Posts Tagged With: Jacksonville Skyline

“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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First impressions: Ryan Adams’ “1989”

Today is release day for DRA 1989, Ryan Adams’ version of all 13 songs from queen-of-the-universe Taylor Swift’s massively popular 2014 album of the same name. Ryan himself is talking about it while the financial press is tallying how much money will change hands. And since we live in an on-demand world where timeliness rules above all else, a lot of my fellow critics are busily cranking out all their hot takes based on 24 hours or less of binge listening. Any record takes time to properly digest, of course, but that seems especially true for a project like this one. Eventually, I hope to have something more thoughtful to say about it. But for now, here are some initial impressions based on as many listens as I’ve been able to manage since getting the tracks yesterday afternoon.

*It’s been both hilarious and disturbing to read all the weird speculation about Ryan’s motives, including this gem of a Facebook post from his long-ago Whiskeytown bandmate Phil Wandscher:

Phils1989take

Oh, Phil…

Only Ryan can say for sure why he chose to do this, of course, but I don’t buy it as either high-tech flirting or crass commercial ploy. If Ryan were truly interested in appealing to Taylor Swift’s massive fan base, taking all the gloss off her pop to reveal its moody essence is a strange strategy because it will just confuse the average T.Swift fan. For example:

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My take on this whole thing is it’s just Ryan getting excited about a weird idea and running with it, because he can. But really, any of Ryan’s fans who think DRA 1989 is somehow out of character just haven’t been paying attention because it perfectly fits his career. He’s always played covers of pop songs you’d think would be beneath him, and this also isn’t the first time he’s recorded someone else’s album that he admired (see: his version of The Strokes Is This It?). And if you go back a quarter-century, teenage Ryan was already recording cassettes of himself and labeling them (c) PAX AMERICANA. Fast forward to the present day and the only difference is he’s got a real studio and access to famous folks now. Oh, and he’s shortened his label name to PAX AM.

Screen Shot 2015-09-21 at 10.27.58 AM*To my ears, this really does play like a bookend to last year’s Ryan Adams, a downcast and glum album that took the subsequent announcement of Ryan’s divorce from Mandy Moore to fully resonate. Even if I’m still not crazy about Ryan Adams, I do feel like it makes more sense emotionally than it did a year ago. Add in marriage meltdown and depression, and it’s easy to see how 1989 songs about disappointment (“Blank Space,” “All You Had to Do Was Stay”), longing (“I Wish You Would,” “How You Get the Girl”), bad blood (“Bad Blood”) and rising above (“Shake It Off”) might  speak to Ryan more directly than you’d think. He’s taken 1989 and turned it into his own private Blood on the Tracks, sort of.

*Ryan Adams and 1989 are also of a piece sonically, which is not an entirely positive thing. After hearing Live at Carnegie Hall, I concluded that my biggest problem with Ryan Adams was the ’80s production because those same songs were far more effective as unadorned solo acoustic performances. I’m having similar feelings about 1989, wishing he’d stripped it down even further because so far my favorite songs are its least-adorned. Particularly revelatory is the acoustic take on “Blank Space,” which still packs an earworm of a hook — but with the shrill tones of the original toned down, the repetition of the chorus seems less manic than obsessive.

*I really wish Ryan had dialed down the reverb on his voice, which makes him sound murky and distant when it seems like immediacy is what’s called for. I’m imagining these songs with Ryan’s voice unadorned and right upfront, a la “Jacksonville Skyline” or “Lucky Now,” and this version with his voice buried in an echo-filled chasm feels like a missed opportunity.

*I like the “I’m on Fire” version of “Shake It Off.” I also kinda like the ocean and bird songs that begin and end the album, which is reminiscent of The Who’s Quadrophenia (hmm…!) and adds to my curiosity about the cover art.

Overall, I’m liking it so far. More soon, I hope…

ADDENDA (9/22-23/2015): Somehow, there really are people out there who thought it was Bryan Adams covering Taylor Swift (oy); Here’s a piece on the legal logistics of 1989, plus weigh-ins from The New YorkerThe Atlantic, Esquire and U.K. Mirror — plus the dumbest headline about DRA 1989 anywhere. Here’s more dumbassery, and Saving Country Music does not seem to care for it, either. Same for a lot of folks on Twitter, plus this guy. Here’s an interesting take. And you had to know this was coming, “better Taylor Swift covers.” You could almost call it a backlash. But here are kinder words from absolutepunk.net.

MORE (9/24-26/2015): People are already talking about a hypothetical 1989 Grammy showdown (UPDATE, 12/7: which won’t happen). Also, “meh” reviews in Rolling Stone and especially Pitchfork. The latter leads to a pointed question. And here’s someone calling it “a worthwhile disappointment.” But there are apparently “liturgical lessons” to be had from it.

More (Oct.-Nov. ’15): A reach, but an interesting one. Also, Ryan interviews Taylor. In this interview, he compares her to Shakespeare. A good Drowned in Sound review. But The Guardian doesn’t much care for it.

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In the spring of 2015, Ryan Adams plays “Summer of ’69”

In October of 2002, Ryan Adams played Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium and it did not go well. A heckler kept yelling for “Summer of ’69,” Ryan threw something of a fit and it’s been following him around like an albatross ever since — still the one thing everybody seems to know about him, even non-fans (see Chapter 15 of “Losering” for more on this). In a long-overdue settling-up, however, Ryan played the Ryman again last night and actually played a right nice solo acoustic rendition of Summer of ’69.” Take a listen; and there’s more about it herehere and here.

So, wow. Do we dare hope a Raleigh date on his tour schedule is next?

ADDENDA: This actually wasn’t the first time Ryan played “Summer of ’69” in public. In a July 2005 show with the Cardinals, Ryan kind of burned it to the ground. And here are Bryan Adams’ thoughts about it.


While I’m at it, the night before Ryan brought Jason Isbell and Amanda Shires onto the Ryman Stage for a drop-dead gorgeous run-through of Whiskeytown’s Pneumonia song “Jacksonville Skyline” — check that out, too.

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“Losering: The Songs of Ryan Adams” — wish you were here

DMMCBack in Whiskeytown’s prime, I really wanted them to break through to widespread popularity, which seems a bit odd in retrospect. Sure, it would have been fun to watch from close range; but I can’t say why I was rooting for them beyond a vague belief that a large audience was going to provide some measure of validation. There was closure that only a large crowd singing along with “Sixteen Days” was going to provide.

Fittingly and belatedly, that happened last night, sort of. The fine folks at Deep South The Bar in Raleigh put together a tribute show inspired by my book, “Losering: The Songs of Ryan Adams,” and I got to emcee. And about halfway through the show, while members of the band Old Quarter were playing “Sixteen Days” — the song I thought was going to be Whiskeytown’s big breakout hit way back in 1997 — I was hollering along with everyone else in the soldout house and feeling chills about the experience.

Ghost has got me running
Away from you, away from you, awaaaaaay…

It was a truly wonderful night, very much a feeling of being among friends and fellow fans; as much a tribute to the milieu Ryan came out of as to Ryan himself. There were multiple highlights, some of which went like this:

Aaron Menconi, shortly before asking why he started that damn country band.

Aaron Menconi, shortly before asking why he started that damn country band.

The Equivocators — Featuring my dear friend Scott Huler, they kicked things off with three songs from Whiskeytown’s Faithless Street album; “Midway Park,” “Hard Luck Story” and the title track. When Scott got to the “started this damn country band” line, I coached my 18-year-old son Aaron to yell out, “Why’d you do that?”

David Teeter (from the band Martha Ann Motel) — He brought out a couple of more recent Ryan solo songs, “Shadowlands” and “Desire.” And to make the absent guest of honor seem more present, David also played the recording of the infamous Jim DeRogatis voicemail, a legendary moment in artist-critic relations. Guffaws all around.

Ryan Kennemur — Continuing in a humorous vein, Ryan gave a nod to Mr. Adams’ touchier side by belting out a bit of Bryan Adams’ “Summer of ’69.” Then he got down to business, and his versions of “Turn Around,” “Avenues” and especially “If He Can’t Have You” were outstanding.

John Booker and Rachel Hirsh (I Was Totally Destroying It) — Major props go to John, who did a fantastic job with booking the acts for this show. And he and his bandmate Rachel did great with four songs — “Everybody Knows,” “Call Me On Your Way Back Home,” “Don’t Be Sad” and “Firecracker.” There was an enthusiastic audience sing-along on the latter song, and John needled me a bit for not giving it and the rest of Ryan’s Gold album sufficient respect in the book. Touche! Danny Johnson, who plays in about a thousand other bands, sat in.

Bobby Bryson — I’d never heard Bobby before, and he might have played my favorite set of the night with stellar versions of “A Kiss Before I Go,” “Let It Ride” (also much audience singing along here) and “Carolina Rain.” He showed absolute command instrumentally as well as vocally, and I loved his stage presence. Afterward, he presented me with a business card carrying the slogan Songs that gently rip your heart out. I believe it.

DeepSouthCharles Marshall and Richard Bolton (Balsa Gliders) — They put a couple of Strangers Almanac-era Whiskeytown classics through some unusual paces, quieting down “Waiting to Derail” and rocking up “Avenues.” Very cool, inventive versions that they clearly put some thought into.

John Massengil, George Hage and Danny Johnson (Old Quarter) — The aforementioned “Sixteen Days” sing-along went over great. So did “Jacksonville Skyline” and a lovely reading of “Houses on the Hill.” Meg Johnson sat in on vocals (and also with Jack the Radio). Felt like being at the Brewery back in the day.

Jack the Radio — Speaking of sing-alongs, there was a raucous one on “Come Pick Me Up,” maybe the most exuberant of the night. “O My Sweet Carolina” and “Lucky Now” rounded it out.

Adam Lane and Jeff Mullins — Ryan Kennemur returned for an exceptionally sweet harmony vocal on “Desperate Ain’t Lonely” (which they rehearsed once, outside in the parking lot, and Ryan had to read the lyrics off his phone — perfect). They also offered up a couple of nice rarities, “Onslow County” and “Oh My Sweet Valentine,” which never fails to put a lump in my throat. Last night was no exception.

Ryan Mullaney and Ashley Gray — Two fine singers teamed up to harmonize on “Desire” and the Gold standard “When the Stars Go Blue” (take that, Tim McGraw).

Wylie Hunter (Wylie Hunter & the Cazadores) — Back to Whiskeytown days with “Dancing With the Women at the Bar,” and Heartbreaker‘s “Be My Winding Wheel.” Really glad to hear both.

ChipNYNYChip Robinson (Backsliders) — He sat at the piano and covered “New York, New York,” reading lyrics he’d scribbled out by hand. Fascinating, weird and pretty great, made even moreso because he was wearing a Wu-Tang Clan T-shirt. I snagged the hand-written lyrics for my archive.

Debonzo Brothers — Jeff and Keef with another long-lost favorite, “Hey There, Mrs. Lovely” (yay!), plus Heartbreaker‘s “In My Time of Need.”

Be The Moon — And in the closing slot, this trio from Burlington offered up the resurrected Whiskeytown song “Am I Unstable.” It was fantastic, featuring box drum and an arrangement that Peter Blackstock’s memory placed in the ballpark of the original (which Whiskeytown only played live once, nearly 13 years ago).

All told, the event raised $579 for the Future of Music Coalition. I could not be happier, and prouder of everyone involved. Thanks to all the musicians, and especially to Deep South impressario Dave Rose for making it happen.

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Jacksonville’s a city with a hopeless streetlight…

UlinskyLandscapeRyan Adams has always had a rather complicated love-hate relationship with North Carolina, particularly his birthplace of Jacksonville. With me or anyone else, I don’t think Jacksonville ever came up in one of Ryan’s interviews where he didn’t speak of it in disparaging terms. In one of the first interviews I did with him way back when, he called Jacksonville “a dismal town with a military base.”

That’s of a piece with most of what Ryan has said about it in public over the years. When it came to writing “Losering,” Jacksonville didn’t figure much into the story beyond being a place Ryan fled the first chance he got. I remember calling up someone who lived down there, asking about local landmarks and getting laughed at.

“Buddy,” he said, “this might be as unlandmarky a place as there is.”

For all that, however, Ryan’s first hometown has also inspired some of his best songs, including “Midway Park” and especially “Jacksonville Skyline” — a gorgeously bittersweet remembrance, and one of my favorites from his Whiskeytown catalog. Jacksonville is not without its virtues, of course, but you just have to look a lot harder to find them. And sometimes, as this lovely and astonishing essay points out, it takes being in a place like Jacksonville to find those virtues within yourself:

Something about this town has brought me to the bottom of myself, to the place I have been avoiding for years, covering up with power yoga and running, volunteering and a second glass of wine…I am discovering that wisdom hides in the most wretched of places, buried deep in the towns with the hopeless streetlights.

But some of the charms of Jacksonville and the rest of Eastern North Carolina are evident if you’re willing to take a step back, open your eyes and really look. That’s the subject of an exhibit by Anthony Ulinski, a Raleigh painter who used to think the same thing most inlanders do about the territory south and east of the Triangle: that it was nothing more than what you drove through on the way to the beach. But Ulinski has spent the past few years painting landscapes of the seemingly desolate Down East flatlands between the mountains to the west and the beaches to the east. It’s literally “The Places In Between,” a collection that will be on display in various galleries in North Carolina through this year. You can find a piece I’ve written about Ulinski and the exhibit in Sunday’s News & Observer.

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