Posts Tagged With: Emmylou Harris

Parallel universes: “Lonesome Lies Before Us”

LonesomeA time or two over the years, I’ve had the idle thought: What if, after Whiskeytown disbanded and its members went their separate ways, Caitlin Cary rather than Ryan Adams had been the one to hit it big? How might Ryan’s life have turned out then?

While it doesn’t offer a hundred-percent accurate analog for either person, something like that alternative reality is the backdrop to Don Lee’s very fine new novel, “Lonesome Lies Before Us,” which is as tragicomic and shatteringly sad as, well, a Ryan Adams song. The main character in “Lonesome Lies Before Us” is Yadin Park, an alternative-country singer/songwriter modeled roughly on the real-life musicians Damien Jurado and Richard Buckner. But like Ryan, Yadin suffers from Miniere’s Disease — only Yadin’s case is severe enough to have forced his retirement as a professional musician.

Having retreated from the spotlight, Yadin lives a quiet life in small-town California. The story opens with him drifting into middle age while working as a carpet installer, and trying to keep from going numb in a loveless relationship of convenience with his boss’s daughter. Lee’s portrait seems pretty much exactly how things might have gone for Ryan if music hadn’t worked out as a career.

From afar, Yadin follows the career of his long-ago bandmate and girlfriend Mallory Wicks. Caitlin was never Ryan’s girlfriend, but she and Mallory are both fiddlers who learned the instrument by the Suzuki method. And in this book, Mallory is the one who went on to a high-profile and glamorous career involving stage, screen and radio hits. In the grips of a crisis of spiritual faith, and with his hearing beginning to fade as his life threatens to fall apart, Yadin suddenly finds himself writing songs again for the first time in years.

So he resolves to make one last album to put out into the world before disappearing from the scene for good (which he has to keep secret from his disapproving boss and girlfriend). That’s when Mallory unexpectedly reappears, in a reckoning that forces both of them to contemplate their individual and shared histories as well as motivations about music, art and life. It’s a fine read and a tale well-told, with a conclusion as tragic as it is inevitable.

I was honored to discover that “Losering” played a small role in “Lonesome Lies Before Us.” After hearing that author Don Lee had acknowledged my book in his “Author’s Note” (which is below), I got in touch to ask him about some of the background. Here is what he had to say:

I first got the idea for the novel when I read that Ryan Adams had contracted Ménière’s disease and was afraid he’d have to quit music. That really intrigued me, so I embarked on this story about an indie singer-songwriter losing his hearing to Ménière’s, who wants to self-release one last album. But the model for Yadin was more Richard Buckner and Damien Jurado, homely guys who don’t have much stage presence.

The model for the Yadin-Mallory duo was more Jason Isbell and Amanda Shires,  Mandolin Orange and HoneyHoney (all with female fiddle players). Also I thought a lot about the Civil Wars, and Damien Rice and Lisa Hannigan, and of course Gram and Emmylou. That film about Gram, “Fallen Angel,” was a big source of inspiration.

 “Losering” was instrumental as a source. A chapter toward the end is a flashback to when the characters had been alt-country musicians in Raleigh, and I cribbed much of the local flavor from your book. I wouldn’t have been able to write that chapter without “Losering,” which really is terrific. I loved it.

 

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“Greatest Southern Musician” Madness

Whether in sports or music, GREATEST-OF-ALL-TIME arguments are inherently pointless — but they sure are fun. And here’s another solid argument-starter: The Alabama Media Group  is conducting an online poll asking readers to “Vote for the Greatest Southern Musician” of all time. To that end, they’ve done up a seeded NCAA Basketball Tournament-style bracket of 64 acts in four different Southern regions, from Texas-Louisiana to Florida-Kentucky-North/South Carolina-Virginia.

Screen Shot 2016-06-22 at 8.54.38 AMNorth Carolina native Ryan Adams shows up in the latter bracket as a No. 14 seed. That puts him in a tough first-round matchup against No. 3 Lynyrd Skynyrd in what Al.com calls “the Battle of the Jacksonvilles,” Florida versus North Carolina. In that case, I think Ryan should get extra credit for “Jacksonville Skyline” and “Jacksonville.” Looks like he could use a little help, too. When I voted this morning, the ’70s Southern-rock icons were winning in a blowout with more than 88 percent of 819 votes cast so far.

This “ACC” Southeast region’s No. 1 seed is soul godfather James Brown, which actually seems just about right; he should make short work of No. 16 Chris Stapleton. Of North Carolina interest further down the bracket is confessional singer-songwriter James Taylor, who was born in Massachusetts but spent enough of his formative years in Chapel Hill to write one of North Carolina’s definitive songs, at No. 9 and matched up with No. 8 Jimmy Buffett; Tryon-raised r&b icon Nina Simone at No. 6, pitted against Wilmington native Charlie Daniels at No. 11; and songbird Emmylou Harris, an Alabama native who did some time at the University of North Carolina-Greensboro (and was also Ryan’s duet partner on “Oh My Sweet Carolina”), at No. 10 and up against No. 7 Bill Monroe, the father of bluegrass.

There’s a whole section of rules about how they determined who rated a spot in the field and where. This round of voting closes Saturday (June 25), with the eventual winner scheduled to be unveiled on July 18. And if Ryan is to have better luck with this than the Grammy Awards, he’s got some ground to make up. Cast your vote here.

UPDATE (6/26/2016): Well, Ryan’s stay in this particular tournament was a short one. Lynyrd Skynyrd beat him with ease, pulling just under 80 percent of 1,235 votes cast to win by a final count of 987-248. James Taylor also bowed out in the first round, losing to Jimmy Buffett, as did Nina Simone to Charlie Daniels. But Emmylou Harris managed to advance past Bill Monroe; looks like she’ll be up against No. 2 seed Tom Petty in round two.

UPDATE (7/18/2016): The Overall winner is George Strait.

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“Oh My Sweet Carolina” Down Under

Ryan Adams might not play his native state anymore, but he does take a little of it with him wherever he goes — even to the other side of the world. Here’s a lovely version of his 2000 Old North State ode “Oh My Sweet Carolina” that Ryan played the other night in Melbourne, Australia, with Jenny Lewis covering the Emmylou Harris vocal harmony. While the visuals are on the blurry side, the audio is very nice.

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Emmylou Harris is cooler than you (or anyone else)

EmmylouWhen I interviewed Ryan Adams after he’d moved to Nashville in 2000, he talked a bit about the city’s “cool” musical hierarchy, which he likened it to “Sesame Street.” Ryan himself was Elmo, Steve Earle was Oscar the Grouch, Gillian Welch and David Rawlings were Bert and Ernie. And Emmylou Harris, Ryan said, was Big Bird.

Yes, I laughed. Of course, that was just Ryan’s cheeky way of being funny. Harris has always been this sort of motherly goddess figure who inspires a sense of hushed awe over everyone she meets, and that’s as true of Ryan as anyone else. At that time, Ryan was still aglow from having recorded his Heartbreaker song “O My Sweet Carolina” with her (see Chapter 12 of “Losering”), a performance that stands among the best of her many vocal cameos over the years.

More than a decade later, Emmylou still seems like the unbelievably cool older sister everyone wants to grow up to be. I’ve had the opportunity to speak to her several times for stories over the years, and you can find two of those interviews here.

Also, lucky me, I got to review her Saturday night show in Durham with Rodney Crowell.

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No Depression in heaven, or down here

So it was the News & Observer that got me to Raleigh all those years ago; but as recounted in “Losering,” it was No Depression that led to my first direct contact with Ryan way back in 1995. No Depression was a great magazine during its 13-year run, and a wonderful thing to be  part of. I miss reading and writing for it, very much. But the swift decline of both print media and the record industry was too much of a double-whammy to overcome, and No Depression ceased publishing in 2008.

In the summer of 2005, however, the magazine was at its peak in terms of heft. That was when University of Texas Press published the second anthology of No Depression writings, “The Best of No Depression: Writing About American Music.” A profile of Ryan from the fall of 2000 was included in the book, and I did some bookstore readings for it around the Triangle. Below is a spiel I worked up as a preamble, tracing the magazine’s history, my involvement in it and also my relationship with Ryan (and his part in inspiring a character in my 2000 novel “Off The Record”). If you’ve read “Losering,” some of this will be familiar.

Ten long years ago, a friend of mine named Peter Blackstock began talking about a music magazine he was starting. “No Depression,” they were going to call it, after “No Depression in Heaven” — a 1936 Carter Family song covered by the upstart band Uncle Tupelo. Uncle Tupelo was one of a number of young bands coming to country music by way of punk rock in the 1990s, alongside the Jayhawks, Old 97s, Freakwater and others. No Depression was going to cover these bands, as well as oldtimers like Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard and Emmylou Harris.

It was an ambitious undertaking, and I’d like to be able to say that my response was, “Wow! What a fantastic idea!” A decade later, I am mortified to confess that I didn’t take No Depression too seriously at first. In fact, when Peter asked me to write something for the magazine’s first issue, I told him I wasn’t sure I’d have time.

Peter was an old and dear friend, and I had some familiarity with his quirks — his obsession with the songs of Jimmy Webb, for example, or his habit of driving halfway across the country for a dinner date. When I lived in Boulder, he showed up from Texas semi-unannounced more than once. Another time, I remember Peter calling from a payphone somewhere in the Texas Panhandle to ask if I could make him a cassette tape of Joe Jackson’s new live album. He had an assignment to review it, and he was going to pass through Colorado on one of his spur-of-the-moment driving trips. So he was wondering if he could come by and pick that up on the way, from a different time zone.

I’ve watched a lot of startup magazines come and go. At the time, there seemed no reason to think that No Depression would be more than another of Peter’s quixotic quests. But he was persistent. Peter wanted me to do a short feature on a Raleigh band called Whiskeytown, and he had already developed an editor’s knack for just which button to push to get me to do it. “If you can’t do it,” he wrote in an e-mail, “we can probably find someone else, but not as good a writer as you.” I like flattery as much as the next guy. So I finally said yes, even though Peter did not yet have the wherewithal to pay any of his writers. But I would not come away from this assignment empty-handed.

That summer of 1995, I was deep in the trenches of attempted literature, writing a novel about a fictional rock band. The leader of this band in my head was a self-conscious young man with some very screwed-up ideas about stardom and celebrity; a guy who was equal parts brilliant and crazy; and a person at war with himself because he desperately needed people to like him but could only express that as arrogance.

In short, this character I was struggling to bring to life was Ryan Adams, leader of the aforementioned Whiskeytown. My fictional rock star was named Tommy Aguilar. I originally envisioned him as Dexter Romweber, unhinged guitarist in another local band called Flat Duo Jets. That took care of Tommy’s crazy and unstable half. But he was still missing the boundless ambition and rock-star swagger I had in mind. For that, Ryan turned out to be the perfect model.

I went to every Whiskeytown show I could, lurked nearby whenever the opportunity presented itself and wrote about them often. Whiskeytown moved swiftly up the local and national totem pole, signing a major-label deal in 1996 and earning big plaudits for 1997’s Stranger’s Almanac — still my favorite record from Ryan’s entire catalog. Likewise, No Depression magazine was an immediate success. After paying all the contributors with a T-shirt for issue number one, Peter was able to start paying his writers actual money by the second issue. The magazine also went from quarterly to bi-monthly publication in the fall of 1996.Whiskeytown appeared on the cover of the July/August 1997 issue when Strangers Almanac came out, although Peter wrote that story himself instead of letting me do it, the no-good so-and-so. But it has been a pleasure and an honor to be associated with No Depression over the years, and to watch it grow from those modest beginnings to the very impressive magazine it is today. I believe I’ve had a byline in every single issue except one.

Meanwhile, I was still spending the wee small hours of every morning working on this novel, now called “Off The Record.” Tommy became Ryan, although there were times when it seemed like Ryan was becoming Tommy. In 1998, I was commissioned to write liner notes for a Whiskeytown record — the reissue of their first album, Faithless Street. It was an utter fiasco in which Ryan behaved so neurotically, I felt like I was being held hostage by my own fictional creation. I wrote multiple drafts, each of which was found wanting. Ultimately, the album came out with liner notes by Caitlin Cary rather than me, which was probably karmic justice.

But having Ryan as a model for Tommy Aguilar was a God-send. Like Ryan, my fictional Tommy is dark-haired, kind of pigeon-toed and sometimes wears the same thick-framed glasses favored by Brian Wilson. WWRD (What Would Ryan Do?) was a handy guide for whatever the Tommy character should say or do in a given situation. And imagining dialogue in Ryan’s voice was very useful.

Predictably, Whiskeytown fell apart after a few years, and Ryan started a solo career. His first solo album was called Heartbreaker and it came out in September of 2000, the same month No Depression published my profile of Ryan that’s in this book. And that was also the month that “Off The Record” finally came out. Early on, I tried to be circumspect about the connection between Tommy and Ryan. But enough reviews noted the similarities that I soon gave that up.

As it happened, this No Depression profile would mark the beginning of the end of whatever personal relationship I had with Ryan. I was pleased with how the story turned out, and I felt like it really captured him. But lots of people were very unhappy with it. Ryan’s ex-girlfriend, the subject of many of the songs on “Heartbreaker,” was furious about being identified by name. Ryan’s manager didn’t like the story, either, for reasons I never really understood. And Ryan himself responded with a puzzling e-mail — dated September 11, 2000, eerily enough.

“I am very angry with you but only out of love,” Ryan wrote. “I’ve discovered that you don’t know me very well. It isn’t even important. You are much more beautiful without me to consider. I’m drunk and in Seattle and I just went to see a spiritualist guide (they call him a shaman) and my life is changed. Hard changed. I hope to think about you in my meditations. Peace and cookies, R.”

(NOTE: To see this email reproduced in all the typo-ridden glory of Ryan’s original message, see the “Losering” preface.)

The last conversation I ever had with Ryan took place the following spring, in April of 2001. He called me at home one night, angry about a bad review someone else had written, to ask if I thought he should confront the writer about it. No, Ryan, I said, you should really just let it go — even though I knew he wouldn’t. And sure enough, I heard that he left a screaming rant on that other writer’s answering machine later that night.

(NOTE: “That other writer” was none other than Angie Carlson.)

We talked for a while that night. Ryan said he was working on a screenplay, a book and three different records. One of the albums was called Gold. “It’s so fuckin’ good, man,” Ryan said. “I hope you like it.” But I didn’t much like Gold when it came out a few months later, even though that was the record that made him a star and picked up multiple Grammy nominations. So what do I know?

In our last conversation, Ryan never mentioned this No Depression feature that seemed to upset him so much. He did, however, bring up “Off The Record.” He hadn’t yet read it, but he said, “I’ve been told that the lead character is like an unholy cross between myself and Dexter Romweber.” Well, Ryan, I said, you’ll just have to read it and let me know what you think. “Maybe I’ll do that,” he said.

I’ve always thought that if Ryan were to read “Off The Record,” he would claim to be pissed off. Secretly, however, he would be pleased to be a central figure in a book about rock mythology — because Ryan is nothing if not all about rock mythology. Maybe that’s what happened, maybe not. I guess I’ll never know.

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