Posts Tagged With: Let’s Active

Next up: “The Big Book of North Carolina Music”

ncblueNot quite a year ago, I found myself at an industry convention gathering with some of my rock-writing peers, doing what we all do at these things — swapping stories, telling lies and catching up about projects we had in the works, real as well as imaginary. Talking to another writer I knew, I mentioned that I was working on a book proposal for a history of North Carolina music. His reaction was…surprising.

“Yeah,” he scoffed, “that’ll be a short book.”

Words were exchanged, some of them unpleasant; no, it didn’t go especially well. But almost a year later, I am pleased to report that this “short book” has taken a major step from abstraction to reality. I’ve come to terms and shaken hands with University of North Carolina Press for a book with the working title “The Big Book of North Carolina Music,” which will have a format similar to UNC Press’ 2008 best-seller “Holy Smoke: The Big Book of North Carolina Barbecue.”

uncpressWhile this won’t be an encyclopedic A-to-Z history of North Carolina music, my “Big Book” will cover a lot of ground in its 16 chapters — from Charlie Poole in the 1920s to “American Idol” nearly a century later, with Blind Boy Fuller and Rev. Gary Davis, Arthur Smith, “5” Royales, Doc Watson and Earl Scruggs, the dB’s and Let’s Active, Superchunk and Squirrel Nut Zippers and Ben Folds Five, Nantucket and Corrosion of Conformity, beach music, 9th Wonder and J. Cole and more in between. It should come in at close to double the heft of my Ryan Adams book “Losering”; and while that still isn’t nearly as long as it could be, it’s nevertheless the most ambitious book project I’ve ever taken on.

But the beauty part is I’ve already been working on this book, piecemeal, for more than a quarter-century. I moved to Raleigh in 1991 to take the News & Observer music-critic job, and my first day was Jan. 15 — two days before Operation Desert Storm started in Kuwait. That was a time when the Worldwide Web wasn’t much more than a gleam in Paul Jones’ eye, back when most people still got their news by reading it on paper or watching the 6 o’clock news.

I must confess that I didn’t come here thinking the News & Observer would be a long-term destination, but it just worked out that way. Back when newspapers were still prosperous, the desired career trajectory was to spend five years or so at a mid-sized paper like the N&O before trying to move up to the New York Times or some other prestige publication. For a variety of reasons, that never happened. Most of the opportunities that came my way over the years felt like they would have been lateral moves rather than upward ones, although I did get a call from the Washington Post in 1999. But that was right after the birth of my twins, Edward and Claudia. At that moment, starting over in a big city was just not in the cards.

So I stayed in Raleigh and I’ve never regretted it, in large part because North Carolina music turned out to be fascinating and beguiling in ways I never imagined before I lived here. When I arrived, I was fairly well-versed in the North Carolina music I’d heard from afar on college radio — Connells, Let’s Active, Flat Duo Jets and such — without knowing much of anything about the history from farther back. So I’ve spent my years here filling in the history, bit by bit, learning as much as I could about North Carolina’s wildly varied music.

Despite the many variations of this state’s music, I do see all of it as of a piece and part of the same continuum — and “The Big Book of North Carolina Music” will, I hope, tie it all together as one story. I’ve spent the past few months going through my archive of stuff to get it organized (see below), and now begins the real work. TBBoNCM will be my side-project for the next two years, the thing keeping me up late nights and weekends and days off. If all goes according to plan, it will be done and dusted by the end of 2018, with publication to follow in 2019. Fingers crossed!

And yeah, whenever it’s done: I’ll be sending an autographed copy to that colleague.

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Chris Stamey’s “Universe-Sized Arms,” from Ryan Adams

Stamey2015It’s not much of an overstatement to call Chris Stamey one of the great father figures to the music community around greater Chapel Hill, where the dB’s co-founder has toiled in the studio trenches with great honor for more than two decades. Chris was a key player in the early phases of the Whiskeytown saga, lending studio savvy at various junctures through the 1990s (including production of the great 1998 “lost” album, Forever Valentine). He also produced some spectacular post-Whiskeytown solo albums for Caitlin Cary.

More recently, Chris has served as producer, mentor and fixer for an entire generation of younger area artists, working with them on recordings and shows like the ongoing live performances of Big Star’s Third that he oversees. Brett Harris, Jeff Crawford, Skylar Gudasz and Django Haskins, among many others, have benefited greatly from the master’s assistance and guidance.

EuphoriaSomehow, Chris finds time to continue making records of his own, too. The latest is the aptly titled Euphoria (Yep Roc Records), a full-on rock record after the chamber-pop detour of 2013’s Lovesick Blues. Euphoria brings together a lot of the young guns from Stamey’s circle, alongside fellow North Carolina legends like Mitch Easter, figurehead of ’80s college-radio legends Let’s Active.

Of particular interest to Planet “Losering,” the album opens with a previously unheard song written by our man Ryan Adams, “Universe-Sized Arms.” Ryan wrote “Universe-Sized Arms” as a driving rocker, and Chris added a very cool orchestrated arrangement reminiscent of the old “James Bond” spy-movie soundtracks. Euphoria‘s other 12 tracks are quite fine as well, with Stamey’s usual surplus of melodic goodness plus a nifty bonus-track cover of the 1971 Tommy James hit “Draggin’ the Line” to boot.

Chris will unveil Euphoria with an album-release show Saturday night in Carrboro, and you can read a bit more about the record and details about the show here. I’m also delighted to be able to premiere the “Universe-Sized Arms” video below. Enjoy, y’all.

 

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Take your beer to Whiskeytown

WhiskeybeerJust in time for the holidays, here’s another super-cool Whiskeytown token that might be even rarer than the old Strangers Almanac whiskey bottlesWhiskeytown Beer, the entire 120-bottle run of which might already be sold out by the time you read this. It’s the work of Chapel Hill’s Starpoint Brewing, brewed by Tim Harper and Chris Baker. And if the name Tim Harper rings a bell, it should.

Long before he ever started brewing beer, Tim was an old studio hand in North Carolina for a couple of decades. Whiskeytown figures prominently on his resume. Tim engineered and Chris Stamey produced the 1996 “Baseball Park Sessions”  that got Whiskeytown its deal with Outpost Records, and those two also oversaw the remix of Whiskeytown’s Faithless Street album that was reissued in 1998.

The road to Whiskeytown Beer started a few months back when Baker come up with a beer recipe involving whiskey, wood, chocolate and coffee, and enlisted Harper to brew it at at his brewery. First came the beer, then came the name.

“Nobody could come up with one,” said Tim. “I’d already started naming beers for bands I’ve worked with over the years, like a ’74-’75 Oktoberfest for the Connells. Sooner or later, I’ll do a Let’s Active beer. Stamey-Holsapple, I don’t know how I’ll work that out. But anyway, ‘Whiskeytown’ came to me in a flash one night for this one because of the whiskey barrels. We used Jack Daniels barrels to brew it.”

Before printing up the label, Tim got approval from multiple sources in Whiskeytown’s orbit, including the photographer who took the picture of Ryan (also seen on Whiskeytown’s Wikipedia entry), Caitlin Cary, Skillet Gilmore, lawyer Josh Grier — and yes, Ryan himself.

“What Ryan said was, ‘Tim, that sounds awesome,'” Tim said with a laugh. “And we found the photographer, got his approval, too. Caitlin and Skillet and Josh, even though Josh informed me that Whiskeytown did not have a trademark for food and beverage. So I didn’t even have to ask him, but I thought it’d be rude if I didn’t. Anyway, I asked everybody and they all said yes.”

Once he was done brewing, Tim bottled 10 cases to sell and put the rest into draft kegs. Those 120 bottles are going fast, but fear not: More is on the way.

“I’m working on a new batch,” Tim says. “It should be available in a couple of months, late February or early March.”

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Under pressure: “Songs for 65 Roses” brings it all back home

The 20 years or so that “Losering” covers is just a small subset of a bigger story that goes even further back in time. That was one reason I started this damn country blog (groan), to fill in the picture a bit; only so much can fit into 200 pages, after all. My own history in the Triangle goes back to 1991, when I arrived to take the rock-writer job at the News & Observer. Alas, that was a few years too late for me to experience Chapel Hill’s Pressure Boys, who broke up in the late 1980s.

The Pressure Boys were kind of the ultimate party band in a town full of them, and former members went on to notable careers elsewhere — note the band’s prominent place in the upper left corner of this slice of the “N.C. music galaxy” I did in 1995. In the big picture, the Pressure Boys served as a transitional bridge between the ’80s wave of bands including Arrogance, dB’s and Let’s Active; and the alternative-rock generation that came of age in the ’90s, including Superchunk and Whiskeytown.

Songs65RosesAfter the Pressure Boys broke up, frontman John Plymale became a very fine producer, in which capacity he worked with a ton of acts from multiple generations of the Triangle music scene. Maybe the best illustration of his career is a record that ties it all together in a most wonderful way, Songs for 65 Roses: Re-Working the North Carolina Jukebox, a 2006 compilation to benefit the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation (the album’s title came from how his young daughter Allie, who has cystic fibrosis, would pronounce the disease when she was very young).

The concept of 65 Roses is North Carolina acts covering North Carolina songs. Plenty of players from the “Losering” story turn up on both sides of that equation — Caitlin Cary, Superchunk, Chris Stamey and Squirrel Nut Zippers among them. Check this 2006 feature for further details on the web of connections that the album spins.

My favorite 65 Roses song is Let’s Active’s “Every Word Means No,” recast in a Tom Waits-ish arrangement by Eric Bachmann, leader of 1990s-vintage Chapel Hill indie-rock titans Archers of Loaf. Not far behind, however, is Ryan Adams’ “Oh My Sweet Carolina” as performed by Portastatic, the solo incarnation of Superchunk’s Mac McCaughan. It starts out quiet and acoustic like Ryan’s 2000 original before revving up into an electrified version, a great tangent that turns a prayerful song into an exuberant one.

Check out this lovely little rumination about it, which has a Spotify link helpfully included.

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“Losering” Bit players: Angie Carlson

Something worth keeping in mind about almost everyone in the music industry: We’re all just trying to earn a living, however we can manage it. I’ve been luckier than most, in that I’ve had a fulltime job for the past 21 years (and I hope it continues, knock on wood). But if you want to keep working in music in some way, chances are you’ll wind up wearing a variety of hats over the years.

Consider Angie Carlson, who I’ve known since the mid-’90s — and who I knew about even longer ago than that, since she used to play in one of my favorite bands of the ’80s college-radio generation, Let’s Active. During the early Whiskeytown era, Angie had a pretty fantastic little punk-pop trio called Grover, whose 1996 album My Wild Life is still a favorite of mine. By the turn of the century, Angie had become music editor of The Independent, in which capacity she wrote some very kind words when I published my novel “Off The Record” in 2000.

Nowadays Angie lives up in greater New York and works in PR, so I hear from her on a fairly regular basis about various bands she’s trying to get coverage on. And one day in the spring of 2011, when I was hip deep in pulling “Losering” together, the phone rang and it was Angie pitching someone. Like I did with everyone I talked to back then, I told her I was writing a book about Ryan Adams (which elicited howls of laughter, a common response) and asked if she had any Ryan stories. Bless her heart, she had several. One excellent quote made it into the Preface, and there was another that I really wanted to use but just couldn’t find a place for. It was a remembrance of Ryan’s almost freakish musicality:

Ryan would come over to the house and I had this old Wurlitzer organ in the basement. So we’d jam. I’m better on Wurlitzer than guitar, and he was interested in it. I’ve been playing since high school so I’d show him stuff — this is major, that’s minor, here’s a ninth, a blues thing. And fuck if like in two weeks, he wasn’t writing on keyboards as if he’d played for years. He could just do that. I was talking to somebody one night who said, “He’s such an asshole, you really think he’s that good?” “Yeah,” I said, “he is. You’ve just gotta get over that. No matter what he’s like, he’s super-talented.” He’s kinda brilliant, and the human sponge. Just soaks everything up.

Yes, indeed.

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Caitlin Cary sings for her supper

When it became apparent that Ryan would not be interviewed for “Losering” and I started trying to figure out who might talk, I had some high hopes for Whiskeyown fiddler Caitlin Cary. Sure, it would have put her in a difficult spot — which was nothing new, given that she had been Whiskeytown’s only other lineup constant for the entirety of the band’s existence (which she seemed to spend apologizing for the behavior of her bandmates). Still, if there was anybody who could maintain friendly relations with Ryan while talking to me, I figured it was Caitlin.

Alas, it was not to be. Caitlin demurred with the explanation that it just didn’t feel right to cooperate on a Ryan biography when he himself wasn’t participating; a disappointment, but I had to respect that. And the upside was that I had tons of vintage material from back in the day on Caitlin as well as her husband, Whiskeytown drummer Skillet Gilmore. So while it would have been nice to have a fresh perspective, at least I was able to quote them both.

Post-Whiskeytown, Caitlin has had a very fine career in a variety of guises starting with her solo act, which got off to a roaring start with her 2002 full-length debut, the aptly titled While You Weren’t Looking. I was delighted to write a lengthy No Depression feature on her when that album came out (although it probably didn’t help my standing with Ryan when I called WYWL “the best recording yet to surface from the remnants of Whiskeytown”). And Caitlin shared space with Ryan on the track list of Joan Baez’s 2003 album Dark Chords on a Big Guitar, which featured the ’60s folk icon covering her “Rosemary Moore” and his “In My Time of Need.”

Caitlin also recorded a very fine album with Thad Cockrell, 2005’s Begonias; and she is one-third of Tres Chicas, a vocal trio with Lynn Blakey (Glory Fountain, Let’s Active) and Tonya Lamm (Hazeldine, who were on the 1997 No Depression tour with Whiskeytown and the Old 97s). They’re a sublime trio of singers, the Chicas are, and still one of my favorite groups in the Triangle. They were also kind enough to have me write liner notes for their debut album, 2004’s Sweetwater, which I was honored to do. This is still my only venture into writing liner notes:

My favorite Tres Chicas moment: a warm spring night a few years back when I happened upon a pre-show rehearsal in the parking lot of a nightclub in downtown Raleigh. Tonya Lamm, Lynn Blakey and Caitlin Cary were gathered around the tailgate of a pickup truck with Chris Stamey, their producer and bassist, working out a few songs. The playing was loose, the harmonies sweet, the vibe amiable. A private moment, one freely shared with anyone who wanted to stop and listen. Even a train passing nearby couldn’t spoil the mood.

There’s always been a stolen-moment quality to the Chicas, who have had to make time for this group within the demands of their other bands, including Whiskeytown, Glory Fountain and Hazeldine. But Caitlin, Lynn and Tonya keep coming back to each other for one simple reason: They’ve never sounded better than they do with each other in the Chicas. And somehow, they found the time to make this record, which will put you in mind of friends getting together to sing just because it’s a good night for singin’ pretty.

Lucky us, that goes for tonight, too.

The Chicas have been semi-inactive for the past few years, back-burnered in favor of other projects. But they’re scheduled to play Nov. 3 at the Berkeley Cafe, site of my long-ago first interview with Ryan way back in 1995. Meantime, Caitlin is still busy with her latest group, The Small Ponds, which she leads with Matt Douglas. I think I’ll always feel like Ryan is her perfect vocal match, but Matt comes awfully close to matching that on their excellent 2010 EP. They’re playing Friday (Oct. 5) at Tir Na Nog in Raleigh.

The drummer for a lot of Cary’s projects has been none other than Skillet Gilmore, who has kind of turned into the Triangle’s answer to former Replacements drummer Chris Mars — drummer from semi-legendary band turns out to be an amazing visual artist. On the right here, one of the many show posters Skillet has done in recent years; and he’s also taken a venture into the political arena.

Can his own run for office be far behind?

ADDENDUM (4/26/15): Tres Chicas’ first show in many moons.

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Back to the music

While I was writing “Losering,” I also put some effort into reconnecting with Ryan’s music. Of course, I’d been obsessively listening to all his records over the years. But the downside of how much I’d played them was that I was no longer hearing a lot of the details. I needed a fresh pair of ears, some outside perspective and a better sound system than the boombox and computers I use for most of my listening nowadays.

Enter Holden Richards, a longtime friend and fellow Ryan fan who also has a long history here in North Carolina — going back to his early-’80s days with the Chapel Hill indie-pop group One Plus Two. Holden first came to my attention in 1992 with a record called Bones of Contention, issued under the name the Swamis. It’s long out of print, but Bones of Contention still sounds terrific 20 years later if your tastes run toward the dB’s and Let’s Active (which mine definitely do). And while Holden still plays, recent years have found him putting a lot of energy into photography. Take a look at his portfolio and you should agree it’s been energy well-spent.

Holden and I conducted a couple of marathon sessions where we gave close listens to the key records in Ryan’s catalog, concentrating on the Whiskeytown period. Holden pointed out some technical things I doubt I would have picked up on, such as Ryan’s fondness for the metalhead’s favorite tuning, Drop-D (an effect that gave Whiskeytown’s Strangers Almanac all sorts of dark overtones).

He was also the perfect tour guide to the finer points of Chris Stamey’s sonic overhaul of the 1998 reissue of Whiskeytown’s debut full-length Faithless Street, which is immeasurably more nuanced and detailed than the original 1996 version. For example, “Drank Like a River” was a muddy roar in its original incarnation. But Stamey cleaned it up by panning the guitars — Ryan on one side, Phil Wandscher on the other — leaving more room in the middle for Ryan’s vocal and Caitlin Cary’s fiddle. Though subtle, that’s the kind of tweaking that makes a difference you can hear, and it made Ryan’s raspy vocal even better.

“Man,” Holden marveled as we listened, “the microphone loves Ryan.”

Geeking out on Ryan’s records was a ton of fun and incredibly helpful. It also made possible a rare flight of fancy on my part, in how I wrote about Strangers Almanac — which was something I struggled with because Strangers is a record that still means a lot to me. I don’t want to give it away here, so please read the book for that. But I will say that I don’t think I could have pulled it off without Holden’s help, which allowed me to get immersed in Strangers as never before.

Thank you, sir!

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