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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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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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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