Ryan Adams has always had a rather complicated love-hate relationship with North Carolina, particularly his birthplace of Jacksonville. With me or anyone else, I don’t think Jacksonville ever came up in one of Ryan’s interviews where he didn’t speak of it in disparaging terms. In one of the first interviews I did with him way back when, he called Jacksonville “a dismal town with a military base.”
That’s of a piece with most of what Ryan has said about it in public over the years. When it came to writing “Losering,” Jacksonville didn’t figure much into the story beyond being a place Ryan fled the first chance he got. I remember calling up someone who lived down there, asking about local landmarks and getting laughed at.
“Buddy,” he said, “this might be as unlandmarky a place as there is.”
For all that, however, Ryan’s first hometown has also inspired some of his best songs, including “Midway Park” and especially “Jacksonville Skyline” — a gorgeously bittersweet remembrance, and one of my favorites from his Whiskeytown catalog. Jacksonville is not without its virtues, of course, but you just have to look a lot harder to find them. And sometimes, as this lovely and astonishing essay points out, it takes being in a place like Jacksonville to find those virtues within yourself:
Something about this town has brought me to the bottom of myself, to the place I have been avoiding for years, covering up with power yoga and running, volunteering and a second glass of wine…I am discovering that wisdom hides in the most wretched of places, buried deep in the towns with the hopeless streetlights.
But some of the charms of Jacksonville and the rest of Eastern North Carolina are evident if you’re willing to take a step back, open your eyes and really look. That’s the subject of an exhibit by Anthony Ulinski, a Raleigh painter who used to think the same thing most inlanders do about the territory south and east of the Triangle: that it was nothing more than what you drove through on the way to the beach. But Ulinski has spent the past few years painting landscapes of the seemingly desolate Down East flatlands between the mountains to the west and the beaches to the east. It’s literally “The Places In Between,” a collection that will be on display in various galleries in North Carolina through this year. You can find a piece I’ve written about Ulinski and the exhibit in Sunday’s News & Observer.