No Depression in heaven, or down here

So it was the News & Observer that got me to Raleigh all those years ago; but as recounted in “Losering,” it was No Depression that led to my first direct contact with Ryan way back in 1995. No Depression was a great magazine during its 13-year run, and a wonderful thing to be  part of. I miss reading and writing for it, very much. But the swift decline of both print media and the record industry was too much of a double-whammy to overcome, and No Depression ceased publishing in 2008.

In the summer of 2005, however, the magazine was at its peak in terms of heft. That was when University of Texas Press published the second anthology of No Depression writings, “The Best of No Depression: Writing About American Music.” A profile of Ryan from the fall of 2000 was included in the book, and I did some bookstore readings for it around the Triangle. Below is a spiel I worked up as a preamble, tracing the magazine’s history, my involvement in it and also my relationship with Ryan (and his part in inspiring a character in my 2000 novel “Off The Record”). If you’ve read “Losering,” some of this will be familiar.

Ten long years ago, a friend of mine named Peter Blackstock began talking about a music magazine he was starting. “No Depression,” they were going to call it, after “No Depression in Heaven” — a 1936 Carter Family song covered by the upstart band Uncle Tupelo. Uncle Tupelo was one of a number of young bands coming to country music by way of punk rock in the 1990s, alongside the Jayhawks, Old 97s, Freakwater and others. No Depression was going to cover these bands, as well as oldtimers like Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard and Emmylou Harris.

It was an ambitious undertaking, and I’d like to be able to say that my response was, “Wow! What a fantastic idea!” A decade later, I am mortified to confess that I didn’t take No Depression too seriously at first. In fact, when Peter asked me to write something for the magazine’s first issue, I told him I wasn’t sure I’d have time.

Peter was an old and dear friend, and I had some familiarity with his quirks — his obsession with the songs of Jimmy Webb, for example, or his habit of driving halfway across the country for a dinner date. When I lived in Boulder, he showed up from Texas semi-unannounced more than once. Another time, I remember Peter calling from a payphone somewhere in the Texas Panhandle to ask if I could make him a cassette tape of Joe Jackson’s new live album. He had an assignment to review it, and he was going to pass through Colorado on one of his spur-of-the-moment driving trips. So he was wondering if he could come by and pick that up on the way, from a different time zone.

I’ve watched a lot of startup magazines come and go. At the time, there seemed no reason to think that No Depression would be more than another of Peter’s quixotic quests. But he was persistent. Peter wanted me to do a short feature on a Raleigh band called Whiskeytown, and he had already developed an editor’s knack for just which button to push to get me to do it. “If you can’t do it,” he wrote in an e-mail, “we can probably find someone else, but not as good a writer as you.” I like flattery as much as the next guy. So I finally said yes, even though Peter did not yet have the wherewithal to pay any of his writers. But I would not come away from this assignment empty-handed.

That summer of 1995, I was deep in the trenches of attempted literature, writing a novel about a fictional rock band. The leader of this band in my head was a self-conscious young man with some very screwed-up ideas about stardom and celebrity; a guy who was equal parts brilliant and crazy; and a person at war with himself because he desperately needed people to like him but could only express that as arrogance.

In short, this character I was struggling to bring to life was Ryan Adams, leader of the aforementioned Whiskeytown. My fictional rock star was named Tommy Aguilar. I originally envisioned him as Dexter Romweber, unhinged guitarist in another local band called Flat Duo Jets. That took care of Tommy’s crazy and unstable half. But he was still missing the boundless ambition and rock-star swagger I had in mind. For that, Ryan turned out to be the perfect model.

I went to every Whiskeytown show I could, lurked nearby whenever the opportunity presented itself and wrote about them often. Whiskeytown moved swiftly up the local and national totem pole, signing a major-label deal in 1996 and earning big plaudits for 1997’s Stranger’s Almanac — still my favorite record from Ryan’s entire catalog. Likewise, No Depression magazine was an immediate success. After paying all the contributors with a T-shirt for issue number one, Peter was able to start paying his writers actual money by the second issue. The magazine also went from quarterly to bi-monthly publication in the fall of 1996.Whiskeytown appeared on the cover of the July/August 1997 issue when Strangers Almanac came out, although Peter wrote that story himself instead of letting me do it, the no-good so-and-so. But it has been a pleasure and an honor to be associated with No Depression over the years, and to watch it grow from those modest beginnings to the very impressive magazine it is today. I believe I’ve had a byline in every single issue except one.

Meanwhile, I was still spending the wee small hours of every morning working on this novel, now called “Off The Record.” Tommy became Ryan, although there were times when it seemed like Ryan was becoming Tommy. In 1998, I was commissioned to write liner notes for a Whiskeytown record — the reissue of their first album, Faithless Street. It was an utter fiasco in which Ryan behaved so neurotically, I felt like I was being held hostage by my own fictional creation. I wrote multiple drafts, each of which was found wanting. Ultimately, the album came out with liner notes by Caitlin Cary rather than me, which was probably karmic justice.

But having Ryan as a model for Tommy Aguilar was a God-send. Like Ryan, my fictional Tommy is dark-haired, kind of pigeon-toed and sometimes wears the same thick-framed glasses favored by Brian Wilson. WWRD (What Would Ryan Do?) was a handy guide for whatever the Tommy character should say or do in a given situation. And imagining dialogue in Ryan’s voice was very useful.

Predictably, Whiskeytown fell apart after a few years, and Ryan started a solo career. His first solo album was called Heartbreaker and it came out in September of 2000, the same month No Depression published my profile of Ryan that’s in this book. And that was also the month that “Off The Record” finally came out. Early on, I tried to be circumspect about the connection between Tommy and Ryan. But enough reviews noted the similarities that I soon gave that up.

As it happened, this No Depression profile would mark the beginning of the end of whatever personal relationship I had with Ryan. I was pleased with how the story turned out, and I felt like it really captured him. But lots of people were very unhappy with it. Ryan’s ex-girlfriend, the subject of many of the songs on “Heartbreaker,” was furious about being identified by name. Ryan’s manager didn’t like the story, either, for reasons I never really understood. And Ryan himself responded with a puzzling e-mail — dated September 11, 2000, eerily enough.

“I am very angry with you but only out of love,” Ryan wrote. “I’ve discovered that you don’t know me very well. It isn’t even important. You are much more beautiful without me to consider. I’m drunk and in Seattle and I just went to see a spiritualist guide (they call him a shaman) and my life is changed. Hard changed. I hope to think about you in my meditations. Peace and cookies, R.”

(NOTE: To see this email reproduced in all the typo-ridden glory of Ryan’s original message, see the “Losering” preface.)

The last conversation I ever had with Ryan took place the following spring, in April of 2001. He called me at home one night, angry about a bad review someone else had written, to ask if I thought he should confront the writer about it. No, Ryan, I said, you should really just let it go — even though I knew he wouldn’t. And sure enough, I heard that he left a screaming rant on that other writer’s answering machine later that night.

(NOTE: “That other writer” was none other than Angie Carlson.)

We talked for a while that night. Ryan said he was working on a screenplay, a book and three different records. One of the albums was called Gold. “It’s so fuckin’ good, man,” Ryan said. “I hope you like it.” But I didn’t much like Gold when it came out a few months later, even though that was the record that made him a star and picked up multiple Grammy nominations. So what do I know?

In our last conversation, Ryan never mentioned this No Depression feature that seemed to upset him so much. He did, however, bring up “Off The Record.” He hadn’t yet read it, but he said, “I’ve been told that the lead character is like an unholy cross between myself and Dexter Romweber.” Well, Ryan, I said, you’ll just have to read it and let me know what you think. “Maybe I’ll do that,” he said.

I’ve always thought that if Ryan were to read “Off The Record,” he would claim to be pissed off. Secretly, however, he would be pleased to be a central figure in a book about rock mythology — because Ryan is nothing if not all about rock mythology. Maybe that’s what happened, maybe not. I guess I’ll never know.

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A not-so-average Joe

When I did the big Raleigh reading for “Losering” last month, one of the evening’s few disappointments was that Joe Newberry was unable to attend. But he definitely had an excused absence. For you see, Joe was at Ryman Auditorium in Nashville that same night, where he was up for a “Hillbilly Grammy” (well, an International Bluegrass Music Association award, if you want to get technical about it). And darned if he didn’t win best gospel song, for “Singing As We Rise” as performed by the Gibson Brothers and Ricky Skaggs. Every now and then, good things happen to people who are so deserving that it warms your heart, and this was just such an occasion.

Joe is one of the most stellar humans I’ve ever known, and modest to a fault. I’ve been trying to talk him into letting me do one of the N&O’s weekly “Tar Heel of the Week” features on him for years, and he has always demurred. But after his well-deserved IBMA triumph, he finally relented. You can see the story here.

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Thomas O’Keefe, road manager to the stars

While he wasn’t an onstage performing member of the group, road manager Thomas O’Keefe was a part of Whiskeytown for longer than just about anybody except for Ryan and Caitlin. So he was there for some of the most notable onstage dust-ups of the “Losering” story, including Kansas City, East Lansing and San Francisco — and if Caitlin was the one doing the apologizing afterward, O’Keefe was the one who had to pick up the pieces. Fortunately for him, he is a stout individual that few people want to mess with.

Post-Whiskeytown, O’Keefe has managed the Ohio rock band Watershed (subject of this book, which you should read immediately if you haven’t already); and also worked as road manager for Train, a fairly ginormous pop band from San Francisco. For more on just how busy Train keeps him, see this. One reason Train has been so much more successful than Whiskeytown is that they’re willing to play the game.

“I always figured Ryan would be Tom Waits, someone you and I know but the average joker doesn’t,” O’Keefe told me in 2010. “Going to work for Train has shown me the work they do to be successful. They still get up at 6 a.m. and visit the radio station. The amount of that kind of thing it takes to be massive is incredible. We just did two weeks of top-40 shows with Katy Perry, and that was just us kissing butt at the radio stations that played us all year. But it’s a necessary evil, and Ryan would never ever do that. So he’ll never have the commercial success that Train has, but that’s never been his motivation, either.”

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More ancient history: The liner-note fiasco

By the late spring of 1998, it was apparent that Strangers Almanac  would not be the album to launch Whiskeytown to the toppermost of the poppermost. The album had been out for close to a year by then, and it never caught on at radio or cracked the Billboard 200 album-sales chart. Still, Strangers was a press favorite that raised Whiskeytown’s profile considerably. So while Ryan and company contemplated the all-important third album, Outpost Records moved ahead with plans to reissue Whiskeytown’s first album, 1996’s Faithless Street.

This reissued version would have a bunch of bonus tracks, plus a sonic overhaul from Chris Stamey and Tim Harper. One day I heard from a fellow at Outpost, with a question: Would I be interested in writing liner notes? My heart jumped at the very idea, in part because I’d never been asked before, and of course I said hell yes. They only wanted about 150 words, and here is the first version I wrote:

The first time I interviewed Ryan Adams was in 1995, at a bar in downtown Raleigh, N.C. — an interview cut short when a drunk went crazy and they had to call in the cops to get the guy out of there. The second time was a few months later, right before Whiskeytown’s Faithless Street was released. Just in case another hostage situation ensued, Ryan had scribbled some quotes onto the back of a restaurant receipt. About the album, he wrote, “It scratched the surface for what we will do later on.” When I told him how great I thought Faithless Street was, Adams muttered, “Yeah, well, you shoulda heard it before it got all cut up.” With this reissue’s extra tracks, we finally get to. And the scary thing is, Adams had that Big Record in him even at the tender age of 20.

I sent that off and heard back from Outpost almost immediately: “Genius,” my man there declared, to which I thought (but didn’t say), “Well, it’s a perfectly nice paragraph, but come on.” Nevertheless, by all accounts everyone at the label seemed to think this was perfect — until Ryan got a look-see and expressed concern that it was too much about him and not the rest of the band. Keep in mind that at this point, Whiskeytown’s ever-changing lineup consisted of Ryan, Caitlin, Mike Daly and whoever else got drafted for the latest tour. Given that, focusing on the recently departed Phil Wandscher’s contributions didn’t seem appropriate to the mission.

“Ryan was worried it was too much about him as the Boy Wonder Genius,” one of the insiders told me. “Now you and I both know that’s true, but you know Ryan. He’ll have these occasional bouts of humility.” So back to the drawing board I went. And here’s the second crack I took at it:

Three years ago, it was impossible to watch Whiskeytown play and not be reminded of the Replacements. Whiskeytown had the same sort of scruffy, unpredictable charm, and you never knew who was going to wind up more smashed by the end of the night — them or their instruments. To this day, I’ve never heard anything as amazing as Whiskeytown’s woozy hoedown version of Richard Hell’s “Blank Generation” (which I wish they’d still dust off and play every now and them). If Faithless Street was unexpectedly quiet and reflective by comparison, nobody was the least bit surprised at how good it was. One of the first times I interviewed Ryan Adams, he said, “You just can’t practice the mistakes that end up making a song timeless. Ask Ray Charles — for that matter, ask Black Flag.” So if you’ve ever wondered what Ray Charles and Black Flag would sound like together, well, now you know.

I sent that off and several days later word came back: “Everybody loved what you did. Great job, really fantastic. But…” Once again, Ryan objected. And at this point, the decision was made to take it in-house. When the Faithless Street reissue came out in September 1998, it had liner notes by Caitlin Cary. I could hardly object to that, so Godspeed. And six years later, I got to do liner notes for the first album by Caitlin’s Tres Chicas.

Over time, these things do tend to average out.

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Talking with NBC17 about Ryan, Whiskeytown and “Losering”

I’ve done a bunch of print and online interviews for “Losering,” as well as a few on the radio (many of which you can find cataloged here). But here is the first one that has visuals to go with the verbiage, for the local Triangle news station NBC17’s website. Check it out.

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Ryan Adams, misread if not misheard

There’s another nice Q&A about Ryan, Whiskeytown, “Losering” and the American Music Series, among other things, at The Misread City — a very fine arts blog by former Los Angeles Times writer (and UNC-Chapel Hill alumnus) Scott Timberg. Check it out here.

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Alejandro Escovedo: A fan’s notes

His name only comes up once in “Losering,” regarding the Strangers Almanac song “Excuse Me While I Break My Own Heart Tonight,” but Alejandro Escovedo is a key figure in my musical cosmos. I’m not alone in holding him in such high regard, either. In 1997, when he did that “Excuse Me” cameo, Alejandro already had a reputation as an inspiration to younger generations.

“I’ve been told that some people consider me to be this ‘rock sage,'” he told me in an interview that year. “Somebody all these young musicians in bands now cite as influential. For a long time, I didn’t think much about the historical perspective because I’ve always been more interested in where I’m going next than what I’ve already done or where I’ve already gone. But I’m enjoying it now, y’know?”

Escovedo has always been near and dear to my heart, and it’s been a pleasure to watch him finally make some commercial-career progress in recent years. I wouldn’t say I grew up with his music, because I didn’t hear him until I was well into my 20s. But it’s no exaggeration to say I grew up as a music writer with him, going back to a highly amateurish interview I did with him, Jon Dee Graham and the rest of the True Believers in the summer of 1985 for the University of Texas student paper, the Daily Texan. In the quarter-century-plus since, I’ve written about the man…well, an embarrassing number of times.

My online blather about Alejandro goes back to the True Believers’ 1994 reunion and includes a few things from No Depression magazine — a 1997 piece about his contribution to “Excuse Me” as well as a 2001 Q&A. There’s plenty of stuff from more recent years here.

His performances are something like compass resets for me — regenerative rituals in which I am reminded anew why I write about music — and it’s difficult for me not to get carried away when I get to rhapsodizing about him. So I’ll just say that he’ll be in the Raleigh vicinity Sunday night to open for Heart at Cary’s Booth Amphitheatre; which might not be the most optimal situation for maximum appreciation, but if you’ve never seen him…well, the man is worth your time.

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Left of the dial: WCOM

If you’re in the greater Carrboro/Chapel Hill vicinity late Saturday afternoon, tune in WCOM, 103.5-FM, where I’ll be a guest on The Placeholder Show from about 5:15 to 6 p.m. We’ll be talking about Whiskeytown and Ryan and “Losering,” of course; and perhaps a few other worthy local current acts out there nowadays.

WCOM is a low-power station emanating from the Carrboro ArtsCenter. So if you’re outside of the immediate area, there’s an online stream from the station’s webpage.

After that, maybe see you at YR15?

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The “Losering” playlist, courtesy of largehearted boy

In an ideal universe, each copy of “Losering” would come with a compact disc of songs you’d listen to while reading the book. That obviously didn’t happen, but here’s the next best thing: a playlist of songs that I feel are particularly relevant to Whiskeytown’s story — which the book-centric music blog largehearted boy was kind enough to let me do as today’s installment of its Book Notes series. So fire up Spotify and plug in these 13 songs to optimize your reading experience.

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Riding the Tilt-A-Whirl

So it’s time for that autumnal ritual of low-rent gluttony, the North Carolina State Fair. Actually, it’s pretty high-rent, given that I never seem to get away without spending at least $100 there. But the fair is still an annual occasion I enjoy, mostly because the kids get so excited about it, even though I don’t know how many more years they’ll still want to go. My twins are 13 (big brother is 17, so he can go on his own if he wants), and every October I wonder if this is the year they’ll stop believing in the State Fair and want to skip it.

But no, so far they still want to. So off we went for opening day on Thursday. We did the usual things you do out there — strolled the midway, ate breathtakingly unhealthy food, gawked, did some rides. And since I’ve got Ryan on the brain right now, I wondered if I’d hear any of his songs in the air out there.

I didn’t, just in my head. Including this one while watching the kids go round and round on the swing.

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