Posts Tagged With: Jimbo Mathus

“Solo Sounds” — Ryan Adams songs as you’ve never heard them

SoloSounds.jpgA few months back, I heard from Scott Ambrose Reilly, an old friend I first met many long eons ago back when he was managing roots-rock madman Mojo Nixon and answering to the name “Bullethead.” Nowadays, he’s involved in a very cool and offbeat new music series called Solo Sounds, which digitally releases cover versions of classic albums with the songs remade as solo instrumentals. His partner is longtime roots-rock god Eric “Roscoe” Ambel, and each Solo Sounds project comes with an unexpected twist — Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours as played on cello, Bob Marley’s Legend on marimba, Squirrel Nut Zippers co-founder Jimbo Mathus rendering the classic 1984 Replacements album Let It Be as solo blues guitar and so forth.

Scott told me they wanted to give Ryan Adams the Solo Sounds treatment with a set of his songs transposed to piano, an instrument Ryan rarely plays. So they came to me for input on which of his albums to cover, and that turned out to be a deceptively hard decision. The obvious choices would have been either Ryan’s 2001 commercial high-water mark Gold, or Whiskeytown’s 1997 magnum opus Strangers Almanac; but somehow neither felt quite right for this. So I suggested a third option, a Ryan Adams album that doesn’t actually exist: 29 Cold Jacksonville Roses.

As recounted in Chapter 16 of “Losering,” 29 Cold Jacksonville Roses is my 2005 mix for Ryan — an imaginary best-of with songs cherrypicked from the three albums he released that year (Cold Roses, Jacksonville City Nights and 29). Now I realize that the very idea of carving these albums up like this remains the ultimate act of apostasy in some quarters of DRA super-fandom. Nevertheless, I found it a fun exercise to select a track list and running order, imagining what might have been if these songs had been recorded as a single album-length unit.

DRA2005.jpgThanks to Solo Sounds, the Spotify playlist that was 29 Cold Jacksonville Roses now exists as Selections From Ryan Adams’ 2005 Trilogy, an actual unified body of work. The artist is Bette Sussman, a pianist with a long and illustrious resume — that’s her playing piano on Whitney Houston’s 1992 version of  “I Will Always Love You,” which was one of the biggest hits of all time. She shows a spare and elegant touch throughout Selections, beginning with the Cold Roses kickoff “Magnolia Mountain” and ending with 29’s “Night Birds,” and I think these versions have a nicely elegiac feel and a lovely flow from track to track.

Selections From Ryan Adams’ 2005 Trilogy is the third Solo Sounds album that Sussman has recorded, following a set of Elton John’s greatest hits and Leonard Bernstein’s “West Side Story” soundtrack. The project also served as her introduction to Ryan, who she was not at all familiar with before being enlisted to cover his songs.

“That’s one good thing about this project, learning about people like him,” Sussman says. “I’m now a fan of Ryan Adams and I think he’s quite brilliant. Harmonically, this was a little simpler and easier to interpret than something like ‘West Side Story,’ which was about the hardest thing ever. But I really enjoyed learning this material  and putting my spin on his songs.”

The release date is March 24, and you can check out some samples here.

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Steve Grothmann counts down

GrothmannLast year, when UT Press unveiled its online “Losering” catalog listing with an excerpt including the book’s preface, the very first person I heard from was original Whiskeytown bassist Steve Grothmann. He sent me the link, and a congratulatory note mentioning that he was among those who witnessed the events described in the preface:

btw, I was the bartender that night at the Berkeley when the Dix patient took over the bar. He threw a bunch of bottles at the cops, and I cleaned up broken glass ’til the sun came up. Jennifer nudged me that this guy seemed dangerous, her radar was on, and then it escalated. 

That had me smacking my forehead, because I didn’t remember Steve being there that night and this would have been a great little extra detail to have in there (my reply began, “NOW you tell me this???!!!”). But so it goes; if I ever have the opportunity to revise “Losering” for a future printing, that is definitely going in, along with all the other pithy details that have come to light since the book was published.

Steve has traveled a long and varied road since leaving Whiskeytown in 1996, right before the band signed its major-label deal with Outpost Records. If memory serves, the first time I saw him onstage after that was in 6 String Drag’s horn section. That was around the time Steve also emerged with a new funk-slanted band called the Tonebenders — check out this 1998 No Depression feature I wrote on them. But Steve’s most notable post-Whiskeytown venture would be Countdown Quartet, which he started up with Tonebenders hornman Dave Wright in 1999.

Wide-ranging, free-swinging and lots of fun, Countdown Quartet has always sort of been the Triangle’s answer to Booker T & the MGs — only with vocals. Squirrel Nut Zippers co-founder Jimbo Mathus was a part-time member for a long stretch, and he added plenty of blue-note funk. I remember them being one of the hardest-working bands in town. For about five years, it seemed like I never attended a local show, party or wedding where the Countdown guys weren’t playing in some capacity or configuration.

Although Steve declined to be formally interviewed for “Losering,” he was immensely helpful in providing historical background. We had some e-mail back and forth about Whiskeytown’s earliest recordings, in which he filled in a few details about how the band cut its fantastic cover of “Blank Generation” for the 1995 Richard Hell tribute album Who The Hell  (see Chapter 4). For all you tech-nerd studio types interested in things like this:

I recorded it on my 4 track cassette machine, in the living room of the house Jennifer and I were renting then, near North Hills in Raleigh. As I remember we set up sort of like being on a stage, drums and amps in a line facing forward, with two mics in the room, one toward each side facing us– like we were playing to an audience of two mics. The vocals were overdubbed, I believe. It was LOUD, really LOUD, and simply done, and really fun.

I mixed the 4 tracks a little and Ross Grady came over and we just played the stereo mix into his portable DAT machine and that was that.

I remember that a bunch of  Voidoids songs had already been claimed by other bands involved in this project, and I was really glad that “Blank Generation” was still available. I transcribed the lyrics for Ryan as best I could- they’re hard to get, (this was before any lyric was on the internet) – and then he came back with completely different chords than the original. Basically, the same verses put to new music, which is the same thing we did with Nervous Breakdown– and it turned out much better than if we had more strictly “covered” the song.

Also, here is how Steve remembered Whiskeytown coming together at Sadlack’s back in 1994:

CDQSadlacksStompWhiskeytown version 1 started around Sadlack’s and the house where Ray Duffey and Phil W[andscher] and Dave Wright lived on Park Ave. Skillet owned Sads at the time, and a bunch of NCSU English masters students hung there — Caitlin and me included. Phil worked there and then Caitlin and Ryan too eventually.

6 String Drag, Whiskeytown, and How Town (Dave Wright’s band) rehearsed at the house on Park, and the Tonebenders must have started there too. At that time Ray Duffey played drums with all of those except Whiskeytown, and I was in the Tonebenders later too, and the Countdown Quartet eventually came out of that.  Dave W and I were the part time horn section for 6 String Drag. Lots of creative people hanging out.

A version of Countdown Quartet still exists today, gigging on an occasional basis (including last October’s YR15 shows; check this). But they’ve not been heard from on-record since 2002, when they put out an album with a title paying tribute to the place where it all started: Sadlack’s Stomp. Steve has another band going nowadays, too — Clear Spots, a noisy garage-type band he classifies as “hard to describe,” long on feedback with some Neil Young overtones. I look forward to seeing them sometime soon.

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