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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Yep Roc Records: Not busted

Yep Roc Records wasn’t a major player in the Whiskeytown saga; in fact, the label isn’t mentioned at all in the text of “Losering.” But some of the band’s music did come out bearing the Yep Roc imprint back in the day, on compilations the label released — including what I’d rank as the worst Whiskeytown recording ever to be commercially released. That’s “Busted,” a track on 1997’s Revival Volume II. “Busted” is a “track” rather a “song,” because it’s just 96 seconds of wanky in-the-studio noodling with Ryan freestyling about cigarette theft (a possible foreshadowing of some of the goofy rap stuff he would be posting on the “Cardinal Jukebox” some years later).

But don’t hold that against Yep Roc, a label that has put out a lot of fine music over the last decade and a half. Yep Roc is marking its 15th anniversary this weekend with a bunch of acts from its roster playing at the Cat’s Cradle. There’s a story about that here; and here is a 2000 feature, from back in the days when there were still record stores (remember them?).

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More from the supporting cast: Brian Walsby

While I was reporting “Losering,” I wanted to talk to a bandmate of Ryan’s from his last and best pre-Whiskeytown group, Patty Duke Syndrome. That meant drummer Brian Walsby because the third member of the trio is no longer with us. Bassist Jere McIlwean died in a 1996 drug overdose, which inspired the 1997 Whiskeytown single “Theme For a Trucker” (named for McIlwean’s post-PDS band Trucker).

So I asked Brian if he’d talk about the old days and we had the same pre-interview conversation about Ryan that we always do, in which he expressed hesitancy about reopening that can of worms. But then we talked and it was fine, and he had many interesting things to say about his old bandmate; most of them fond, some not so much. Both kind of quotes are in the book. Still, nothing Brian told me on or off the record was as harsh as a graphic essay he composed in 2003, which is nicely summarized by the headline:

RYAN FUCKING ADAMS OWES ME, MOTHERFUCKERS!!!
A twisted tale of almost obsession

Even leaving Ryan aside, Brian has an interesting history. He’s a fine drummer who has played in a dozen Triangle bands since the mid-’80s (highlighted by Polvo and Double Negative, who had some discussions with Ryan about signing to his label Pax-Am Records a year or two ago), and he’s also  an excellent cartoonist of semi-legendary repute in underground metal circles. I’ve written about some of that history in a couple of features for the paper, one in 2004 and another in 2011. Honestly, though, Walsby is his own best chronicler, as set down in countless cartoons and compiled in his “Manchild” series of books. Volume Six is the latest and it’s subtitled “Bye Bye Punk Rock..Hello Adulthood!!”

Some of the inspiration for that mindset comes from Walsby’s young daughter, Willow, who has Down Syndrome — which he and I have bonded over a bit, since I have a daughter with Down Syndrome myself; that’s Claudia, age 13, and she rocks just as hard as her twin brother Edward and big brother Aaron (a budding rock star in his own right, dig his work on bass in the Raleigh teenage hardcore band Pure Scum).

Nevertheless, Walsby still gets out to rock a good bit. He’s been on the road a lot with Seattle proto-grunge band the Melvins in recent years, handling merch sales as well as drawing what he sees and selling his own wares. Get his attention when the Melvins play Cat’s Cradle in Carrboro Wednesday night, and maybe he’ll draw you.

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People put the nicest pictures on their Twitter feed…

…I think so anyway. Anyway, here’s where one of the copies of “Losering” that I signed at the Quail Ridge reading wound up –1,700 miles away from Raleigh in Boulder, Colo., one of my favorite towns. I especially like this because I used to live in Boulder and write for the Daily Camera, eons ago; that was my first job out of grad school, as well as my last one before coming to the News & Observer almost 22 years ago. Very kind of Camilla to “buy locally” from afar, and send back to Raleigh’s Quail Ridge to get an autographed copy.

They still have autographed copies at Quail Ridge (as well as The Regulator in Durham), Christmas is coming and they make a great gift. Just sayin’.

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Another record?…Pretty please?…

So our man Ryan has spent long stretches of the past few years out of the public eye, uncharacteristically quiet on the music front. There was the breakup of the Cardinals and his Meniere’s Disease, plus who knows what else going on behind the scenes. Ashes & Fire, released one year ago this week, broke a several-year silence — and it had me wondering what might be next, fingers crossed in cautious optimism; A&F seemed like a return to form, the best thing he’d done in eons.

Well, he’s gotten busy, all right. The last few months have brought reports of Ryan producing his wife Mandy Moore; producing and playing drums in the reunited Lemonheads; and working in the studio with Tennis, Liz Phair, Butch Walker and even electronic superstar deadmau5, among others. Which is cool and all, sure, plus the sort of headline fuel that makes the rock-media world go ’round.

Still…I have to admit that I’d rather see Ryan just bear down on another record of his own. And God knows where he’s finding the time, but it appears he might be gearing up to do just that, if his Twitter feed is to be believed. This weekend, Ryan has posted a couple of pictures suggesting that he’s in the midst of pulling together material for a new album, with tantalizing verbiage:

Work. Writing songs.

Sketching the blueprints of my new record. Only a month to go.

Two more new songs today. Damn.

Here’s hoping!

ADDENDUM (2/19/13): Complete list of Ryan’s extracurricular credits.

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More talk: The debate picks up

There’s more yackety-yack related to Planet “Losering” out there today, starting with part two of the Music Tomes interview. Yesterday’s installment was specific to “Losering,” while today’s edition is mostly focused on the UT Press American Music Series that my book is part of.

Meanwhile, a “Losering” review on NoDepression.com has led to a quite-lively debate in the comments section. Not surprisingly, fans of Ryan’s late-period work are taking issue with my…well, let’s call it less-than-enthusiastic assessment of his recent output. One commenter on the NoDepression review said I come across as “bitter” — and as I replied to her, I’m not bitter but I do find the Ryan/Whiskeytown story to be quite bittersweet.

Similar sentiments turned up yesterday on the Ryan Adams Superfan Facebook page (and the initial version of this post concluded with Mr. Kampa saying, “Fuck you” — which he edited out before I could ask him if he kissed his mama with that mouth):

Oh well…

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“Losering” Bit players: Angie Carlson

Something worth keeping in mind about almost everyone in the music industry: We’re all just trying to earn a living, however we can manage it. I’ve been luckier than most, in that I’ve had a fulltime job for the past 21 years (and I hope it continues, knock on wood). But if you want to keep working in music in some way, chances are you’ll wind up wearing a variety of hats over the years.

Consider Angie Carlson, who I’ve known since the mid-’90s — and who I knew about even longer ago than that, since she used to play in one of my favorite bands of the ’80s college-radio generation, Let’s Active. During the early Whiskeytown era, Angie had a pretty fantastic little punk-pop trio called Grover, whose 1996 album My Wild Life is still a favorite of mine. By the turn of the century, Angie had become music editor of The Independent, in which capacity she wrote some very kind words when I published my novel “Off The Record” in 2000.

Nowadays Angie lives up in greater New York and works in PR, so I hear from her on a fairly regular basis about various bands she’s trying to get coverage on. And one day in the spring of 2011, when I was hip deep in pulling “Losering” together, the phone rang and it was Angie pitching someone. Like I did with everyone I talked to back then, I told her I was writing a book about Ryan Adams (which elicited howls of laughter, a common response) and asked if she had any Ryan stories. Bless her heart, she had several. One excellent quote made it into the Preface, and there was another that I really wanted to use but just couldn’t find a place for. It was a remembrance of Ryan’s almost freakish musicality:

Ryan would come over to the house and I had this old Wurlitzer organ in the basement. So we’d jam. I’m better on Wurlitzer than guitar, and he was interested in it. I’ve been playing since high school so I’d show him stuff — this is major, that’s minor, here’s a ninth, a blues thing. And fuck if like in two weeks, he wasn’t writing on keyboards as if he’d played for years. He could just do that. I was talking to somebody one night who said, “He’s such an asshole, you really think he’s that good?” “Yeah,” I said, “he is. You’ve just gotta get over that. No matter what he’s like, he’s super-talented.” He’s kinda brilliant, and the human sponge. Just soaks everything up.

Yes, indeed.

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Good talk

Just in time for the next round of local readings, a couple of new “Losering” Q&A interviews just went up. One is with the Daily Tar Heel, the student paper at UNC-Chapel Hill; and the other is with the Music Tomes blog.  The latter is part one of a two-part installment, with the second half coming on Friday.

Meanwhile, the aforementioned readings happen on Thursday, also in two installments — yes, it’s a doubleheader. The first one is at 3:30 p.m. at the Bull’s Head bookstore on the UNC campus, followed by the 7 p.m. nightcap at The Regulator in Durham. Come on out and say hey, or even ask pointed questions. I can take it!

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Blurt it on out

Today brings another nice “Losering” review, this one from the estimable Fred Mills over at Blurt magazine. Fred was very kind and he calls the book “a love letter to Adams’ long-suffering fanbase,” which I’d say is just about right. In addition to a review, the package includes a pretty lengthy Q&A interview.

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Caitlin Cary sings for her supper

When it became apparent that Ryan would not be interviewed for “Losering” and I started trying to figure out who might talk, I had some high hopes for Whiskeyown fiddler Caitlin Cary. Sure, it would have put her in a difficult spot — which was nothing new, given that she had been Whiskeytown’s only other lineup constant for the entirety of the band’s existence (which she seemed to spend apologizing for the behavior of her bandmates). Still, if there was anybody who could maintain friendly relations with Ryan while talking to me, I figured it was Caitlin.

Alas, it was not to be. Caitlin demurred with the explanation that it just didn’t feel right to cooperate on a Ryan biography when he himself wasn’t participating; a disappointment, but I had to respect that. And the upside was that I had tons of vintage material from back in the day on Caitlin as well as her husband, Whiskeytown drummer Skillet Gilmore. So while it would have been nice to have a fresh perspective, at least I was able to quote them both.

Post-Whiskeytown, Caitlin has had a very fine career in a variety of guises starting with her solo act, which got off to a roaring start with her 2002 full-length debut, the aptly titled While You Weren’t Looking. I was delighted to write a lengthy No Depression feature on her when that album came out (although it probably didn’t help my standing with Ryan when I called WYWL “the best recording yet to surface from the remnants of Whiskeytown”). And Caitlin shared space with Ryan on the track list of Joan Baez’s 2003 album Dark Chords on a Big Guitar, which featured the ’60s folk icon covering her “Rosemary Moore” and his “In My Time of Need.”

Caitlin also recorded a very fine album with Thad Cockrell, 2005’s Begonias; and she is one-third of Tres Chicas, a vocal trio with Lynn Blakey (Glory Fountain, Let’s Active) and Tonya Lamm (Hazeldine, who were on the 1997 No Depression tour with Whiskeytown and the Old 97s). They’re a sublime trio of singers, the Chicas are, and still one of my favorite groups in the Triangle. They were also kind enough to have me write liner notes for their debut album, 2004’s Sweetwater, which I was honored to do. This is still my only venture into writing liner notes:

My favorite Tres Chicas moment: a warm spring night a few years back when I happened upon a pre-show rehearsal in the parking lot of a nightclub in downtown Raleigh. Tonya Lamm, Lynn Blakey and Caitlin Cary were gathered around the tailgate of a pickup truck with Chris Stamey, their producer and bassist, working out a few songs. The playing was loose, the harmonies sweet, the vibe amiable. A private moment, one freely shared with anyone who wanted to stop and listen. Even a train passing nearby couldn’t spoil the mood.

There’s always been a stolen-moment quality to the Chicas, who have had to make time for this group within the demands of their other bands, including Whiskeytown, Glory Fountain and Hazeldine. But Caitlin, Lynn and Tonya keep coming back to each other for one simple reason: They’ve never sounded better than they do with each other in the Chicas. And somehow, they found the time to make this record, which will put you in mind of friends getting together to sing just because it’s a good night for singin’ pretty.

Lucky us, that goes for tonight, too.

The Chicas have been semi-inactive for the past few years, back-burnered in favor of other projects. But they’re scheduled to play Nov. 3 at the Berkeley Cafe, site of my long-ago first interview with Ryan way back in 1995. Meantime, Caitlin is still busy with her latest group, The Small Ponds, which she leads with Matt Douglas. I think I’ll always feel like Ryan is her perfect vocal match, but Matt comes awfully close to matching that on their excellent 2010 EP. They’re playing Friday (Oct. 5) at Tir Na Nog in Raleigh.

The drummer for a lot of Cary’s projects has been none other than Skillet Gilmore, who has kind of turned into the Triangle’s answer to former Replacements drummer Chris Mars — drummer from semi-legendary band turns out to be an amazing visual artist. On the right here, one of the many show posters Skillet has done in recent years; and he’s also taken a venture into the political arena.

Can his own run for office be far behind?

ADDENDUM (4/26/15): Tres Chicas’ first show in many moons.

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