Posts Tagged With: Connells

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.

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Connells greatest hits, and mine

ConnellsSCYIt’s not a book, exactly, but it’s something that appears in a compact disc booklet (remember those?). That would be Stone Cold Yesterday: Best of The Connells, a greatest-hits package that Concord Music Group is releasing on Sept. 9, with liner notes written by yours truly. These are the first liner notes I’ve done since Tres Chicas’ debut album Sweetwater way back in 2004, and it was a great honor to be asked. The Connells are a group I’ve been writing about ever since I moved to Raleigh 25 years ago, and regular readers of this space might recall the most recent instance of that — the “’74-’75” video remake we put together for the News & Observer last fall.

Of course, “’74-’75” is on the 16-song track list, which you’ll find below. And for those in the general Triangle vicinity, The Connells will play a free show Sept. 8 at Raleigh’s Schoolkids Records (for the store’s Hopscotch Day Party); and an outdoor show at Raleigh Little Theatre’s Stephenson Amphitheatre on Sept. 17, on a bill with modern-day local stars The Old Ceremony and David J of Bauahus/Love and Rockets fame.

 

1. Stone Cold Yesterday
2.’74 – ‘75
3. Still Life
4. One Simple Word
5. Crown
6. Carry My Picture
7. Slackjawed
8. Something To Say
9. Scotty’s Lament
10. Over There
11. Fun & Games
12. Get A Gun
13. Maybe
14. Uninspired
15. Just Like That
16. New Boy

ConnellsLiner

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Big in Europe: The Connells’ “’74-’75,” updated to 2015

ConnellsVid

The Connells, 1993.

When Ryan Adams made his way from Jacksonville up to Raleigh in the early 1990s (as outlined in the “Before” section of “Losering”), there were a handful of big fish in the Triangle music scene — Corrosion of Conformity, blackgirls and Superchunk, among others. But one of the biggest was the Connells, who were part of a wave of jangly guitar-pop bands that followed in R.E.M.’s wake. While the Connells were a popular regional draw on the college-radio chitlin circuit of the Southeastern U.S., their music was accessible enough that they always seemed like a band that should have been bigger elsewhere, too.

By the time Ryan was hitting his stride with Whiskeytown in 1995, however, the Connells suddenly were bigger elsewhere. And not just big, either, but huge. In one of the Amerindie underground’s odder success stories, the Connells briefly hit the big time overseas in the mid-’90s with “’74-’75,” a pensive and moody ballad from the band’s 1993 album Ring.

“Big in Europe” is a well-worn joke in the music industry, but it really was true in the Connells’ case. Where Ring barely grazed the charts here in America (peaking at No. 199 on the Billboard 200), it made the Connells stars in Europe, with its “’74-’75” single going all the way to No. 1 in Norway and Sweden while cracking the top-10 in another nine countries across the continent. It even earned a platinum record in Norway to go with gold records in Germany and Sweden.

Screen Shot 2015-07-30 at 2.51.17 PM

David Hoggard in 1974 and again in 1993 with his wife Susan and daughter Alison, from Mark Pellington’s video of the Connells’ “’74-’75.”

A major part of “’74-’75″‘s success was its evocative video, which juxtaposed then-and-now images of members of the class of 1975 from Broughton High School in Raleigh with yearbook photos and footage shot in the fall of 1993. Two Connells members had also gone to Broughton; all three of my kids in recent years, too. Anyway, “’74-’75” is the rare video that actually enhances a song, never getting too heavy-handed while implying more than it says. It remains a great curio of mid-1990s North Carolina music.

Hoggards

Alison and Susan Hoggard with a picture of David, who died in 2013. Still from video shot by N&O photographer Juli Leonard.

Back in 1994, when “’74-’75” was in the early stages of its run, I tracked down and interviewed all 16 people in it to do a story for the paper. In honor of the 40-year anniversary of Broughton’s class of 1975, we decided to update it again to the present day — but literally this time, by editing new footage of everyone into director Mark Pellington’s original video. The band’s representatives were kind enough to give us permission to do this; and we didn’t quite get full participation, but close: 15 of of the video’s 16 subjects agreed to be photographed again, as did the Connells themselves.

So here is “’74-’75” circa 2015, with superlative visuals and editing by two of my News & Observer photojournalist colleagues, Travis Long (whose work documenting local music in Raleigh has been referenced here before) and Juli Leonard; plus accompanying stories that explain a bit more about the video and where everyone in it is nowadays. Pulling this beast together was an immensely labor-intensive process, so we’re all somewhat relieved now that it’s finally done. But we’re also counting down to the 50-year anniversary in 2025.

We’ll see who all is still standing by then.

http://www.newsobserver.com/entertainment/arts-culture/article44889822.html/video-embed

ADDENDA: In response, nice Blurt essay by the estimable Fred Mills. And wow, over in England the BBC noticed!

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Mea culpa to John Rea (not Reigh)

CopyeditLately, I’ve had to spend some nose-to-grindstone time on one of my least-favorite chores, proof-reading pages for my next book. The final stage of fact-checking any project is a tedious process, and just about as much fun as a colonoscopy. But it’s a necessary evil, the last chance to catch and fix mistakes before unveiling a book for scrutiny. And while I was in the midst of red-penning the Ray Benson book, the universe threw a not-so-gentle reminder my way about the importance of paying close attention — regarding a mistake that appears in “Losering.” It was the message every writer dreads, received via Facebook email from one John Rea:

Sir, You got my name wrong in your book. I played with Ryan Adams very briefly before his Whiskeytown days. You had me listed as “Reigh.” Honestly, (this is just to satisfy my curiosity) where’d you get your info?

-J

GROAN…Aw, man…

John Rea, not Reigh? How the heck did I manage that? Picture me smacking my forehead, repeatedly. This particular glitch appears on page 20 in Chapter 3, which recounts Ryan’s Daisy Street period with Thomas Cushman, and it’s about one of Ryan’s earliest pre-Whiskeytown bands:

One night, Ryan walked up to Cushman in a bar with an announcement: “Tom! We’re in a band! You play bass, I play guitar and sing, John Reigh plays drums, we’re called Ass and we have a show next weekend!”

(Emphasis added.)

It’s the only time that John Rea/Reigh’s name appears in the book, but wrong is wrong. After apologizing profusely, I went looking through my notes to try and figure out what happened. And I found the source of this particular misspelling, a listing of Ryan Adams’ pre-early Whiskeytown bands from the fansite AnsweringBell.com:

ABellReigh

Okay, so that explains where the mistake came from — but not why I didn’t take the next step of finding another source before going into print. That part is on me, and I don’t feel good about it. If ever I have the opportunity to do an updated edition of “Losering” down the road, this is something I’ll fix. But for now, it’s out there and it pains me.

At least John Rea, who runs a transportation business in Fort Mill outside Charlotte these days, was a good sport about it. John was an active member of the local music community back during Ryan’s time in Raleigh, playing in multiple bands, and he was kind enough to share some memories of his time as Ryan’s bandmate:

JohnRea

John Rea, drummer of Ryan Adams’ short-lived band Ass, circa the early 1990s.

We would practice in the house on Daisy Street, starting at midnight. No AC, it was the middle of summer. Pretty miserable. The one show we played was after our second practice, at a party my roommates were having. My “main” band couldn’t play, so I asked Ryan if he and Tom wanted to. We had learned four songs at our first practice, but a week later Ryan had thrown those out — would not play them, not up for debate. Anyway, we learned four new songs and those were what we took to this little back-yard party to play.

There were maybe six couples there and everyone was drunk. They had a keg, and Ryan got really drunk before we’d even played. I remember him and Tom losing time, which was frustrating. We were playing as a favor to me, and I’d even spent a little relationship capital to borrow a PA. And we simply did not play well — drunk, playing new songs we’d just learned. The show lasted about 15 minutes, and him blowing it is what I think did it for me. Other than people watching us practice, that was the only show Ass ever played. And the best part is, five years later no one at that party would have known they’d seen a Ryan Adams show.

I just don’t think we were really in a position to win with that band even though I liked the songs that were being written. Ryan was super-annoying and looking back, I don’t think he was trying to be. But he was just so energetic and excitable, he just couldn’t help himself. I remember a show at The Garage once, “A Little Drumming Boy Christmas Pageant” that the Wifflefist guys put on with different drummers. Ryan was in that as “Energy Boy.” He was driven, that’s for sure.

I come from a musical pedigree, also played guitar and bass. I played drums because I figured that was a way to be in more bands. But I didn’t want to be just the guy who bangs on drums, grabs a beer and hits on groupies. I wrote songs in my other bands and wanted to have some creative input in this one, too, and I figured out early on that Ryan was not too big on sharing. Then again, we were both young. It’s not like I ever sat down with him and said, “If I’m gonna be in this band, it means this and this and this.” He’d pick things up and run with them and I don’t think it was sinister, he was just this huge ball of energy.

A few years later, I knew he’d made it when I came back to Raleigh for something and saw Chris Jones, who knew Ryan really well. I asked him what Ryan was up to and he said, “He’s dating Winona Ryder.” Well, now. I told my cousin George (Huntley, of The Connells) that, and he was friends with the guys from Soul Asylum — including Dave (Pirner), who had also dated her at one point. Anyway, I told George that and he said, “Apparently, it’s not that hard.”

Had I known then what I know now, could I have put up with it? Probably not. Even though it was flattering when he’d come up to me and say things like, “Me and Greg Elkins were talking about your drumming style, how it’s kinda surfy and kinda like some British drummers from the ’70s, which is so cool because nobody plays like that anymore.” It’s hard not to like hearing that. But once you get past the sugar, there’s medicine at the bottom of the spoon.

It still seems weird that the one person that made it from Raleigh was him. But it was not the least bit surprising, because he tried so hard. He was always buttering up to people.

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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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North Carolina’s family tree rambles on

As 1994 turned into 1995, just around the time Whiskeytown was coming together, I undertook a rather insane project for the News & Observer: to construct a local-music family tree, showing lineup connections between different North Carolina bands through time. I took inspiration from English music journalist Pete Frame’s family trees, which were elegant-looking genealogies of classic bands. So for a couple of months, I carried around a big piece of paper with diagrams, circles and arrows, soliciting input from people at shows.

I got input from around 100 people and slaved over it for months, doing several dozen versions before I finally let the darned thing go. It never really felt “finished,” but I had to stop at some point. What emerged was something closer to a solar system than a family tree. I was fascinated at how it was possible to link up so many notable local acts from a quarter-century, spanning wildly disparate styles — everything from Corrosion of Conformity’s hardcore to Squirrel Nut Zippers’ hot jazz.

Superchunk, Arrogance, the Connells, Ben Folds Five, The Right Profile, Cry of Love, The Veldt and other notables were all in there, too. Dubbed “N.C. music galaxy: The big bang theory,” it was published in March 1995 and captured a key moment in local-music history. Within two years, the Zippers and Folds were both on their way to platinum, and I was positive Whiskeytown was soon to follow (read the danged book for further details).

At the time this was published, the worldwide web was still taking shape, and the newspaper’s big projects were printed on dead trees. So the only way to see the whole thing in a readable state is on whatever paper copies remain; I’ve still got a few and they’re yellowing with age. Someday perhaps I’ll put the whole thing online, although the thought of trying to update it makes my head explode. But here’s a relevant chunk of it, maybe one-sixth of the big picture:

Over on the right edge a bit more than halfway down is Whiskeytown (“Whiskey Town”), then recently arisen from the ashes of Ryan’s former band Patty Duke Syndrome. And look in the upper left corner, where the Red Clay Ramblers reside. Idiosyncratic stringband to the stars, the Ramblers were already a long-standing North Carolina institution in 1995, and they’ve become even more of one since. They’ll mark their 40-year anniversary this month and there’s a feature about it in Sunday’s paper, which you’ll find linked from here.

As for the 1995 local-music galaxy, I wrote an accompanying essay that attempted to explain it. And here is how that concluded:

So what does it mean? As much or as little as you’d like. It certainly doesn’t imply that the Triangle music scene is one big happy family. But I think this shows that it is, at the very least, one family.

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