer of ’69” to break out for hecklers; sort of like the black metal “16 Days” he did onstage last year. Oh well.

I don’t know where Ryan was on Wednesday night, but Cooper was back at the Ryman — onstage, one of several-dozen performers playing the Americana Music Association awards show. I’d never been to the Ryman before, so I had a fine time wandering around drinking the place in. It’s not too long on creature comforts, and the seating is hard wooden pews (it is a former church, after all). Nevertheless, the Ryman has a living, breathing vibe you can’t help but get caught up in, imagining all the legends who have played there over the years. The Opry  broadcasts moved elsewhere long ago, but here is where that spirit still lives.

I would have been content seeing anything at the Ryman just to go there, but man, did I get lucky. The AMA show was the stuff of dreams, a fantasy all-star revue: Bonnie Raitt, Richard Thompson, John Hiatt, Rodney Crowell, Brandi Carlile, Alabama Shakes, Guy Clark, Punch Brothers, Carolina Chocolate Drops, Jason Isbell…On and on.

It left me wanting to hear more from pretty much all of them, but still — wow. Coolest live event I’ve been to in recent memory. Highlights included the Punch Brothers’ acoustic skitter, as appropriate for a conservatory as a folk festival; the always-wondrous Thompson, one of the few guitarists I’d dare mention in the same breath as Doc Watson; and Alabama Shakes, who I’m still not completely sold on, but what a voice.

Best of all was the all-hands-on-deck finale, a version of “The Weight” led by Amy Helm in tribute to her late great father Levon. Alabama Shakes singer Brittany Howard blew the place out with her verse, but Raitt’s more restrained closing verse was even better, ringing loud and clear up to the heavens. I was misting up by the end, and I don’t think I was the only one.

ADDENDUM (2/9/2017): Ryan’s version of the incident.

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