Posts Tagged With: Ben Folds Five

Next up: “The Big Book of North Carolina Music”

ncblueNot quite a year ago, I found myself at an industry convention gathering with some of my rock-writing peers, doing what we all do at these things — swapping stories, telling lies and catching up about projects we had in the works, real as well as imaginary. Talking to another writer I knew, I mentioned that I was working on a book proposal for a history of North Carolina music. His reaction was…surprising.

“Yeah,” he scoffed, “that’ll be a short book.”

Words were exchanged, some of them unpleasant; no, it didn’t go especially well. But almost a year later, I am pleased to report that this “short book” has taken a major step from abstraction to reality. I’ve come to terms and shaken hands with University of North Carolina Press for a book with the working title “The Big Book of North Carolina Music,” which will have a format similar to UNC Press’ 2008 best-seller “Holy Smoke: The Big Book of North Carolina Barbecue.”

uncpressWhile this won’t be an encyclopedic A-to-Z history of North Carolina music, my “Big Book” will cover a lot of ground in its 16 chapters — from Charlie Poole in the 1920s to “American Idol” nearly a century later, with Blind Boy Fuller and Rev. Gary Davis, Arthur Smith, “5” Royales, Doc Watson and Earl Scruggs, the dB’s and Let’s Active, Superchunk and Squirrel Nut Zippers and Ben Folds Five, Nantucket and Corrosion of Conformity, beach music, 9th Wonder and J. Cole and more in between. It should come in at close to double the heft of my Ryan Adams book “Losering”; and while that still isn’t nearly as long as it could be, it’s nevertheless the most ambitious book project I’ve ever taken on.

But the beauty part is I’ve already been working on this book, piecemeal, for more than a quarter-century. I moved to Raleigh in 1991 to take the News & Observer music-critic job, and my first day was Jan. 15 — two days before Operation Desert Storm started in Kuwait. That was a time when the Worldwide Web wasn’t much more than a gleam in Paul Jones’ eye, back when most people still got their news by reading it on paper or watching the 6 o’clock news.

I must confess that I didn’t come here thinking the News & Observer would be a long-term destination, but it just worked out that way. Back when newspapers were still prosperous, the desired career trajectory was to spend five years or so at a mid-sized paper like the N&O before trying to move up to the New York Times or some other prestige publication. For a variety of reasons, that never happened. Most of the opportunities that came my way over the years felt like they would have been lateral moves rather than upward ones, although I did get a call from the Washington Post in 1999. But that was right after the birth of my twins, Edward and Claudia. At that moment, starting over in a big city was just not in the cards.

So I stayed in Raleigh and I’ve never regretted it, in large part because North Carolina music turned out to be fascinating and beguiling in ways I never imagined before I lived here. When I arrived, I was fairly well-versed in the North Carolina music I’d heard from afar on college radio — Connells, Let’s Active, Flat Duo Jets and such — without knowing much of anything about the history from farther back. So I’ve spent my years here filling in the history, bit by bit, learning as much as I could about North Carolina’s wildly varied music.

Despite the many variations of this state’s music, I do see all of it as of a piece and part of the same continuum — and “The Big Book of North Carolina Music” will, I hope, tie it all together as one story. I’ve spent the past few months going through my archive of stuff to get it organized (see below), and now begins the real work. TBBoNCM will be my side-project for the next two years, the thing keeping me up late nights and weekends and days off. If all goes according to plan, it will be done and dusted by the end of 2018, with publication to follow in 2019. Fingers crossed!

And yeah, whenever it’s done: I’ll be sending an autographed copy to that colleague.

archive

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Further artifacts from long ago: The 1995 “Star Watch”

WtownEarlyWhen I was researching and reporting “Losering,” I went looking for every word I’d ever written about Ryan Adams and Whiskeytown over the previous decade and a half, and I thought I’d found everything — until now. While looking up Chapel Hill native Michelle Dorrance in the newspaper’s archives the other day, I happened across a little blurb I’d forgotten all about. It was in a Sunday feature called “Star Watch” from April 1995, in which the News & Observer’s seven arts critics (oh, those were the days) spotlighted up-and-coming local artists and performers we thought were worth watching.

The list included a few folks who would go on to legitimate national careers, including tap dancer Dorrance, who will be receiving a major award next month; Ben Folds Five, then a couple of months away from releasing their first album; singer/actress Lauren Kennedy, who has had a very successful Broadway career; and, four months before the first time I met and interviewed Ryan, “Whiskey Town” (which is how the band’s name appeared in the credits of that spring’s Who The Hell compilation). Here’s how it read:

Whiskey Town

The Band: Ryan Adams, guitar and vocals; Skillet Gilmore, drums; Phil Wandscher, guitar; Caitlin Cary, violin; Steve Grothmann, bass

The big deal: Why did these ex-punks start playing country music? As Adams puts it in one Whiskey Town song, “So I started this damn country band/’Cause punk rock was too hard to sing.” For a demonstration, check out their brilliant deconstruction of “Blank Generation” on the new Richard Hell tribute album “Who the Hell.”

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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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