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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Top-10!! Sort of…

So I have no idea how amazon.com reckoned this, and I expect it was either a mistake or some bizarre statistical aberration. But however it happened, on Monday evening “Losering” came to rest at a pretty lofty perch on one of amazon’s specialty charts — at No. 7 in country music books, right between Willie Nelson and (I love this) a book called “Bluegrass Mandolin for the Complete Ignoramus!”

Now it’s hard to get too excited about this, given that the book’s overall amazon ranking at this moment was…um, No. 31,029. Still…don’t it look pretty sitting there on a sales chart next to a single-digit number?

ADDENDUM: A day later, it’s somehow at No. 5, right behind Johnny Cash. Squeeee!

Amazon7

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New York: If you can make it there…

Photo courtesy of Holly Gleason

A fun ritual of the publishing process is friends sending you pictures of your book when they happen upon it in bookstores in far-away places. And it’s dorky of me, but I must confess that I still get a cheap thrill or two out of that. Writing any book, even a short one like this, is an ungodly amount of work, so its physical manifestation out in the world feels like payoff, you know? Maybe the closest thing to “official” validation that you’ll get, and it means less in the era of electronic publishing than it used to — but it still means something.

Even if you never make the bestseller lists, well, at least you’re in the store. You made the field; or perhaps got the late-season call-up to make your big-league debut and have an at-bat. And it doesn’t matter if you miss the cut or strike out, because you’re still part of the official record (even if it’s only in the fine print). In my case, that means a copy of “Losering” is in the Library of Congress and will be available for perusal long after I’m gone. Cool!

Anyway, here’s a picture that the fabulous Holly Gleason sent from the Union Square Barnes & Noble in New York City, showing “Losering” in the vicinity of books about the Beatles and Arcade Fire (as well as one subtitled “The Miserabilist Guide to Music”). If you write books, you like to see ’em on shelves out there — especially readers’ shelves, of course.

But getting onto store shelves is step one.

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Reading rainbow

Photo courtesy of Kevin Currin

Major thanks to everyone who came out for the first two “Losering” readings, this past Thursday at Quail Ridge in Raleigh and Friday at Flyleaf in Chapel Hill. They were both lovely events with attentive audiences, especially Quail Ridge, although that night got off to a somewhat unpromising start. I read a passage, which seemed to go over well enough, and then I asked for questions. The only person to raise a hand was a young man who apparently thought I was Ryan Adams.

Ummm…!

The thought flashed through my mind that this was going to be a long night — or, worse, a very short one. Fortunately, as I tried to explain that I just wrote a book about Ryan and could take no credit for his songs, I spied a rock star in the house. Bless his heart, Mr. Kenny Roby showed up; I was surprised and touched to see him there. So I gave Kenny a shout-out and a plug for his show the next night.

After that, the next hour flew by with lots of fine and thoughtful questions about the book and Whiskeytown and Ryan, leaving just enough time for me to sign a stack of books in a flurry before closing time. My great and loyal friend Scott Huler also threw an after-party where his band the Equivocators played a few Whiskeytown songs including “Faithless Street” and “Midway Park.” It was truly, truly awesome, and a big honor — a night I’ll never forget.

Photo courtesy of Jonathan Lee

Friday night at Flyleaf didn’t draw quite as big a crowd; didn’t help that the heavens opened up just before showtime. But there was still a nice nucleus of folks — including Glenn Boothe, owner of Chapel Hill’s Local 506, a club where I saw Ryan play one of his best-ever solo shows in October 1999 (recounted in chapter 11 of the book); Steve Balcom, who used to run the aforementioned Mammoth Records, where the Backsliders recorded back in the day; and noted computer guru/poet Paul Jones. My American Music Series co-editor Peter Blackstock did the introduction, and I was glad to have him there.

The next readings will be Thursday (Oct. 4), at UNC-Chapel Hill’s Bull’s Head at 3:30 p.m. followed by The Regulator in Durham at 7 p.m. So if you’re over that way, please do come out and say hey.

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Backsliding away

Back in the mid-1990s, Whiskeytown was hardly the only great alternative-country band on the scene. There was the aforementioned Kenny Roby’s 6 String Drag, as well as the Backsliders — dear Lord, THE BACKSLIDERS — who could give any band on the planet a run for their money on a good night. They were a bit older and more grizzled than a lot of their fresh-faced peers in the Triangle, but the Backsliders were just so damn good that they inspired awe far and wide.

As good as they were, however, the Backsliders rivaled Whiskeytown when it came to bad interpersonal vibes between their co-leaders, Chip Robinson and Steve Howell. Oil and water, Hatfields and McCoys, Tar Heels and Wolfpack — whatever metaphor suits ya, they just did not mix.

“Those guys,” Backsliders bassist Danny Kurtz once told me, “are both their own worst enemies.”

Commercial success might have been enough to keep the Backsliders together, but it was not to be. After 1996’s brilliant Throwing Rocks at the Moon (produced with great aplomb by Dwight Yoakam guitarist Pete Anderson), Howell left the band. And while that wasn’t a mortal blow, Howell did take a lot of the Backsliders’ cool country flavor with him. Robinson carried on with replacements, releasing 1998’s still-good-but-not-as-great Southern Lines; neither album sold, however, so that was that.

(ADDENDUM: Producer Eric Ambel says of Southern Lines that, “90 percent of that record was cut with Howell, Chip, Brad, Danny and Jeff. Changes happened before the record was released with one song getting re-cut and a couple others overdubbed; but the bulk of that record is the original band.”)

The Backsliders dissolved, and Kurtz and lead guitarist Brad Rice wound up in one of the umpteen late-’90s versions of Whiskeytown. Rice later played with Ryan in various incarnations, including the Pinkhearts. He was Ryan’s lead guitarist on “Saturday Night Live” in 2001; and as Rice told me when I interviewed him for “Losering,” he was just starting a guitar solo at the 2004 show in Liverpool where Ryan fell off the stage and broke his wrist. Brad has done plenty more sideman work since then, including a long stretch with Keith Urban a few years back.

Robinson and Howell kept busy with bands and projects of their own, all of them good — especially Robinson’s terrific  solo album Mylow — but neither was as good apart as they had been together. In 2003, they did reunite to play a benefit show for Alejandro Escovedo (who was ailing and without health insurance, a sadly common situation in the music business nowadays). They were still great and it felt as if no time at all had gone by, but it was a one-off…

…Until now. Saturday night, four-fifths of the classic mid-’90s Backsliders lineup (everyone except Brad Rice) will play as the Howell/Robinson Quartet at Slim’s in Downtown Raleigh. It’s another benefit, this one for the Inspirality Elder Project; and I’m told it’s the first time the co-leaders have spoken since that 2003 reunion.

This will probably be yet another one-off with no followup, the Backsliders scattering to their separate corners afterwards. But hey, I can dream.

ADDENDUM (9/30/12): I was otherwise occupied Saturday night, but multiple witness reports say that Backsliders drummer Jeff Dennis went up to Chip’s microphone toward the end of their set and hollered, “David Menconi oughtta write a book about THAT shit!”

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