Posts Tagged With: Jon Wurster

Next up: Rounder Records

Now that I’ve caught my breath a bit from “Step It Up and Go,” it’s time to look forward, and I have some news about my next project. I’m pleased to announce that I’ve signed a contract with University of North Carolina Press to write another book, this one a history of Rounder Records.

“Rounder Records and the Transformation of American Roots Music” is the working title, and the book will trace the story of the legendary folk label that marked its 50-year anniversary in 2020. Initially based in Massachusetts, Rounder has been label home for everybody from Alison Krauss to George Thorogood and even Rush over the years, earning platinum records in addition to Grammy Awards.

UNC Press is a logical imprint for this book, since Rounder founders Ken Irwin, Marian Leighton Levy and Bill Nowlin have their archive housed at UNC’s Southern Folklife Collection. And I’d like to think that I’m the logical author for it, since I’ve always had folk/Americana leanings as well as a perverse fascination for the music business. “Step It Up and Go” even has a chapter about North Carolina record companies, after all.

uncpress

So if everything goes well and the schedule holds up, I’ll be turning in the manuscript about a year from now and it will come out sometime in 2022. Here’s hoping.

Meanwhile, the “official” publication date for “Step It Up and Go” isn’t until Oct. 19, but the book is already pretty much out in the wild. It’s picking up a nice response so far, people are posting pictures of it, I’m getting requests for signed copies — this stage of the process is always very pleasant, even if it’s not possible to do in-person bookstore readings this fall here on Planet Pandemic.

Nevertheless, we are carrying on with some cool online events featuring notable guests including Scott Avett, drummer-to-the-stars Jon Wurster and even North Carolina Poet Laureate Jaki Shelton Green, among others. Hope to virtually cross paths with some of you folks out there in the coming weeks.

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Ryan Adams and Bob Mould: good talk

BobRyanThere’s still no word on when Ryan Adams’ next album might emerge, but he nevertheless has a cool new recorded artifact out there that’s worth hearing. This week, National Public Radio released an hour-long interview Ryan recently conducted with his friend, idol and sometime conspirator Bob Mould.

Along with playing a few songs, they have a freewheeling and often very funny conversation touching on a wide range of topics including punk-rock as polka music, the “caveman mumbling” stage of songwriting, Bob’s new album Patch the Sky (another record featuring Ryan’s long-ago Whiskeytown bandmate Jon Wurster on drums), their mutual need for reclusiveness, Ryan’s made-up term for when the rhythm section drops out and it’s just the guitar playing (“monkey grind”), the fastest band Bob ever saw live (The Dickies), road hobbies, records as through-line jokes in search of punchlines, bands from the Stones to the Swans — you get the idea.

Take a listen here. It’s worth sticking around to the very end, for Ryan’s goofy “invisible airplane” joke.

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Slings and arrows

If you’re looking for evidence that Ryan Adams has “matured” a bit over the past decade, the fact that this “Unfair Record Review” by Tom Scharpling apparently never induced anything like Ryan’s infamous Jim DeRogatis phone call could be Exhibit A. I’m a fan of Tom’s, especially his work with Ryan’s sometime-bandmate Jon Wurster, but I wouldn’t call this one of his better pieces of work.

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Ryan Adams picks up Bloodshot, while the NC Music Love Army sticks to the plan

BS20Ryan Adams released just one full-length on Bloodshot Records, but that album was a doozy — his 2000 solo debut Heartbreaker, which (as recounted in chapter 12 of “Losering”) cracked 300,000 copies in U.S. sales. That’s the Chicago-based alternative-country label’s commercial high-water mark by far, with albums by Neko Case, Justin Townes Earle and Alejandro Escovedo next in line. All these years later, Heartbreaker remains Bloodshot’s top seller even though the label’s licensing agreement for it expired last year, which means that Heartbreaker is officially out of print nowadays. That probably won’t be changing anytime soon, either. When I inquired with Ryan’s publicist about whether or not a reissue was in the works, the answer that came back was, “There are no plans that I’m aware of” (and she would know).

Nevertheless, Heartbreaker remains a big part of Bloodshot’s history. So it’s no surprise that its songs dominate While No One Was Looking: Toasting 20 Years of Bloodshot Records, a two-disc Bloodshot tribute album set to be released Nov. 18. While No One Was Looking compiles 38 covers of songs from Bloodshot releases, with versions by luminaries including Ted Leo, Handsome Family, Minus Five and the regrettably named (but still quite good) Diarrhea Planet. Four songs on the track list came from Heartbreaker, more than any other album in the Bloodshot catalog:

* “To Be Young (Is to Be Sad, Is to Be High)” — performed by Blitzen Trapper from Portland, Ore. (thanks, Erin!)
* “My Winding Wheel” — Seattle indie-folk duo Ivan & Alyosha
* “Come Pick Me Up” — Superchunk
* “Oh My Sweet Carolina” — San Francisco’s Nicki Bluhm & the Gramblers

You can listen to the very fine Blitzen Trapper cover below, and the versions of “Sweet Carolina” and “Winding Wheel” are also both quite lovely. But the real revelation is Chapel Hill punk band Superchunk’s “Come Pick Me Up” — take a listen to the stream on Pitchfork — which revs up the original’s dirge pace to a fast and gleeful raveup (stoked by Whiskeytown alumnus Jon Wurster on the drums). Covering Ryan’s Heartbreaker songs is getting to be a thing for Superchunk guitarist Mac McCaughan, who similarly recast “Oh My Sweet Carolina” with his other band Portastatic for another tribute compilation a few years back.



Even beyond the four Heartbreaker songs, Ryan casts a long shadow over the rest of While No One Was Looking. In terms of both songs and performers, the album is littered with Ryan’s former collaborators (Caitlin Cary, Alejandro Escovedo) and rivals (Robbie Fulks, Old 97s). Superchunk isn’t the only act from Ryan’s home state of North Carolina, either; there’s also Hiss Golden Messenger, Dex Romweber Duo and most of all the North Carolina Music Love Army — featuring Ryan’s old Whiskeytown bandmate Caitlin, head Backslider Chip Robinson and 6 String Drag’s Kenny Roby — turning Graham Parker’s “Stick to the Plan” into something like an ironic latterday answer to the old Kennedy campaign theme “High Hopes,” describing a certain political party’s apparent we-know-best attitude:

Don’t pay no attention to what the experts say
Too much intelligence gets in the way
Yeah it gets in the way
You know it gets in the way
And if you wanna be happy
Be like Forrest Gump everyday.

NCMLA14The NC Music Love Army has been busy this fall in conjunction with the upcoming midterm elecitons. One of the nation’s marquee contests is North Carolina’s U.S. Senate race between incumbent Democrat Kay Hagan and Republican challenger Thom Tillis — a brutal and interminable campaign that’s on course to be the most expensive in history, with total spending expected to top a staggering $100 million. To raise spirits, awareness and turnout, the Love Army crew has been putting out new songs that can be heard here. The most notable of the new tunes is an environmental anthen called “Senator’s Lament,” in which Caitlin Cary’s fiddle features prominently. The lyrics are below.

“Senator’s Lament”

There are places in the ocean
They are dark and sacred still
We cannot reach them
But we can ruin them
With a greed no sea can fill.

Oh green mountain, her bones are older
Than the pillars of any town
But we move her with our big plans
Dig out her heart and steal her gown.

Oh Carolina, how I love you
And your ever-changing ways
I didn’t see how much I hurt you
I only hope I’m not too late.

There are children in the harvest
Their backs are bent to rain and sun
And we profit while they’re poisoned
When they fall, don’t no one come

There are places in the ocean
That are dark and sacred still
We can’t reach them, but we can leave them
And we can ask this land to forgive
We can ask this land to forgive
We can ask this land to forgive…

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Ryan Adams drops by “The War”

RyanBobMouldSo good old Jon Wurster, who was one of Whiskeytown’s drummers back in the day, is playing in Bob Mould’s band nowadays amongst many other activities (some of which are cataloged here). In that capacity, he’s in Mould’s very fine new video for “The War,” a song off Mould’s current album Beauty and Ruin (Merge Records) that is brimming with intimations of mortality:

This war has worn me down
Broken dreams and a hole in the ground
Don’t give up
And don’t give in.

Lo and behold, Wurster’s old Whiskeytown bandmate Ryan Adams (who has been known to cover the occasional Mould song) also turns up in the video right about as Mould is murmuring those words. Ryan appears in the final 30 seconds of “The War,” in a cameo that seems to imply a passing of the torch. He comes in just before the 4:20 mark, looking pretty 420 himself (heh); check that out here.

While I’m at it, Wurster also appears in Mould’s first Beauty and Ruin video, for “I Don’t Know You Anymore” (which features another high-profile cameo, by Colin Melloy of Decemberists). And Mould is quoted speaking at length about Ryan in this very fine interview feature.

ADDENDA (9/11-13/14): When Mould played New York City on Sept. 10, Ryan joined him during the encore. Ryan was in New York to play Letterman.

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Jon Wurster’s voice carries

Jon Wurster is best-known as drummer for Superchunk, and he’s also played with Mountain Goats and Bob Mould in recent years. But he did a stint in Whiskeytown during the band’s late-’90s revolving-door period, including a semi-disastrous tour opening for John Fogerty in the summer of 1998. Jon shared some memories about it on his Facebook page last year under the self-deprecating tagline, “Career in Rock (I can’t believe I saved all this stuff),”  and also when I interviewed him for “Losering.”

“That tour with Fogerty had some rough moments because [Strangers Almanac] was so far in the past for Ryan and I don’t think he wanted to play those songs anymore,” Jon said. “It looked good on paper, Fogerty had done big business his previous tour with the old Creedence songs. Then he did this shed tour and there was not as much interest as they’d hoped. So we were playing in daylight in the middle of summer for crowds of 2,000 people old enough to be our parents finding their seats. It was too much for him.”

Never one to back down, Ryan took to bantering with hecklers at some of those ’98 Fogerty shows. It didn’t go well. “That worked about as well as yelling at your parents,” Jon said.

Jon’s a good egg, a very fine drummer and a sweetheart of a guy — a perfect combination of ability and affable comic relief — which is why he’ll always have work as a drummer. Plus he’s got mad style. Coming home from South By Southwest this past March, I came upon him getting a shoeshine at DFW airport and couldn’t resist snapping a picture (sorry about the blurriness, but that’s what you get when your camera is a crappy mobile phone).

As good a drummer as Jon is, however, it’s possible he’ll ultimately make a bigger mark in the world of comedy. He first got my attention as a comic back in 1999 when he played the role of clueless rock critic Ronald Thomas Clontle on “Rock, Rot and Rule,” arguably the greatest phone prank of all time. Thirteen years later, Jon and partner-in-crime Tom Scharpling are still doing radio comedy, earning accolades like “punk geniuses.”

This past June, Jon caused a minor sensation when he witnessed a flight attendant freaking out on a grounded flight at New York’s LaGuardia Airport and filed hilarious dispatches via Twitter and Facebook (and if you’re not his Facebook friend, you really should be because there’s nobody funnier to have in your news feed). That landed him on multiple media outlets to recount the story, which was hugely entertaining.

Jon’s latest gambit is even better, playing douchebag boyfriend “Denny Rock” in Aimee Man’s new video — which is a remake of her 1985 Til Tuesday video “Voices Carry.” It also stars “Mad Men” star Jon Hamm, lookin’ smarmy as “video director Tom Scharpling.” Maybe you have to know Wurster for it to register, but this just about put me on the floor the first time I watched it. Whatever he does next, the one thing you can count on is that it will be something hilarious.

ADDENDUM (7/19/2014): Speaking of hilarious, I was able to convince the paper’s editorial braintrust to let me do a Tar Heel of the Week profile on Jon, in advance of Merge 25.

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