Posts Tagged With: Superchunk

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.

archive

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Big in Europe: The Connells’ “’74-’75,” updated to 2015

ConnellsVid

The Connells, 1993.

When Ryan Adams made his way from Jacksonville up to Raleigh in the early 1990s (as outlined in the “Before” section of “Losering”), there were a handful of big fish in the Triangle music scene — Corrosion of Conformity, blackgirls and Superchunk, among others. But one of the biggest was the Connells, who were part of a wave of jangly guitar-pop bands that followed in R.E.M.’s wake. While the Connells were a popular regional draw on the college-radio chitlin circuit of the Southeastern U.S., their music was accessible enough that they always seemed like a band that should have been bigger elsewhere, too.

By the time Ryan was hitting his stride with Whiskeytown in 1995, however, the Connells suddenly were bigger elsewhere. And not just big, either, but huge. In one of the Amerindie underground’s odder success stories, the Connells briefly hit the big time overseas in the mid-’90s with “’74-’75,” a pensive and moody ballad from the band’s 1993 album Ring.

“Big in Europe” is a well-worn joke in the music industry, but it really was true in the Connells’ case. Where Ring barely grazed the charts here in America (peaking at No. 199 on the Billboard 200), it made the Connells stars in Europe, with its “’74-’75” single going all the way to No. 1 in Norway and Sweden while cracking the top-10 in another nine countries across the continent. It even earned a platinum record in Norway to go with gold records in Germany and Sweden.

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David Hoggard in 1974 and again in 1993 with his wife Susan and daughter Alison, from Mark Pellington’s video of the Connells’ “’74-’75.”

A major part of “’74-’75″‘s success was its evocative video, which juxtaposed then-and-now images of members of the class of 1975 from Broughton High School in Raleigh with yearbook photos and footage shot in the fall of 1993. Two Connells members had also gone to Broughton; all three of my kids in recent years, too. Anyway, “’74-’75” is the rare video that actually enhances a song, never getting too heavy-handed while implying more than it says. It remains a great curio of mid-1990s North Carolina music.

Hoggards

Alison and Susan Hoggard with a picture of David, who died in 2013. Still from video shot by N&O photographer Juli Leonard.

Back in 1994, when “’74-’75” was in the early stages of its run, I tracked down and interviewed all 16 people in it to do a story for the paper. In honor of the 40-year anniversary of Broughton’s class of 1975, we decided to update it again to the present day — but literally this time, by editing new footage of everyone into director Mark Pellington’s original video. The band’s representatives were kind enough to give us permission to do this; and we didn’t quite get full participation, but close: 15 of of the video’s 16 subjects agreed to be photographed again, as did the Connells themselves.

So here is “’74-’75” circa 2015, with superlative visuals and editing by two of my News & Observer photojournalist colleagues, Travis Long (whose work documenting local music in Raleigh has been referenced here before) and Juli Leonard; plus accompanying stories that explain a bit more about the video and where everyone in it is nowadays. Pulling this beast together was an immensely labor-intensive process, so we’re all somewhat relieved now that it’s finally done. But we’re also counting down to the 50-year anniversary in 2025.

We’ll see who all is still standing by then.

http://www.newsobserver.com/entertainment/arts-culture/article44889822.html/video-embed

ADDENDA: In response, nice Blurt essay by the estimable Fred Mills. And wow, over in England the BBC noticed!

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Kissa me baby

CamRaleighAs a deejay, I think I’m a decent writer. Nevertheless, for the first time ever I’m going to give actual live, public deejaying a whirl this week at the Contemporary Art Museum in downtown Raleigh. As part of the museum’s current “Big Bent Ears” (which is billed as a “multimedia installation about listening,” showing at CAM until Dec. 3), exhibit co-curator Sam Stephenson is inviting different people to come in for guest-deejay shifts. My turn in the rotation will be 8-10 p.m. this Thursday, Sept. 24.

The guest-deejay part of “Big Bent Ears” is called Kissa, referring to the listening salons that originated in Japan in the 1950s. These deejay shifts have been happening at CAM since early June, tapping a wide range of guests including Whiskeytown alumni Steve Grothmann, Caitlin Cary and Skillet Gilmore, plus Branford Marsalis and members of Hiss Golden Messenger, Chatham County Line, Superchunk, Mountain Goats, CousinsArt of Cool and other local-music notables.

My playlist is still a work in progress, but I expect it will have a song or two from Asleep at the Wheel and Ryan Adams/Whiskeytown. And since the preferred Kissa medium is vinyl, I’m going to do my best to make my shift an all-vinyl experience. Not playing anything on compact disc will impose some limitations, of course. But as you can see from the picture at the bottom, at least I’ve got a decent amount of vinyl to draw from. Come on out…

EPILOGUE — and here’s what I ended up playing:

1 – Peter Case, “Steel Strings”
2 – Tift Merritt, “Mixtape”
3 – Marvin Gaye/Tammi Terrell, “Good Lovin’ Ain’t Easy to Come By”
4 – Pete Townshend, “Mary”
5 – dB’s, “Black and White”
6 – Vincent Guaraldi, “Cast Your Fate to the Wind”
7 – Josh Moore, “May It Ever Be”
8 – Don Henley, “Bramble Rose”
9 – Whiskeytown, “Heart Is Broken”
10 – Little Feat, “Easy to Slip”
11 – Asleep at the Wheel, “House of Blue Lights”
12 – Del Lords, “Love Lies Dying”
13 – Sly & the Family Stone, “Luv N’ Haight”
14 – Big Audio Dynamite, “Relativity”
15 – Kinky Friedman, “Sold American”
16 – Feelies, “Everybody’s Got Something to Hide (Except Me and My Monkey)”
17 – Spinners, “One of a Kind Love Affair”
18 – Ry Cooder, “She’s Leaving the Bank”
19 – China Crisis, “Wishful Thinking”
20 – Ryan Adams, “Magnolia Mountain”
21 – The Balancing Act, “Adventure”
22 – Let’s Active, “Counting Down”
23 – T-Bone Burnett, “Quicksand”
24 – The Lucy Show, “A Million Things”
25 – Peter Case, “Satellite Beach”
26 – Drive-By Truckers, “Heathens”
27 – Tift Merritt, “Papercut”
28 – Robyn Hitchcock, “Madonna of the Wasps”
29 – Sam Phillips, “Out of Time”
30 – R.E.M., “Perfect Circle”
31 – Ryan Adams, “Hey There Mrs. Lovely”

VinylStacks

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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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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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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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North Carolina’s family tree rambles on

As 1994 turned into 1995, just around the time Whiskeytown was coming together, I undertook a rather insane project for the News & Observer: to construct a local-music family tree, showing lineup connections between different North Carolina bands through time. I took inspiration from English music journalist Pete Frame’s family trees, which were elegant-looking genealogies of classic bands. So for a couple of months, I carried around a big piece of paper with diagrams, circles and arrows, soliciting input from people at shows.

I got input from around 100 people and slaved over it for months, doing several dozen versions before I finally let the darned thing go. It never really felt “finished,” but I had to stop at some point. What emerged was something closer to a solar system than a family tree. I was fascinated at how it was possible to link up so many notable local acts from a quarter-century, spanning wildly disparate styles — everything from Corrosion of Conformity’s hardcore to Squirrel Nut Zippers’ hot jazz.

Superchunk, Arrogance, the Connells, Ben Folds Five, The Right Profile, Cry of Love, The Veldt and other notables were all in there, too. Dubbed “N.C. music galaxy: The big bang theory,” it was published in March 1995 and captured a key moment in local-music history. Within two years, the Zippers and Folds were both on their way to platinum, and I was positive Whiskeytown was soon to follow (read the danged book for further details).

At the time this was published, the worldwide web was still taking shape, and the newspaper’s big projects were printed on dead trees. So the only way to see the whole thing in a readable state is on whatever paper copies remain; I’ve still got a few and they’re yellowing with age. Someday perhaps I’ll put the whole thing online, although the thought of trying to update it makes my head explode. But here’s a relevant chunk of it, maybe one-sixth of the big picture:

Over on the right edge a bit more than halfway down is Whiskeytown (“Whiskey Town”), then recently arisen from the ashes of Ryan’s former band Patty Duke Syndrome. And look in the upper left corner, where the Red Clay Ramblers reside. Idiosyncratic stringband to the stars, the Ramblers were already a long-standing North Carolina institution in 1995, and they’ve become even more of one since. They’ll mark their 40-year anniversary this month and there’s a feature about it in Sunday’s paper, which you’ll find linked from here.

As for the 1995 local-music galaxy, I wrote an accompanying essay that attempted to explain it. And here is how that concluded:

So what does it mean? As much or as little as you’d like. It certainly doesn’t imply that the Triangle music scene is one big happy family. But I think this shows that it is, at the very least, one family.

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