Posts Tagged With: Danny Kurtz

A working-class hero is something to be: “Bastards I Used to Know”

“Bastards I Used to Know” was one of the earliest Whiskeytown songs, and it still lingers even though it was never released on a record. Also variously known as “Lucky Me” and “This Old City,” “Bastards” kind of stumbles along on the demo-ish recording of it that survives, with Ryan Adams and Caitlin Cary still working out their vocal-harmony dynamic. It’s ragged but wonderful in a shambolic sort of way, like a drunken younger cousin of the old Jerry Jeff Walker warhorse “Up Against the Wall Redneck Mother.” But where that song was pointedly tongue-in-cheek, this one is bitter to the core.

Ryan wrote “Bastards” as a poison-pen kiss-off to his former Patty Duke Syndrome bandmates, Brian Walsby and Jere McIlwean, with whom he’d had what he called “an evil breakup” the first time I interviewed him (more about that is in Chapter Three of “Losering”). Although it isn’t really about jobs or labor, I’ve always thought of “Bastards” as a Labor Day song, steeped as it is in working-class dayjob blues. Picture Ryan slaving away in the Rathskeller kitchen while muttering this under his breath:

This old city where I live is poor and dirty
Work I do, it barely pays the bills
This old city, it is home to stupid bastards I used to know
Lucky me, I’m too drunk to remember their names…

Should your Labor Day cookout today take a turn toward the inebriated, you could do a lot worse than this for group-sing-along fodder. So fire it up.

ADDENDUM — When I posted this on Facebook, I heard from Danny Kurtz, bassist in late-period Whiskeytown (and also the Backsliders):

That’s crazy. I took that photo of Ryan in Wyoming while driving to Seattle. We all stopped to take a break and there were all these pretty daisies growing on the side of the road. I sent it in years ago to a contest for best ryan photo.

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Phil Lee: You should have known him then

PhilLeeXMASI’ll never forget the first time I interviewed Phil Lee. It was late 1991, the year I’d moved to Raleigh, and it took place in a trailer park just off Interstate 85 in Durham. Phil was living there in a small silver Airstream that looked like a toaster from the outside, a place that had inspired a shit-hot rocker called “A Night in the Box.” Check out the video, with a spoken-word preface by Phil in full-on Mighty King Of Love mode. Pay attention to the bass player, too. That’s Danny Kurtz, later of the Backsliders and (yes) Whiskeytown.

Some 21 years later, Saturday night found me standing in a parking lot looking over Phil’s shoulder as he scrolled through the pictures on his mobile phone to find this album cover — packaging for an opus coming out in 2013. It was the sort of night that connected straight back to the Whiskeytown era. Phil moved on from Raleigh years ago but never cut his ties, and he was back in town to play a Christmas party at a joint called The Office Tavern. Opening the show was Chip Robinson, last heard from in this space a week ago. The aforementioned Danny Kurtz was back on bass. And the crowd included lots of folks I used to rub elbows with at alternative-country shows around Raleigh back in the day.

I’ve interviewed Phil a good bit over the years, including this 2000 piece (one of my favorites from the No Depression era). Saturday night, Phil was his usual hilarious mix of impishness, swagger and self-deprecation. As always, he was On The Verge. He mentioned a well-known band that was supposed to have played on his new album, which fell through when their frontman called them back to duty; an upcoming movie he’s in, as himself; a live DVD, shot at the fabled North Beach nightspot The Purple Onion — all while holding court with passersby and keeping up a steady line of chatter about stuff like one of his odder recent hobbies. As we talked and he hunted for pictures on his mobile device, a car alarm started going off nearby and we all looked up. Except for Phil. Without missing a beat, he cracked, “Don’t ask,” and we all snickered.

I told Phil he needs to hurry up and get famous, either by lucking into a hit or committing some sordid deed, so that I can write the book. But he just laughed and I did, too. I think we both knew that when the time comes, he’ll write that book himself. Meantime, when he fired up “A Night in the Box” Saturday night, it still rocked pretty formidably two decades on.

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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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