Posts Tagged With: Merle Haggard

The Wheel rolls on: No. 75 on the all-time hit parade

Congratulations are on order for “Comin’ Right at Ya” star/subject/co-writer Ray Benson and Asleep at the Wheel, who just placed on a mightily impressive list — Rolling Stone’s “100 Greatest Country Artists of All Time.” The Wheel comes in at a solid No. 75, right behind Lee Ann Womack and just ahead of Marty Stuart. Further up, a number of other people who figure prominently in the “Comin’ Right at Ya Story” are in the top-10, including Waylon, Willie, Dolly and, of course, Merle (at No. 1, no less). Yes, Ray’s on a first-name basis with all of ’em.

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Merle Haggard’s fightin’ side, in Rolling Stone

In the wake of Merle Haggard’s death yesterday, Rolling Stone has run a brief excerpt from “Comin’ Right at Ya” — one in which Ray Benson recalls witnessing…let’s call it a frank, no-holds-barred and perhaps “colorful” 1986 exchange between The Hag and a hapless record executive foolish enough to cross him. Check that out here.

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Another man done gone: Merle Haggard

HaggardCoverMerle Haggard took his leave of this planet today, his 79th birthday, dying of pneumonia. And as I’ve had to do far too many times already this year in the wake of a famous musician’s death, I put on my obit-writer’s hat and got busy putting some remembrance-type content out there.

It was handy to have “Comin’ Right at Ya” co-writer/subject/star Ray Benson’s number to call, since he was a longtime friend and collaborator of Merle’s, and he was quotable as always — see the bottom of this story. I’d also written a few entries a while back for this “30 Essential Songs” list (on “Hungry Eyes,” “The Fightin’ Side of Me” and “Ramblin’ Fever”), and that went online today at Rolling Stone.

Really, though, here’s the best Haggard piece you’ll read today. It’s an excerpt from our very fine American Music Series book on Haggard, 2013’s “The Running Kind” by the great David Cantwell, and this introduction masterfully sets the scene and the story. It’s worth your time. And while you’re giving it a read, dig this Whiskeytown cover of one of Merle’s classics.

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Comin’ right at Luke Bryan

LukeBryanThis should be interesting, a moderate media imbroglio just in time for this week’s publication day of “Comin’ Right at Ya.” I can tell you from experience that subject/star/co-writer Ray Benson is a man who speaks his mind. And in a recent interview with the Lowell Sun in Massachusetts to preview an Asleep at the Wheel show up that way, Ray was quoted saying some not-so-glowing things about modern mainstream country music in general, and bro-hunk Luke Bryan in particular:

You can relate to picking up girls, drinking beer and hot pants. The thematic stuff is what bothers me. I don’t like Luke Bryan and those guys, because there’s no originality. Every song follows pretty much the same chord progression. That’s not a bad thing, in and of itself. Hank Williams used the same four chords, but there’s no melodic integrity and the words are just silly.

You listen to Hank Williams, Merle Haggard, Patsy Cline or Willie Nelson. None sound like the other. It’s individuality at its best. Patsy Cline was a pop singer, but with country sensibilities.

Let me qualify this by saying there’s great country music made today by lots of people, it’s just not getting on mainstream radio.

That quote has since been been picked up elsewhere, so…I guess we’ll see if Bryan has anything to say in return — and if that moves the needle at all once the book comes out.

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Hello in there: More From UT Press

PrineEddie“Ryan Adams: Losering, A Story of Whiskeytown” was published in the fall of 2012 as the second book in University of Texas Press’ American Music Series (following Don McLeese’s “Dwight Yoakam: A Thousand Miles From Nowhere”), and it’s taken a while for us to get it going. As originally envisioned, we’re supposed to be putting out four AMS titles a year — two every spring, two every fall. Some right fine books have come out on Merle Haggard in 2013 and the Flatlanders in 2014, but we haven’t been able to maintain that schedule. Finally, however, we’ve found our footing enough that the pace of publication is about to pick up.

First off, the next American Music Series book coming out will be “John Prine: In Spite of Himself” by my fellow North Carolina music journalist Eddie Huffman. The official publication date is March 15, and it’s our series’ first book to come out in a hardcover version (also, it’s the first with an actual photograph of the subject on the cover). I was one of this book’s primary editors and the process wasn’t always easy. As Eddie writes of me in the book’s acknowledgements, tongue planted firmly in cheek, “He and I are probably both glad he won’t have to ask me ‘How are the rewrites coming?’ next time we cross paths at Cat’s Cradle or the PNC Arena.”

UTPressLogoBut my peskiness and his hard work paid off with a book we’re all quite proud of. And so far, the early pre-release response has been gratifying indeed. “In Spite of Himself” picked up a very fine review in Publishers Weekly, which also named it one of this spring’s most-anticipated books. Kirkus weighed in with a nice review, too, and there are a number of other reviews and reading-type events in the works as well. Eddie’s blog will be the place to keep up with all of that, so bookmark it. I think Eddie did a fantastic job on this book, and I hope you’ll like it.

Beyond that, here’s what else is on the AMS schedule so far:

October 2015

“Don’t Suck, Don’t Die: Giving Up Vic Chesnutt,” by Kristin Hersh
“Los Lobos: Dream in Blue,” by Chris Morris

Spring 2016

“Madonnaland,” by Alina Simone
Mary J. Blige (title to come), by Danny Alexander

Fall 2016

T-Bone Burnett (title to come), by Lloyd Sachs

Spring 2017

Chrissie Hynde (title to come), by Adam Sobsey

To be scheduled

Tom Jones (title to come), by Jon Langford

The book on the list I’m most excited about is “Don’t Suck, Don’t Die: Giving Up Vic Chesnutt” by Kristin Hersh, leader of the band Throwing Muses and one of Chesnutt’s closest friends. I was blown away when I saw her manuscript because it’s spine-tinglingly brilliant, the best book of any sort I’ve read in years. Seriously, it gave me chills. I’m thrilled to be a part of that one, and I can’t wait for everyone else to read it.

Meanwhile, you might notice that yours truly is not on the AMS schedule anywhere. But I do have a book coming out on UT Press in October, one I think turned out really well. It’s called “Comin’ Right at Ya: How a Jewish Yankee Hippie Went Country, or, the Often Outrageous History of Asleep at the Wheel,” which I co-wrote with Asleep at the Wheel founder and guiding light Ray Benson. I’ll have more to say about this project later, but for now there’s a bit more about it here.

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News about the American Music Series, and me — I’ll be Asleep At The Wheel

So “Losering” is still semi-current and getting some attention here and there; I’m curious to see whether or not the next Ryan Adams album (whenever one emerges) might generate some more interest. But the book has been out there for more than six months, which means it’s high time to move along to the next thing. I’m happy to have some news about that, as well as the University of Texas Press American Music Series.

RayBensonMy next book will be co-writing a memoir with Ray Benson, founder and guiding light of the Western swing band Asleep At The Wheel, and it’s a project I could not be more excited about. I grew up in Texas during the ’70s progressive-country era, and I wrote my UT Master’s thesis about the Armadillo World Headquarters. I’ve always had a soft spot for that era’s icons, and as icons go Ray is one of the best — a fantastic musician and raconteur who, as the saying goes, has been around the world twice and talked to everybody at least once. This should be a raucous good time.

So that’s what I’ll be working on for the next year or so. While the Benson book is also for UT Press, this one won’t actually be part of the UT Press American Music Series. But work there continues apace. As mentioned previously, David Cantwell’s “Merle Haggard: The Running Kind” is next up, out in September, to be followed by John T. Davis’s “The Flatlanders: One More Road” in 2014. I’ve been asked to keep mum about several other titles in the works, but here are the ones in the pipeline that I can tell you about:

Los Lobos, by Chris Morris
John Prine, by Eddie Huffman
Vic Chesnutt, by Kristin Hersh
Ray Charles, by David Cantwell
Mary J. Blige, by Danny Alexander
Madonna, by Alina Simone

Obviously, the last two names are what jump off that list, possibly leaving you to wonder what the heck is going on here. Thus far the American Music Series has had an Americana focus, which is not surprising given that it’s an outgrowth of No Depression magazine. But the series is still developing an identity, and the truth is that we were always going to have to broaden it in terms of both styles and approaches to make it work. Thus, Mary J. Blige and Madonna.

UTPressLogoNow it’s certainly possible that American Music Series might eventually come to mean just “books about music.” Nevertheless, even though Blige and Madonna are both outliers (and probably as far as I’d care to go in this direction), I think you can build a case for both being a better fit than they might seem at first glance. Blige, The Queen of Hip-Hop Soul, is firmly grounded in the r&b tradition, and I’ve always thought of her as more soul than hip-hop. A decade from now, I wouldn’t be a bit surprised if she were singing straight-up gospel because such an evolution would make perfect sense.

That brings us to Madonna, who is admittedly more of a stretch. But I think the real draw here will be Alina Simone, one of the most exciting new writers out there. I first met Alina a few years back when she lived in Chapel Hill and was playing intriguingly dark indie-rock along the lines of Cat Power and PJ Harvey. She really found her voice on 2008’s Everyone Is Crying Out To Me, Beware, a tribute album to the late “Yanka” (Soviet-era punk icon Yana Stanislavovna Dyagileva, who is Russia’s answer to Patti Smith). Sung entirely in Russian, Beware is a fascinating album with an even-more-fascinating back-story; you can read some of it here or here. Better still, read Alina’s wonderful 2011 memoir “You Must Go and Win.”

If Steve Earle, Jon Langford or another writerly Americana icon wanted to write a book for our series, I think we’d jump at the chance even if the subject they proposed fell outside the Americana universe. While Alina doesn’t have as high a musical profile as those two, she’s still part of this century’s indie-rock flock — someone that No Depression probably would have been reviewing if the magazine were still publishing when Beware came out. I think Alina’s idiosyncratic take on a cultural icon like Madonna will make for a great book. I can’t wait to read what she comes up with, and to be a part of sharing it with you.

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Coming this fall: “Merle Haggard: The Running Kind”

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And now, friends, here is a piece of news I’m quite excited about. Behold the incredibly cool cover of our next UT Press American Music Series book — “Merle Haggard: The Running Kind,” penned by my former No Depression magazine senior-editor colleague David Cantwell. This is another very fine cover design by the incomparable Lindsay Starr, who has earned some choice worldwide  recognition for her first two covers in the AMS series (Don McLeese’s Dwight Yoakam book as well as my Ryan Adams book “Losering”).

Look for “The Running Kind” to emerge in September of this year. More books are in the works and I hope to have some news about them soon.

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“Losering”: Looking even better

LoseringWhatever “Losering”‘s writerly merits (or, ahem, lack thereof), it’s undeniable that the book has a truly spectacular cover. As designed by the incomparable Lindsay Starr at UT Press, the “Losering” cover has already won some very fine accolades. And here’s another nice place it has turned up — on the design-display site Cover Reference, where “Losering” more than visually holds its own among the many amazing cover illustrations archived there.

Thank you again, Lindsay! That beer I owe ya is coming right up, just as soon as I make it to Austin. And I also hope to get a look-see at the cover for the upcoming American Music Series book on Merle Haggard…

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“Losering”: Looking good

LoseringWhen it comes to drawing attention toward a book, it never hurts to have a great cover. For “Losering,” I feel like I have one of the best, thanks to the fantastic work of cover artist Lindsay Starr — and it’s not just me who thinks so, either.

The American Association of University Presses recently put out its list of best-designed 2012 books; and I am pleased to report that not only did “Losering”‘s cover make the grade, but also Lindsay’s cover for another American Music Series title, Don McLeese’s “Dwight Yoakam: A Thousand Miles From Nowhere.” Those are two of 44 covers selected (from 331 submissions), and they’ll be on display this summer at the Book, Jacket & Journal Show as part of the AAUP Annual Meeting in Boston.

Congratulations to Lindsay, and also renewed thanks for making me look better’n I deserve. You can see more of her handiwork here.

ADDENDUM: Lindsay tells me that both of her American Music Series covers have also been selected to appear in the 27th annual New York Book Show, happening April 9. Meanwhile, she also reports she’ll soon be working on the cover for the third book in the UT Press series, on Merle Haggard.

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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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