Posts Tagged With: No Depression magazine

Alejandro Escovedo: A fan’s notes

His name only comes up once in “Losering,” regarding the Strangers Almanac song “Excuse Me While I Break My Own Heart Tonight,” but Alejandro Escovedo is a key figure in my musical cosmos. I’m not alone in holding him in such high regard, either. In 1997, when he did that “Excuse Me” cameo, Alejandro already had a reputation as an inspiration to younger generations.

“I’ve been told that some people consider me to be this ‘rock sage,'” he told me in an interview that year. “Somebody all these young musicians in bands now cite as influential. For a long time, I didn’t think much about the historical perspective because I’ve always been more interested in where I’m going next than what I’ve already done or where I’ve already gone. But I’m enjoying it now, y’know?”

Escovedo has always been near and dear to my heart, and it’s been a pleasure to watch him finally make some commercial-career progress in recent years. I wouldn’t say I grew up with his music, because I didn’t hear him until I was well into my 20s. But it’s no exaggeration to say I grew up as a music writer with him, going back to a highly amateurish interview I did with him, Jon Dee Graham and the rest of the True Believers in the summer of 1985 for the University of Texas student paper, the Daily Texan. In the quarter-century-plus since, I’ve written about the man…well, an embarrassing number of times.

My online blather about Alejandro goes back to the True Believers’ 1994 reunion and includes a few things from No Depression magazine — a 1997 piece about his contribution to “Excuse Me” as well as a 2001 Q&A. There’s plenty of stuff from more recent years here.

His performances are something like compass resets for me — regenerative rituals in which I am reminded anew why I write about music — and it’s difficult for me not to get carried away when I get to rhapsodizing about him. So I’ll just say that he’ll be in the Raleigh vicinity Sunday night to open for Heart at Cary’s Booth Amphitheatre; which might not be the most optimal situation for maximum appreciation, but if you’ve never seen him…well, the man is worth your time.

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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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Recalling the 2001 Guitartown firestorm

Eleven years ago this week, Ryan Adams was pretty much on top of the world. His album Gold was out and earning the best reviews of his career, launching him into the rock-celebrity jetstream. For the next year, Ryan would be an inescapable presence in the rock press, which devoted seemingly millions of words to breathlessly covering his doings in interviews, features, reviews, previews and gossip-column items. After years of hardscrabble struggle, Ryan had finally arrived.

But on Sept. 28, 2001, three days after Gold’s release, Ryan found time to settle a score via one of his former hometown’s online watering holes, Guitartown. No Depression magazine co-editor Peter Blackstock was one of the few critics in the country who hadn’t gone gaga over Gold, penning a column in which he likened the album to pyrite. I wasn’t too fond of Gold myself and expressed a similarly lukewarm assessment in a News & Observer album review published around then, too.

Anyway, Ryan dropped on into Guitartown with an expletive-laced tirade that excoriated Peter and vowed that his label’s corporate overlords would put No Depression out of business with a boycott. I’ve got this printed verbatim on page 151 of “Losering,”  and you can also find it in the Guitartown archive — along with the ensuing firestorm it triggered, which went on for days with Guitartown denizens blasting Ryan and Ryan blasting back. Finally, Ryan threw out a parting shot before taking his leave for the last time:

…you just cant stand it because its not about your lousy fucking internet groups anymore, peter you are getting old and jaded but worst of all, you are Ross Grady, with a zine, or maybe like a David Menconi but just no balls

After Ryan called me out by name on Guitartown, I decided I’d had about enough and I did respond. For better or worse, I chose to leave that response out of “Losering” because I didn’t want the book to be “Ryan and Me” and it just felt like calling too much attention to myself. But hey, that’s what blogs are for. So here it is:

<sigh>…

hey, somebody tell Ryan that Courtney Love’s been in here posting under his name.

Ryan, babe, I simply *love* your new direction — Andy Kauffman-style confrontational performance art, wow, whoda thunk it? but to quote one of those literary types you’re suddenly so fond of invoking, you have delighted us quite enough for one evening.

so before you fire your next salvo, hear me out. I’m asking you, not as a critic but as one of your fans of longest standing:

stop. please. because right now people aren’t laughing with you, they’re laughing at you, and not in a nice way.

allow me to direct your attention to something you yourself said not too long ago. the following is a quote from your very own current Lost Highway Records bio:

“But I do have two new rules. One is not to analyze what I wrote. The second is not to read my own press. I just want to make it and not fuss about it. No excuses for it. Just make it and there it is. That way, the process is more pure. And even if people hate it, well, it doesn’t matter. Because I’m just doing it to do it.”

okay, then: prove it. “do it just to do it,” make whatever records you want to make, put ’em out there, take your lumps & move on. and if somebody doesn’t like it, oh well, right? you said so yourself.

in the grand scheme of things, the opinions of critics & pundits don’t amount to a hill of beans. the Rolling Stones aren’t in the hall of fame because some ink-stained wretch liked ’em; they’re in there because they made music that stood the test of time, despite getting plenty of less-than-flattering reviews over the years. you think Keith Richards spent much time tracking those people down to berate & threaten them?

“And even if people hate it, well, it doesn’t matter.” so prove it. because this is supposed to be about the music, right?

right?

still the best fan you ever had,

David Menconi

NP — Ryan Adams, Born Yesterday

For all I know, Ryan never read that because he never responded. He did, however, stop posting, so maybe. There was plenty more said after that, but Ryan was gone and it was mostly Guitartowners talking amongst ourselves. My favorite postscript came from the late Tim Kimrey, who posted what he called a “G’town-inspired PR photo of Ryan.” The picture doesn’t seem to be in the Guitartown archive any longer, but it was something like what you see here.

“It seems a little wrinkled-y for a young feller like him,” Tim wrote, “but perhaps it’s had lots of exposure.”

Ryan’s old Whiskeytown bandmate Skillet Gilmore piped in with the perfect closer: “Yup. That’s him.”

Ah, memories…


ADDENDUM (3/17/2015): Ryan may not come around Guitartown in its modern-day Facebook incarnation, but his name still gets dropped there — even if it’s as “HWSNBN” (“He Who Shall Not Be Named”). For example, there’s the post below. And I have a comment, all right: I can’t decide if “16 Days” or “New York, New York” would be a more appropriate heckle for Bryan Adams when he plays Raleigh.

Screen Shot 2015-03-17 at 9.56.27 AM

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Kenny Roby rides again

The story that “Losering” tells goes back about 20 years, which is an eternity in terms of the half-lives of most bands and clubs. And yet I feel strange calling it “history” because the threads extend into the present day, and so many participants are still at it; and I’m not just talking about Ryan. Indeed, it’s still possible to see Kenny Roby, one of Ryan’s best ’90s-era peers, in clubs around the Triangle with some regularity.

Kenny gets mentioned in a couple of places in “Losering” and he’s always been one of my favorite singer-songwriters in this town, starting with his time in an early-’90s band called the Lubricators — a name I still think is stupid (and they never let me forget it after I said so in print way back when). But they did have a saying that made me giggle: Live to lube, lube to live. The Lubricators played amped-up rock with room for hooks, the guitars turned up to “roar,” and they’d moved up to Raleigh from Clemson, S.C. They set up shop in a house on Daisy Street, where Ryan would reside with their roadie/pal Tom Cushman after the band moved out.

Kenny’s next band after the Lubricators broke up was a killer, 6 String Drag. To this day, it disappoints me that 6 String Drag’s rocket-fueled country soul didn’t break big. Kenny’s vocal harmonies with bassist Rob Keller were exquisite; and after they added a horn section for live shows, pretty much no band on earth could touch them. Steve Earle signed 6 String Drag to his label and produced a spectacular album with them, 1997’s High Hat, which I asked Earle about when I interviewed him last year.

“This girl drug me to Atlanta to see Whiskeytown,” Earle said, “and 6 String Drag was opening. I signed them instead. Not that I thought Whiskeytown was bad, 6 String Drag was just more interesting to me and I wish to [expletive] they could’ve lasted. Their record was my favorite we made on that label. They were really special. Had this thing like The Band, where it’s so loose it’s tight, and I liked the way Kenny and Rob sang together. But they were doomed to come apart.”

Alas, High Hat didn’t hit and 6 String Drag dissolved before making another record. But Kenny kept at it with 1999’s Black River Sides (which he recorded with Ryan’s future Cardinals main man Neal Casal) and 2000’s Mercury’s Blues, both reviewed here. In 2000, when I published a novel called “Off The Record,” the aforementioned Holden Richards and I put together a fake fansite for the fictional band in the book. Kenny was kind enough to play along and record some tracks posing as said band, bashed out in a single well-oiled evening. All these years later, I still get a giggle out of  “Band Town” and “Dumb and Number.”

A couple of years after that, Kenny made a stunning album called Rather Not Know that, were there an ounce of justice in this world, would have set him up with a nice Randy Newman-sized career. I’ve written a fair amount about Kenny over the years, and the best story of the bunch is probably this 2003 No Depression feature that came out around the time Rather Not Know was released. Ryan was singing his praises back then, too, telling Rolling Stone that Kenny was “the best songwriter that not enough people have heard yet.” He also gave Roby’s record label a quote:

I knew Kenny in Raleigh, NC, where we both had bands, his was better than mine. We shared a few jobs, the most notably a plumbing job. I have been made to understand this record is partially inspired as the result of his father’s death. Kenny has great internal dialogue concerning his relationship to God and to the more tangible ways of man. I think it’s woven into the fabric of this record in more subtle ways than previous albums. The entire record really does more for any argument to this record’s impact as a great piece of art, but this track is the first track on the album and the one that touches me even when I think I’m not listening. Also he is quite a good dancer apparently.

Unfortunately, the acclaim didn’t turn Kenny’s commercial career into something sustainable and fulltime, leading to a few long-ish stretches of musical inactivity (in public, at least) over the past decade. But he’s back on track with an excellent new album that should be coming out before too long. Kenny has grown tremendously as a singer, and on this new album he pulls off some quiet nuances that were once beyond him; great to hear him recording with horns again, too.

Friday night, he’ll play his first full-band show in Raleigh in more than three years, at the Pour House. Funny thing, the guy running sound for that show will be Jac Cain — who played bass with Kenny in the Lubricators all those years ago.

Like I keep saying, it all connects up, past to present and beyond.

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More on the American Music Series and UT Press

UT Press and I had agreed on Ryan as a subject at South By Southwest 2010.When the next SXSW rolled around in March 2011, I met again in Austin with my then-editor, Allison Faust, as well as UT Press marketing director Dave Hamrick and No Depression magazine co-founder Peter Blackstock. I hadn’t gotten very far with writing by then; in fact, I wasn’t much past the “Preface” and I was still nervous about making the Sept. 1 deadline. But I kept that to myself. Instead, the four of us brainstormed ideas for the series.

It was a very productive meeting, yielding up a long list of possible subjects and authors. That meeting also resulted in me coming on-board as series co-editor. Some things have changed about the series over the past year and a half, including the name. It’s the American Music Series now, and the primary UT Press editor is Casey Kittrell. As co-editors, Peter Blackstock and I get some input on artists and writers (although UT Press still has the final say).

The first AMS title came out in March 2012, “Dwight Yoakam: A Thousand Miles From Nowhere,” written by the estimable Don McLeese. My book “Ryan Adams: Losering, A Story of Whiskeytown” is the second in the series. The Aug. 31 issue of Publishers Weekly magazine included a piece about music-related books under the headline, “The Music Didn’t Die.” Alas, it takes a subscription and password to see the whole thing. But here’s the part that pertains to the American Music Series, which comes at the very end of the story:

In 2005, the University of Texas published “The Best of No Depression,” an anthology of articles from the hip alt-country magazine, No Depression. Working with the magazine’s co-founders Peter Blackstock and David Menconi, Texas’s sponsoring editor Casey Kittrell grew excited about these two editing a possible series. Austin City Limits promoted the first book in the American Music Series, Don McLeese’s “Dwight Yoakam,” when Yoakam played on that stage. This season Menconi chronicles the rise to fame of alt-country star, Ryan Adams, in “Ryan Adams: Losering, a Story of Whiskeytown” (Sept.), and forthcoming topics include Merle Haggard, Uncle Tupelo, and John Prine, among others. Kittrell says that the series plans to publish “musical biographies about important American musicians and that eventually it will edge into genres beyond alt-country and feature books by musicians and literary writers.”

For the record, Allison Faust was the first UT Press editor to work on the series, before Casey Kittrell; and while I was in on No Depression magazine from the start, I wasn’t a co-founder. That was Mr. Grant Alden, who we very much hope will be writing a book for the series at some point. A lot of the ideas we tossed around at that March 2011 meeting are still cooking along at various stages, and we’ve had further conversations. I hope to be able to tell you about more American Music Series books before too long. But here are the ones under contract (or firm enough to talk about) at the moment:

Merle Haggard, by Dave Cantwell
Uncle Tupelo, by Dan Durchholz
Los Lobos, by Chris Morris
John Prine, by Eddie Huffman
The Flatlanders, by John T. Davis
Vic Chesnutt, by Kristin Hersh

As the proud owner of a vinyl copy of Throwing Muses’ House Tornado, I’m especially excited about that last one. But I think all of these have the potential to be fantastic.

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It began on a golf course

I can trace the beginning of “Losering” to a specific occasion, a round of golf back in October of 2009. It was at Lakeshore Golf Course in Durham, NC, with my buddy Peter Blackstock, founding co-editor of the late great music magazine No Depression (moment of silence, please…Okay? Okay). After the magazine’s final issue in May 2008, the No Depression brand had continued on with a couple of “Bookazines” published by University of Texas Press. That deal was winding down by the fall of 2009, so I asked Peter what would be next. A book series, he said.

I don’t know why, but I still remember the exact location: the fourth hole, a short par-three. As we were walking down a hill toward the green — which we’d both reached with our tee shots, on the way to a pair of routine pars — Peter explained that the books would be short-ish (50,000 words), about the sort of “Alternative Country (Whatever That Is)” artists that the magazine used to cover.

Since the books were for a university press, advances would be small-ish. Nevertheless, I wanted in. I’m not even sure why, just that I did. A lot. Maybe it was because the newspaper had done a fairly radical staff-downsizing that year and everyone in the newsroom was wondering who might be next. In the interim, I needed an extracurricular project to take my mind off the axe hanging over my head at work. A book seemed like just the thing.

I had just the subject in mind, too, a well-known singer-songwriter I probably should not name here. Let’s call him Artiste X. While I can’t go into details, I can say that Artiste X was perfect for the series — critically acclaimed, commercially popular and someone I actually had a history with, having interviewed and reviewed him repeatedly over the years. The whole thing kind of seemed like fate. Peter enthusiastically endorsed the idea, and a deal was put in motion.

I approached Artiste X the next time he came through my part of the world, to tell him about the book, give him some UT Press literature about the series and make my pitch to interview him. This happened right outside his tour bus, and I was one of several dozen people crowded around trying to get a moment of his time. Not surprisingly, Artiste X was noncommittal and told me to call his manager.

A few months later, when I finally got Artiste X’s manager on the phone, he wasn’t noncommittal at all. The conversation began with him declaring that he hoped I’d give up on the idea of writing a book about his client. And just in case I didn’t get his point, he proceeded to drop a bomb on it, strafing the wreckage and survivors afterward for good measure. That didn’t leave me with much of a hand, but I still played every card I had. I cited both my own and No Depression’s long history with Artiste X; pledged that I would focus on the music rather than gossip; and assured him this would require very little of Artiste X — nothing more than a couple of interviews, and maybe being allowed to hang around backstage at a show or two.

To my enduring disappointment, the manager was unmoved. He explained that Artiste X would someday do a book of his own for a tidy sum. Until then, they’d make sure no one else wrote any books about him by refusing to cooperate and asking everyone in his circle not to, either.

The money quote I most remember: “Why would [Artiste X] cooperate on something he wasn’t being paid for?”

Welcome to showbiz. I was crushed, and back to square one…

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