Posts Tagged With: Uncle Tupelo

No Depression in Whiskeytown

Opinions shouldn’t be static or carved in stone, and two decades past Whiskeytown’s prime I do sometimes catch myself wondering: Were they really all that? And pretty much every time, something will cross my field of vision that feels like the universe answering back with a reminder: Um, yeah.

For example, there’s a vintage video that surfaced a few days ago, posted by Michael Niebuhr — the superfan behind the very fine and almost comprehensive archival Ryan Adams fan site Come Pick Me Up. This video is from a Whiskeytown show that captures an optimistic moment in time, the St. Louis date of the “No Depression Tour” sponsored by the magazine; April 5, 1997, and it’s kind of an only-in-St.-Louis artifact right down to Ryan’s nasty set-opening shout-out to Post-Dispatch critic Chris Dickinson over an unflattering Uncle Tupelo comparison (plus the onstage dancing cameo by Beatle Bob).

This is from the period that is pretty much the heart of “Losering,” shot when Whiskeytown’s major-label debut Strangers Almanac was recorded but not yet released. And even though Strangers wouldn’t be out for another three months, Ryan already seemed to be getting a little bored with it; that night’s set included just three Strangers songs to go with two from 1996’s Faithless Street, plus a cover of Iggy and the Stooges’ “I Wanna Be Your Dog” and three “lost” songs that I don’t believe ever turned up on any other album before or since.

The audio quality isn’t great, and there’s not a lot of variety to the visuals. Nevertheless, you still get the idea of what a wonderfully shambolic mess of ragged glory the Whiskeytown live experience could be back then. I do, anyway. Your mileage may vary, but seeing this made my tired old heart go pitter-pat.

Advertisements
Categories: Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Whiskeytown on the alt-rock roadmap

altmapThis thing is kind of making my head explode. Seriously, the “Alternative Love Blueprint — A History of Alternative Music” data-viz poster (available for $43), which elegantly portrays the lineage through connections on the circuit board of a transistor radio circa the early rock era, is definitively mind-blowing as well as theoretically sound, with unbelievable attention to detail.

Having once attempted a similar project myself, a very long time ago, I can tell you that putting something like this together is a lot harder than it looks. And for me, the cherry on top of the whole thing is that our man Ryan Adams is in there, in the upper right corner in the same vicinity as Black Keys, White Denim, Uncle Tupelo and Wilco. But Ryan appears in such a way that you could say he’s subordinate to Whiskeytown. Like I said: theoretically sound!

Online, check it out at wired.com, where you can hover over various quadrants to get an enlarged view of all the details.

 

Categories: Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , | Leave a comment

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.

Categories: Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

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.

Categories: Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

Create a free website or blog at WordPress.com.