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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AMA-bound — Nashville, here I come

So I’m off to Nashville this week to attend the Americana Music Association Festival & Conference, which is exciting. For one thing, I’ve never been and  every AMA regular I know swears by it as a fantastic event — and this year’s lineup does indeed look stellar. People have described AMA as a less-overwhelming version of South By Southwest; and as much as I love SXSW, it certainly has grown to insane, almost unmanageably huge proportions in recent years.

I’m also excited because AMA represents the “official” (whatever that means) launch for “Losering.” I’m doing my first reading for the book on Thursday, Sept. 13, at 3:30 p.m. on the Legislative Terrace of the Downtown Nashville Sheraton.

AMA will be a coming-out party of sorts for the UT Press American Music Series, because my colleague Don McLeese will do a reading from his Dwight Yoakam book at noon Friday, Sept. 14, at the Country Music Hall of Fame. So if anybody reading this is headed for AMA, please feel free to drop in on either reading. Or even both.

Down the road a bit, I’ll be doing another reading at the Texas Book Festival, Oct. 27-28 at the State Capitol in Austin. The lineup for that is being announced today, so check that here.

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Where were you on Sept. 11?

One of the most bucolic, carefree days of my adult life was Sept. 10, 2001. It was an eerily beautiful fall day, just like it is again today, and a Monday. I took the day off from work to play in a charity golf tournament with some pals, which was a blast, and afterward we all stuffed ourselves with barbecue long into the evening. I made it home in time to watch the Denver Broncos stomp the bejesus out of the New York Giants on “Monday Night Football.”

Indeed, about the only disquieting moment of that day involved Ryan. His big Gold album was coming out in a few weeks, and despite all the buzz, I didn’t much care for it; some decent songs, including “New York, New York,” but most of it just didn’t move me. On the drive to the golf course, I told a mutual friend that I was not relishing the prospect of writing my first lukewarm review of one of Ryan’s works. He suggested I just not review it, but I didn’t feel like I could duck this one.

The next morning, my opinion of Gold slipped way down the list of important things because the world ended. I was in the kitchen tending to breakfast dishes when the phone rang. It was Leigh, my then-wife, who was on her way to Chapel Hill to speak to a class, calling to say she’d heard on the radio that a plane had just hit the World Trade Center. Wow, that was…odd. So I walked into the den and turned on the television — just in time to see a plane hit the second tower in real time. Although it took a minute for what I’d just seen to register.

What, they got this on film?…Wait a minute…They’re…BOTH on fire?…WHAT THE???!!!…

The rest of that day was ghastly, and I felt like I was in a fog. I went to the newsroom but couldn’t focus on anything, until I spied the Bob Dylan album that had just come out that day; Love and Theft, sitting on my desk. So I fired that up, and suddenly the world made sense again. It was all still beyond awful, of course. But listening to Love and Theft was calming, in an odd way, because it conveyed a sense of just how such terrible things could happen. Context. On that horrible, brightly sunny Tuesday, that was about as good as it was going to get.

And so I wrote this, which ran in the paper the following Sunday. Meanwhile, there was comfort of a different sort to be had in Ryan’s “New York, New York.” As David Browne wrote in Entertainment Weekly a few weeks later:

Heard in the aftermath of the collapse of the World Trade Center, “New York, New York” now feels cathartic and healing in ways it never did before. The same is true of the rest of Gold. In light of this recent horror, the album’s sprawling tour through American music, from coast to beer-stained coast, is like a diner full of comfort food…And Adams, for all the hand-me-down nature of his music and his degenerate-rebel image, sounds like a healer.

Eleven years later, they’re both worth another listen. Meanwhile, Dylan has another new album out on Sept. 11. I should probably go pick it up. Meantime, this is also worth another read.

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Onward through the fog: Peer review and other rituals

Returning to our narrative of how “Losering” came to be, you may recall that I turned in the manuscript more than a year ago, in August 2011. But it’s only now making its way into the world. I’m used to banging things out and having them appear in public a day or two later; maybe a few weeks later, if I’m working ahead, or a few months later if it’s for a magazine — or even instantaneously, if it’s going online immediately.

Books, on the other hand, move along at a much more deliberate pace. Most of them, anyway. The book business can move very fast when there’s a reason to; like when somebody famous dies and there’s a lot of money at stake (see: “Steve Jobs,”  a biography that had its publication date accelerated by six months and was in stores mere weeks after its subject died last year).

But that’s the fast track. For most of us lesser mortals, getting a book out takes a lot longer. And if you’re working with a university press, you also go through a round of formal “peer review” — although it’s more low-impact than what that phrase typically implies. I didn’t have to defend my book to a tenure committee or anything like that. But UT Press sent the manuscript to a pair of outside readers for feedback, and their reviews were in by mid-October.

Both recommended publication, with some revisions. I tried not to bristle at the suggestions, not all of which I agreed with; one reviewer asked for details that I felt like I already had in the manuscript. But I dutifully wrote a response in which I gave thanks for the feedback and promised to incorporate their suggestions. Many of which, I must confess, I wound up ignoring.

On the plus side, the reviewers did have some good ideas about how to make the book more accessible beyond Ryan’s immediate fanbase, and those suggestions I took. I even worked up a “nut graph” entry-point explainer about Why Ryan Matters for the preface (sometimes this really was just like writing for the newspaper). I was already well into the final write-through, including the addition of a segment about Ryan’s then-recently released Ashes and Fire album, when UT’s faculty advisory committee formally approved “Losering” for publication on Nov. 4, 2011.

I got the word from Allison Faust via e-mail: “Congratulations! There’s no turning back now.”

No indeed. I spent the rest of that month giving “Losering” one last tinker, buff and shine. The additions pushed the final word count up just a bit, to about 56,000 words. Just after Thanksgiving, I hit “Send” again.

But I still wasn’t done. The book went through a couple of rounds of copy-editing that stretched into early 2012. I double- and triple-checked every detail until my bloodshot eyes were a perfect chromatic match for my red pen. Typeset page proofs came back to me in early April and I checked everything all over again before sending the whole mess back for the last time. The book went to the printer in July, and UT Press had copies ready to ship by mid-August.

And now it’s out in the world. Finally. Whew…

Image by Gideon Burton

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Ryan Adams — To Be Young (Is To Be Sad, Is To Be High)

Something I have to keep reminding myself about the mid-’90s Whiskeytown period covered in “Losering” is just how young — I mean, how freakin’ young — Ryan was back then. He was a few months shy of turning 21 years old when we first met in 1995, but he seemed even younger because (a) he looked like he could have easily passed for a high school underclassman; and (b) he had such puppy-dog enthusiasm about everything that you thought he couldn’t possibly be old enough to drive, let alone drink. Below is visual evidence, two portraits of the artist as a (very) young man circa 1996-97, taken by Whiskeytown’s co-manager Jenni Sperandeo. That’s Peter Blackstock throwing gang signs in the picture on the left.

As it happens, Jenni and Peter are both in Austin this weekend to attend the Sept. 8 Grulkefest — a tribute concert to the late great Brent Grulke, one of the big movers and shakers behind South By Southwest. I’m an old Austin hand myself, and it kills me not to be there because so many of my favorite mid-’80s-vintage bands will be playing. Alas, I must settle for being there in spirit and making a toast. Salud!

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Come see me at Hopscotch this weekend

This weekend brings the big Hopscotch Music Festival to Raleigh, with 175 acts in 15 venues around downtown, and it promises to be a rousing good time. Thursday’s opening night sure went great — there’s a recap here, and a preview story in the paper here. I’ll be around and about both Friday and Saturday, as both an observer and low-impact participant.

My participatory part of it happens Friday afternoon at Deep South, where the Schoolkids Records/Blurt magazine day party happens with a fine lineup including Jenny Besetzt, Lazy Janes, Toddlers, Old Bricks and Gross Ghost. I’ll be serving as emcee; and they’ll be selling copies of “Losering” at the merch table. Buy one and I’ll throw in a signature gratis.

That’s noon to 5 p.m. Friday at Deep South, 430 S. Dawson St. in Raleigh. It’s even free. So for those in the Greater Raleigh vicinity: Y’all come.

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More on the American Music Series and UT Press

UT Press and I had agreed on Ryan as a subject at South By Southwest 2010.When the next SXSW rolled around in March 2011, I met again in Austin with my then-editor, Allison Faust, as well as UT Press marketing director Dave Hamrick and No Depression magazine co-founder Peter Blackstock. I hadn’t gotten very far with writing by then; in fact, I wasn’t much past the “Preface” and I was still nervous about making the Sept. 1 deadline. But I kept that to myself. Instead, the four of us brainstormed ideas for the series.

It was a very productive meeting, yielding up a long list of possible subjects and authors. That meeting also resulted in me coming on-board as series co-editor. Some things have changed about the series over the past year and a half, including the name. It’s the American Music Series now, and the primary UT Press editor is Casey Kittrell. As co-editors, Peter Blackstock and I get some input on artists and writers (although UT Press still has the final say).

The first AMS title came out in March 2012, “Dwight Yoakam: A Thousand Miles From Nowhere,” written by the estimable Don McLeese. My book “Ryan Adams: Losering, A Story of Whiskeytown” is the second in the series. The Aug. 31 issue of Publishers Weekly magazine included a piece about music-related books under the headline, “The Music Didn’t Die.” Alas, it takes a subscription and password to see the whole thing. But here’s the part that pertains to the American Music Series, which comes at the very end of the story:

In 2005, the University of Texas published “The Best of No Depression,” an anthology of articles from the hip alt-country magazine, No Depression. Working with the magazine’s co-founders Peter Blackstock and David Menconi, Texas’s sponsoring editor Casey Kittrell grew excited about these two editing a possible series. Austin City Limits promoted the first book in the American Music Series, Don McLeese’s “Dwight Yoakam,” when Yoakam played on that stage. This season Menconi chronicles the rise to fame of alt-country star, Ryan Adams, in “Ryan Adams: Losering, a Story of Whiskeytown” (Sept.), and forthcoming topics include Merle Haggard, Uncle Tupelo, and John Prine, among others. Kittrell says that the series plans to publish “musical biographies about important American musicians and that eventually it will edge into genres beyond alt-country and feature books by musicians and literary writers.”

For the record, Allison Faust was the first UT Press editor to work on the series, before Casey Kittrell; and while I was in on No Depression magazine from the start, I wasn’t a co-founder. That was Mr. Grant Alden, who we very much hope will be writing a book for the series at some point. A lot of the ideas we tossed around at that March 2011 meeting are still cooking along at various stages, and we’ve had further conversations. I hope to be able to tell you about more American Music Series books before too long. But here are the ones under contract (or firm enough to talk about) at the moment:

Merle Haggard, by Dave Cantwell
Uncle Tupelo, by Dan Durchholz
Los Lobos, by Chris Morris
John Prine, by Eddie Huffman
The Flatlanders, by John T. Davis
Vic Chesnutt, by Kristin Hersh

As the proud owner of a vinyl copy of Throwing Muses’ House Tornado, I’m especially excited about that last one. But I think all of these have the potential to be fantastic.

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Back to the music

While I was writing “Losering,” I also put some effort into reconnecting with Ryan’s music. Of course, I’d been obsessively listening to all his records over the years. But the downside of how much I’d played them was that I was no longer hearing a lot of the details. I needed a fresh pair of ears, some outside perspective and a better sound system than the boombox and computers I use for most of my listening nowadays.

Enter Holden Richards, a longtime friend and fellow Ryan fan who also has a long history here in North Carolina — going back to his early-’80s days with the Chapel Hill indie-pop group One Plus Two. Holden first came to my attention in 1992 with a record called Bones of Contention, issued under the name the Swamis. It’s long out of print, but Bones of Contention still sounds terrific 20 years later if your tastes run toward the dB’s and Let’s Active (which mine definitely do). And while Holden still plays, recent years have found him putting a lot of energy into photography. Take a look at his portfolio and you should agree it’s been energy well-spent.

Holden and I conducted a couple of marathon sessions where we gave close listens to the key records in Ryan’s catalog, concentrating on the Whiskeytown period. Holden pointed out some technical things I doubt I would have picked up on, such as Ryan’s fondness for the metalhead’s favorite tuning, Drop-D (an effect that gave Whiskeytown’s Strangers Almanac all sorts of dark overtones).

He was also the perfect tour guide to the finer points of Chris Stamey’s sonic overhaul of the 1998 reissue of Whiskeytown’s debut full-length Faithless Street, which is immeasurably more nuanced and detailed than the original 1996 version. For example, “Drank Like a River” was a muddy roar in its original incarnation. But Stamey cleaned it up by panning the guitars — Ryan on one side, Phil Wandscher on the other — leaving more room in the middle for Ryan’s vocal and Caitlin Cary’s fiddle. Though subtle, that’s the kind of tweaking that makes a difference you can hear, and it made Ryan’s raspy vocal even better.

“Man,” Holden marveled as we listened, “the microphone loves Ryan.”

Geeking out on Ryan’s records was a ton of fun and incredibly helpful. It also made possible a rare flight of fancy on my part, in how I wrote about Strangers Almanac — which was something I struggled with because Strangers is a record that still means a lot to me. I don’t want to give it away here, so please read the book for that. But I will say that I don’t think I could have pulled it off without Holden’s help, which allowed me to get immersed in Strangers as never before.

Thank you, sir!

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