Posts Tagged With: Ray Charles

Songs of the South with Ryan Adams, among others

RollingStone

Between the book and this blog, there’s no doubt that I’ve already spieled a lot more about Ryan Adams than any sane person should — probably more than enough for one lifetime. Nevertheless, when Rolling Stone sent out a list of songs they wanted written about for a “25 Best Songs About The South” feature and it included Ryan’s “Oh My Sweet Carolina,” I just could not resist taking that one. They let me have it, so here it is (and also below). The editors decided on the ranking and put “Sweet Carolina” at No. 16.

Elsewhere on the list, I also got to do blurbs on Drive-By Truckers’ “Three Great Alabama Icons” (No. 21); George Strait’s “All My Exes Live in Texas” (No. 20); Ray Charles’ “Georgia on My Mind” (No. 2!) and James Taylor’s “Carolina in My Mind” (No. 1, whoo hoo!!). Getting to write about two of my favorite North Carolina-themed songs, as well as the entries that the editors wound up putting in the top two spots on the list, was pretty heady stuff for the likes of little old me.

DRARS

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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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More ancient history: The liner-note fiasco

By the late spring of 1998, it was apparent that Strangers Almanac  would not be the album to launch Whiskeytown to the toppermost of the poppermost. The album had been out for close to a year by then, and it never caught on at radio or cracked the Billboard 200 album-sales chart. Still, Strangers was a press favorite that raised Whiskeytown’s profile considerably. So while Ryan and company contemplated the all-important third album, Outpost Records moved ahead with plans to reissue Whiskeytown’s first album, 1996’s Faithless Street.

This reissued version would have a bunch of bonus tracks, plus a sonic overhaul from Chris Stamey and Tim Harper. One day I heard from a fellow at Outpost, with a question: Would I be interested in writing liner notes? My heart jumped at the very idea, in part because I’d never been asked before, and of course I said hell yes. They only wanted about 150 words, and here is the first version I wrote:

The first time I interviewed Ryan Adams was in 1995, at a bar in downtown Raleigh, N.C. — an interview cut short when a drunk went crazy and they had to call in the cops to get the guy out of there. The second time was a few months later, right before Whiskeytown’s Faithless Street was released. Just in case another hostage situation ensued, Ryan had scribbled some quotes onto the back of a restaurant receipt. About the album, he wrote, “It scratched the surface for what we will do later on.” When I told him how great I thought Faithless Street was, Adams muttered, “Yeah, well, you shoulda heard it before it got all cut up.” With this reissue’s extra tracks, we finally get to. And the scary thing is, Adams had that Big Record in him even at the tender age of 20.

I sent that off and heard back from Outpost almost immediately: “Genius,” my man there declared, to which I thought (but didn’t say), “Well, it’s a perfectly nice paragraph, but come on.” Nevertheless, by all accounts everyone at the label seemed to think this was perfect — until Ryan got a look-see and expressed concern that it was too much about him and not the rest of the band. Keep in mind that at this point, Whiskeytown’s ever-changing lineup consisted of Ryan, Caitlin, Mike Daly and whoever else got drafted for the latest tour. Given that, focusing on the recently departed Phil Wandscher’s contributions didn’t seem appropriate to the mission.

“Ryan was worried it was too much about him as the Boy Wonder Genius,” one of the insiders told me. “Now you and I both know that’s true, but you know Ryan. He’ll have these occasional bouts of humility.” So back to the drawing board I went. And here’s the second crack I took at it:

Three years ago, it was impossible to watch Whiskeytown play and not be reminded of the Replacements. Whiskeytown had the same sort of scruffy, unpredictable charm, and you never knew who was going to wind up more smashed by the end of the night — them or their instruments. To this day, I’ve never heard anything as amazing as Whiskeytown’s woozy hoedown version of Richard Hell’s “Blank Generation” (which I wish they’d still dust off and play every now and them). If Faithless Street was unexpectedly quiet and reflective by comparison, nobody was the least bit surprised at how good it was. One of the first times I interviewed Ryan Adams, he said, “You just can’t practice the mistakes that end up making a song timeless. Ask Ray Charles — for that matter, ask Black Flag.” So if you’ve ever wondered what Ray Charles and Black Flag would sound like together, well, now you know.

I sent that off and several days later word came back: “Everybody loved what you did. Great job, really fantastic. But…” Once again, Ryan objected. And at this point, the decision was made to take it in-house. When the Faithless Street reissue came out in September 1998, it had liner notes by Caitlin Cary. I could hardly object to that, so Godspeed. And six years later, I got to do liner notes for the first album by Caitlin’s Tres Chicas.

Over time, these things do tend to average out.

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