Posts Tagged With: Chris Stamey

Chris Stamey spies on the house of loud

CSspyIt’s been kind of a long and winding road, involving a title change — but Chris Stamey’s book is officially in the pipeline as the next title up in the American Music Series. The book’s final, full title is “A Spy in the House of Loud: New York Songs and Stories,” and it’s due out next spring on University of Texas Press.

This will be the 13th book in the series, going back to 2012. And as a long-time dB’s fanatic, I could not be more thrilled to have the co-leader of one of my all-time favorite bands be a part of it. Dig the cover here, and look for “A Spy in the House of Loud” in stores in April 2018.

 

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Chris Stamey’s “New York Songs”

stameystudioLong before I ever moved to North Carolina and met Chris Stamey, I was listening to him in the dB’s, one of my all-time favorite bands. And I’ve loved pretty much all his solo records over the years, too, avidly following his many projects (including his new radio play). So it’s a huge, huge thrill for me to be able to welcome Chris to the American Music Series as our newest author.

University of Texas Press has signed Chris to write a book for the AMS, which he is calling “New York Songs.” Chris describes it as “a cross between annotated songbook, musicology and recording-technique tome, and memoir,” with his songs serving as reference points. And thanks to his time playing with Alex Chilton and various CBGB denizens in Manhattan and beyond, not to mention his current status as one of Chapel Hill’s top studio gurus, Chris has some pretty amazing stories to tell.

If all goes according to plan, “New York Songs” will hit bookstores in 2018.

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Chris Stamey’s “Universe-Sized Arms,” from Ryan Adams

Stamey2015It’s not much of an overstatement to call Chris Stamey one of the great father figures to the music community around greater Chapel Hill, where the dB’s co-founder has toiled in the studio trenches with great honor for more than two decades. Chris was a key player in the early phases of the Whiskeytown saga, lending studio savvy at various junctures through the 1990s (including production of the great 1998 “lost” album, Forever Valentine). He also produced some spectacular post-Whiskeytown solo albums for Caitlin Cary.

More recently, Chris has served as producer, mentor and fixer for an entire generation of younger area artists, working with them on recordings and shows like the ongoing live performances of Big Star’s Third that he oversees. Brett Harris, Jeff Crawford, Skylar Gudasz and Django Haskins, among many others, have benefited greatly from the master’s assistance and guidance.

EuphoriaSomehow, Chris finds time to continue making records of his own, too. The latest is the aptly titled Euphoria (Yep Roc Records), a full-on rock record after the chamber-pop detour of 2013’s Lovesick Blues. Euphoria brings together a lot of the young guns from Stamey’s circle, alongside fellow North Carolina legends like Mitch Easter, figurehead of ’80s college-radio legends Let’s Active.

Of particular interest to Planet “Losering,” the album opens with a previously unheard song written by our man Ryan Adams, “Universe-Sized Arms.” Ryan wrote “Universe-Sized Arms” as a driving rocker, and Chris added a very cool orchestrated arrangement reminiscent of the old “James Bond” spy-movie soundtracks. Euphoria‘s other 12 tracks are quite fine as well, with Stamey’s usual surplus of melodic goodness plus a nifty bonus-track cover of the 1971 Tommy James hit “Draggin’ the Line” to boot.

Chris will unveil Euphoria with an album-release show Saturday night in Carrboro, and you can read a bit more about the record and details about the show here. I’m also delighted to be able to premiere the “Universe-Sized Arms” video below. Enjoy, y’all.

 

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Take your beer to Whiskeytown

WhiskeybeerJust in time for the holidays, here’s another super-cool Whiskeytown token that might be even rarer than the old Strangers Almanac whiskey bottlesWhiskeytown Beer, the entire 120-bottle run of which might already be sold out by the time you read this. It’s the work of Chapel Hill’s Starpoint Brewing, brewed by Tim Harper and Chris Baker. And if the name Tim Harper rings a bell, it should.

Long before he ever started brewing beer, Tim was an old studio hand in North Carolina for a couple of decades. Whiskeytown figures prominently on his resume. Tim engineered and Chris Stamey produced the 1996 “Baseball Park Sessions”  that got Whiskeytown its deal with Outpost Records, and those two also oversaw the remix of Whiskeytown’s Faithless Street album that was reissued in 1998.

The road to Whiskeytown Beer started a few months back when Baker come up with a beer recipe involving whiskey, wood, chocolate and coffee, and enlisted Harper to brew it at at his brewery. First came the beer, then came the name.

“Nobody could come up with one,” said Tim. “I’d already started naming beers for bands I’ve worked with over the years, like a ’74-’75 Oktoberfest for the Connells. Sooner or later, I’ll do a Let’s Active beer. Stamey-Holsapple, I don’t know how I’ll work that out. But anyway, ‘Whiskeytown’ came to me in a flash one night for this one because of the whiskey barrels. We used Jack Daniels barrels to brew it.”

Before printing up the label, Tim got approval from multiple sources in Whiskeytown’s orbit, including the photographer who took the picture of Ryan (also seen on Whiskeytown’s Wikipedia entry), Caitlin Cary, Skillet Gilmore, lawyer Josh Grier — and yes, Ryan himself.

“What Ryan said was, ‘Tim, that sounds awesome,'” Tim said with a laugh. “And we found the photographer, got his approval, too. Caitlin and Skillet and Josh, even though Josh informed me that Whiskeytown did not have a trademark for food and beverage. So I didn’t even have to ask him, but I thought it’d be rude if I didn’t. Anyway, I asked everybody and they all said yes.”

Once he was done brewing, Tim bottled 10 cases to sell and put the rest into draft kegs. Those 120 bottles are going fast, but fear not: More is on the way.

“I’m working on a new batch,” Tim says. “It should be available in a couple of months, late February or early March.”

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Under pressure: “Songs for 65 Roses” brings it all back home

The 20 years or so that “Losering” covers is just a small subset of a bigger story that goes even further back in time. That was one reason I started this damn country blog (groan), to fill in the picture a bit; only so much can fit into 200 pages, after all. My own history in the Triangle goes back to 1991, when I arrived to take the rock-writer job at the News & Observer. Alas, that was a few years too late for me to experience Chapel Hill’s Pressure Boys, who broke up in the late 1980s.

The Pressure Boys were kind of the ultimate party band in a town full of them, and former members went on to notable careers elsewhere — note the band’s prominent place in the upper left corner of this slice of the “N.C. music galaxy” I did in 1995. In the big picture, the Pressure Boys served as a transitional bridge between the ’80s wave of bands including Arrogance, dB’s and Let’s Active; and the alternative-rock generation that came of age in the ’90s, including Superchunk and Whiskeytown.

Songs65RosesAfter the Pressure Boys broke up, frontman John Plymale became a very fine producer, in which capacity he worked with a ton of acts from multiple generations of the Triangle music scene. Maybe the best illustration of his career is a record that ties it all together in a most wonderful way, Songs for 65 Roses: Re-Working the North Carolina Jukebox, a 2006 compilation to benefit the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation (the album’s title came from how his young daughter Allie, who has cystic fibrosis, would pronounce the disease when she was very young).

The concept of 65 Roses is North Carolina acts covering North Carolina songs. Plenty of players from the “Losering” story turn up on both sides of that equation — Caitlin Cary, Superchunk, Chris Stamey and Squirrel Nut Zippers among them. Check this 2006 feature for further details on the web of connections that the album spins.

My favorite 65 Roses song is Let’s Active’s “Every Word Means No,” recast in a Tom Waits-ish arrangement by Eric Bachmann, leader of 1990s-vintage Chapel Hill indie-rock titans Archers of Loaf. Not far behind, however, is Ryan Adams’ “Oh My Sweet Carolina” as performed by Portastatic, the solo incarnation of Superchunk’s Mac McCaughan. It starts out quiet and acoustic like Ryan’s 2000 original before revving up into an electrified version, a great tangent that turns a prayerful song into an exuberant one.

Check out this lovely little rumination about it, which has a Spotify link helpfully included.

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Chris Stamey ties it all together

StameyLSBChris Stamey has always been one of those six-degrees-of-separation types in North Carolina, where it seems like he’s produced, mixed, worked and/or played with just about everyone in the state over the past 30-plus years. He made his initial reputation in the early ’80s with the dB’s (a band that has always had Beatles-like stature in my personal college-radio cosmos) before going on to a long and well-respected career in some of the artier circles of New York new-wave art-pop.

Then he came back home to North Carolina in the early ’90s, setting up shop in Chapel Hill as a studio guru and working with notable area acts including Tift Merritt, Megafaun and, yes, Whiskeytown. Stamey produced numerous Whiskeytown recordings back in the day, including the “lost” album Forever Valentine. He also worked on the sonic overhaul of the 1998 reissue of Faithless Street and produced Caitlin Cary’s post-Whiskeytown solo albums.

Stamey has spent a lot more time producing other folks’ albums than putting out his own music for the last decade, although he did find time for the first original-lineup dB’s album in 30 years last year. But he just released his first solo album since 2005, the very fine Lovesick Blues. For more on that, go here for links to a new interview and a 2004-vintage feature about Stamey’s doings.

And just to tie all this together, this poster was done by Caitlin Cary’s husband.

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Still more artifacts from long ago: The “Forever Valentine” cartoons

If Ryan Adams ever has a piece of paper in his immediate vicinity, chances are he’ll either be dashing off another set of lyrics or drawing something — he’s always been an obsessive doodler. And while he isn’t anywhere near his old bandmate Brian Walsby’s league as a cartoonist, Ryan definitely has a distinctive style of his own. Here are some doodles from a long-ago period covered in Chapter 10 of “Losering,” a few drawings that Ryan left behind in the studio where Whiskeytown was recording around Christmas 1997. This was a few months before the band played “Austin City Limits,” the sessions that yielded Forever Valentine (still unreleased all these years later).

Note the caricature sketches of everyone in the band, as well as producer Chris Stamey (who played bass on these recordings). I like that he did multiple versions of himself, as a “witch” and with devil’s horns and Jagger-esque lips; and also that he portrayed Caitlin with an angel’s halo.

RyanCartoon2RyanCartoon1

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The NC Writers Network conference

I spent this weekend as a faculty member at the NC Writers Network Fall Conference, which was a most pleasant affair. Saturday afternoon, I did a reading from “Losering” on a bill with five other faculty authors, which was very cool even if I felt totally outclassed by poet Alice Osborn’s Darth Vader meditation. And Sunday, I co-taught a music-writing class with Peter Holsapple, co-leader of The dB’s, which was great for two reasons. First, he brought along a guitar, which lightened my teaching load considerably. And second, it was a thrill to work with Peter because The dB’s have always been such a major part of my musical constellation. I’ve pretty much written a book’s worth of stuff about them over the years (hmm…).

We had a good group of students, and they were interested in everything from how to describe music on the printed page to how to get published (songs as well as prose). We discussed various legal, copyright and “fair use” issues, which I know a bit about from the Ryan book. I tried to give pointers on how to approach concert reviews to capture the experience for readers. And I borrowed Peter’s copy of Lester Bangs’ “Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung” to read one of my favorite passages aloud — the concluding paragraph of Bangs’ 1977 essay “Where Were You When Elvis Died?”

If love truly is going out of fashion forever, which I do not believe, then along with our nurtured indifference to each other will be an even more contemptuous indifference to each other’s objects of reverence. I thought it was Iggy Stooge, you thought it was Joni Mitchell or whoever else seemed to speak for your own private, entirely circumscribed situation’s many pains and few ecstasies. We will continue to fragment in this manner, because solipsism holds all the cards at present: it is a king whose domain engulfs even Elvis’. But I guarantee you one thing: WE WILL NEVER AGAIN AGREE ON ANYTHING AS WE AGREED ON ELVIS. So I won’t bother saying good-bye to his corpse. I will say good-bye to you.

Still kinda gives me a chill, which also goes for the songs Peter played for us to discuss. One was “She Won’t Drive in the Rain Anymore,” the penultimate track on the excellent new dB’s album. Simultaneously intense and quiet, the song described his wife’s retreat from Katrina-ravaged New Orleans in harrowing terms, with telling details (like keeping an axe in the attic, in case one has to hack one’s way through the roof). It was a haunting, evocative portrait of resolve in the face of danger, and the price paid afterward. Peter said his dB’s co-leader Chris Stamey called that song “cinematic,” and I’d agree.

The other song he played pretty much knocked everybody’s hat in the creek. “Don’t Mention the War” (which Peter wrote for the Radio Free Song Club) starts out describing Lonnie, everybody’s favorite uncle until he went off to war. Then it turns into as vivid a description of PTSD as I’ve ever heard:

Short of temper, slow to respond
Overthinking til half his mind is gone
Too sad and too mad to tell jokes anymore
And he takes lots of trips to the liquor store
Passes out on our couch, that’s when he dreams
You can tell when he jumps and he cusses and screams
And he sweats and he shouts and turns white as a sheet
And he gives off a smell that’s like old rotten meat
And he opens his eyes he’s still seeing what’s dead
And he’s trying to get back on our couch in his head

We all sat, transfixed. Afterward, Peter said this one was pretty much all fiction, even though it was scarily believable. Now that’s writing.

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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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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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