Category Archives: North Carolina Music

BURNING BRIGHTLY: American Aquarium

The world seemed like it was on fire. His entire band quit on him. He was contending with being a new dad. So B.J. Barham decided he was up to the challenges—literal, existential, logistical, emotional—and created the album of a lifetime.

BY JOHN B. MOORE

Last year BJ Barham, frontman for the North Carolina Americana outfit American Aquarium, was set to head out on the Lower 48 Tour – a wildly ambitious trek that would see him hitting up at least one show in every state (sans Hawaii and Alaska). And then his band quit.

Every single member. And all at once.

He understandably felt blindsided. What was the point now?

But just a few weeks after absorbing the psychological blow of having all five members of his band walk out at the same time, his wife gave him some frank advice: “You can either bitch about it or you can change it.”

And that statement become the overarching theme of Things Change, his latest record and easily, with little room for argument, his best collection of songs to date. (Amen. That goes for everyone else here at BLURT, too. – Ed.)

Oh, and he did embark on that exhaustive tour, solo, a little over a month after the dissolution of that version of American Aquarium.

Just a week before the June 1 release of Things Change, with a brand-new band and a new baby at home, Barham was kind enough to talk to Blurt, revisiting the great exodus of 2017, discussing the new record and the politics and optimism that are woven into the new music.

BLURT: I’ve been looking forward to interviewing you for a while now and thought I lost the chance when it looked like the band was broken up. So, I guess, thanks for keeping it together?

BARHAM: Ah, man, I am way too stubborn to give up.

Let’s talk about what happened with your band. You’ve said that everyone just left. Was that a surprise to you or did you see it coming?

It was a surprise because I didn’t expect it to come when it came, and it all happened at the same time. I’ve had over 30 members of this band since 2006. It’s been a lot of turnover, but I’ve been pretty lucky to keep a core of the band for the last eight years, but I’ve never made the same record with the same band back to back; every record has had either someone quit, or someone replaced, so I’m used to turnover. If it had been one person, it would have been a regular day at the office. If it had been two that would have been a little harder… but, I had five guys walk into a room and all quit. It was a mutiny aboard the ship. All the signs were there, I just ignored them. It was just general unhappiness.

We all started this band when we were in college. We wanted the same things, we wanted to tour everywhere, we wanted to play music for a living. We believed in this awesome plan, but over the course of nearly a decade people’s interests and people’s lives change and they go in different directions. What they used to be in love with they no longer care for and what they used to believe in has changed. By the end of that Wolves tour, it got to be that the show was the least important part of the day to those guys. They were worried about what they were going to do before the show or after the show. Those 90 minutes on the stage, that I still wake up in the morning for and live for, became an afterthought for them. And when they quit, I had about two or three weeks of sulking and then my wife said, “You can either bitch about it or you can change it.” And that’s one of the central themes of the record.

I went out and I got lucky. I was on the Lower 48 Tour and ran into a mutual friend from Austin and he said “Hey man, I heard about the band quitting. Can I put a band together for you?” I said, “Sure man, whatever,” and he put together just a crack band of guys that have been doing this for 10, 20 years. I fly into Texas for that first rehearsal and everyone knew every single song from start to finish. We took this thing on the road last fall as a trial run to see how we do with each other and it went gangbusters. It was amazing. We went to the studio and made a record together and things went great. (Below: the smoke-colored vinyl LP version of the album.)

This new record, the first track (“The World is on Fire”) grabs you right away. You didn’t waste any time getting in to what you wanted to discuss with this album.

Every artist says this about every new project because we’re vain immature children, but I feel like this is the best thing I have done so far. And a lot of friends who are honest with me – the ones who would tell me “this one sucks” or “good luck trying to get this one going” – everyone has been super supportive. I think creatively and musically we took a step forward with this one and I think that’s all you can ask for as an artist; make the thing that you put out better than the last thing and I think we did that this time.

As a father, “The World is on Fire” really struck a chord with me. You realize whatever is going on right now doesn’t just affect you, but your kids as well.

Exactly. That’s where that third verse really came from. That song was such a progression of 2017 for me simply because I wrote that first verse the day after the election, just anger fear and I had so many questions. I had no idea how to explain what I just watched. I put it aside because I didn’t want this record to be about fear, to be about hate because every other thing that has changed in my life since Wolves (his 2015 album) has been pretty positive so I didn’t want to write a record around this. I wrote the second verse after I had been on tour for a while and talking to people at the merch table after the shows – people from the left and the right and people who didn’t vote – and I regained a lot of faith in humanity. I realized not everyone is a bigoted, misogynistic hatemonger, but some people are in just desperate situations and the right has done nothing for them and the left has done nothing for them and they voted for a wildcard. I started to become a little more empathetic and just to listen to others instead of just pointing my finger at them and telling them why they were wrong or why they were right. I think this last election is the result, the epitome of people just wanting to be heard.

I had no chorus and two verses at this point and just sat on it for a while. During that tour me and my wife realized we were having a child and that just immediately changed my perspective. No matter how much my generation does to fuck things up, we’ve still got hope in that next generation. As long as a majority of us teach (our children) to be good, honest people we have nothing to worry about and that’s where that third verse came from. Don’t just bitch and complain about change, do something and inspire that change. Once we finished that song it was a no brainer that it would lead off the album. Some records warm you up, but this one gets it going right out of the gate.

Jason Isbell’s last record was probably his most political one so far. The same with Superchunk and just about any band that’s known for thoughtful lyrics putting out records since the last election. Was there any part of you that was nervous about alienating fans by talking about these issues?

Of course. I think anybody would be. You’re talking about alienating up to half of your audience, so you have to approach the topic intelligently; you have to approach the topic conversationally. You can’t come out and say you are all a bunch of fucking idiots. They’ll turn the radio off and throw out your records and say, “fuck that band!” But if you come at it with the attitude, “Hey man, we both love NASCAR, we both love fried chicken, we both love college football. I just want to know why you feel this way about this thing.” Letting folks know we’re the same people, we come from the same places. We disagree on this one thing, so how can we have an open dialogue about it. If anybody listens to this record and walk away thinking, “man, he’s way too political” then they’re missing the point. That first song isn’t about politics at all. It’s about finding hope in dark situations.

I don’t care what area of life you want to apply that to, but it should affect every American right now. And the third song, “Tough Folks,” if you walk away from that thinking, “Man, that’s just about his politics, he lost it,” then you’re not listening to the song. That’s a song about perseverance, hard work; that’s a song that says no matter how bad today is you can work yourself out of it. I think people from both sides should be able to get behind both of those themes that run through this record.

So, have you thought yet about how you go about introducing these songs from the stage yet?

Yeah, of course. We’ve played them live a few times and I just let everybody know this is a song about finding light in darkness, this is a song about not giving up hope, this is a song about either complaining about your situation or changing your situation. This whole record is a living tangible testament about a guy who was at rock bottom last year when my entire band quit. I could sit at home and complain about it, writing mean songs or I could pull my bootstraps up and keep this thing going and try to be positive, try to fix this fracture in our country. To a lot of people who listen to these records, politics may just be the one thing that’s different. I just want to make people aware that we may be way off base on this one thing but think of the hundred other things that we are right beside each other on.

There are a lot of mainstream country artists that aren’t speaking out and I can understand that because for the longest time I didn’t speak out because I thought people would judge me for it, but I think I’m approaching this record with almost a humble approach. We all grew up the same, I’m just trying to figure how we all grew apart. That’s the hope of this record, that people hear it and try and start a dialogue about it. Try and heal a fracture.

There does seem to be an optimistic thread that runs throughout the record. And I don’t know if that’s because you’re a new dad.

You know, I spent years of my life complaining and blaming all of my problems on other people and this record, more so than any I’ve written before, is me saying most of the problems I’ve seen in my own personal life, I’m going to take responsibility before and write just as honestly about how I’ve messed up my life just as much as I think others might have. It’s harder to take blame than to just put it on someone else. I think it’s a mix of me being married, me having a new child and me just growing up.

I just turned 34 and I’m looking at where I am now compared to where I was three years ago when we recorded Wolves. It’s night and day.

American Aquarium are currently on tour. More details at their Facebook page or the official website.

Incoming: New Solo Album by Peter Holsapple of The dB’s/Continental Drifters

Much-anticipated followup to his 2017 single is due in July via Omnivore. Watch the album trailer, below.

By Fred Mills

When we get word of activity stirring in the Peter Holsapple camp – could be some dB’s- or Continental Drifters-related news, or a new project that he and his fellow Winston-Salem expat Chris Stamey are cooking up, or a session- and side-man gig he has in motion, or even the release of last year’s wonderful 7-inch 45 “Don’t Mention the War” (reviewed HERE; ask me about the private thrill I got on Memorial Day when I heard the song coming over the airwaves from the local community radio station doing a Memorial Day-themed program) – we genuinely get excited here at the BLURT hostel. Pretty much everyone on the staff counts him- or herself a fan of the gentleman and his instinctive approach to hook-filled pop, and that appreciation of his music goes way, way back indeed. (Ask me about The H-Bombs sometime.)

So when the news arrived, out of the blue on social media, that a new solo full-length from Peter, his first in over two decades, was coming in July via the Omnivore label, it was welcome word indeed. As I commented last year about the “DMTW” single, “Holsapple recently [said] that he opted for doing a single because he wasn’t quite sure he should thrust a full album’s worth of new material into the market, given music consumers’ relatively short attention spans and tendency to favor tracks over albums nowadays.”

Obviously, he decided that the short-attention-span syndrome was worth challenging; ditto Omnivore, which has steadily carved out a spot for itself as one of the most respected, eye-for-detail, indie record labels on the planet. (Just check out its Big Star-related catalog of releases.) The release date of Game Day is July 27, and Omnivore describes it thusly:

Game Day contains 13 new tracks, a bonus track, and two “super bonus tracks”—Holsapple’s critically acclaimed single “Don’t Mention the War” b/w ”Cinderella Style,” originally released in 2017. [Holsapple explains], “After putting the single out on my own last year, I made the decision to put out an album. Some tunes are brand new, some have been in rotation for a bit, but all are worthy. My ‘middle-aged Pet Sounds fantasy’ is real, with the issues of middle age put to memorable melodies. The old guy at work in ‘Tuff Day,’ watching my parents’ place get cleared out in ‘Inventory,’ a decades-late thank-you note to a college girlfriend in ‘Commonplace’—they’re all a part of the present-day me.”

Game Day is prime Holsapple, whose recording career spans nearly five decades. It contains all the hooks, clever lyrics, and deft instrumentation one would expect. As he paraphrases Jeff Beck in the packaging, “Today, with all of the hard competition in the music business, it’s almost impossible to come up with anything totally original. So I haven’t, but I had a lot of fun making Game Day, and I hope it comes through when you hear it.”

Peter elaborates at his popular blog, noting that he did it completely by himself in his home basement studio in Durham, NC, and calling it “absolutely the record I wanted to make. People will undoubtedly hear it and scratch their heads and say it sounds weird and eccentric, at least I hope so. I can’t say I’m a professional producer or engineer, and indeed, a lot of stuff went down on the album by necessity or lack of fundamental tools. I was not going to let those things or any ineptitude or lack of skill stop me from getting this done, so you’re getting a shank of my mind and soul, trussed up to look like an album of songs… It doesn’t sound like records or bands I’ve been involved with before. In past instances, I’ve allowed the opinions of my work to twist my emotions into rattails, but this album is different: I own it all. Every note. Every flub. Every effect on every guitar. It’s my pleasure, it’s my fault. I feel completely at ease with it, something I’ve never felt with a record before.”

He adds that plans are afoot to take some of these new songs – titles can be viewed at the above link for Omnivore – out on the road as the Peter Holsapple Combo with dB’s drummer Will Rigby and bassist Glenn Richard Jones, who he’s been playing with for some time in the Kinks/Ray Davies-centric outfit Well Respected Men. They might even work up some primo dB’s and Continental Drifters material, along with “choice covers” (I’m voting for The Move and The Nazz—maybe even the stray H-Bombs number) for the live shows, so you, gentle readers, have been warned.

Game on, Peter.

 

 

Sarah Shook & The Disarmers

Album: Years

Artist: Sarah Shook & The Disarmers

Label: Bloodshot

Release Date: April 06, 2018

www.bloodshotrecords.com

BY LEE ZIMMERMAN

With their unapologetic debut Sidelong, Sarah Shook & the Disarmers established themselves as rowdy, forthright rebels who made it clear they wouldn’t be intimidated by the fact that they were competing for attention with artists who were far better known and possessed a far more substantive pedigree when it came to petulance and tenacity.

Nevertheless, Shook and company showed no remorse in executing their reckless and rebellious sound. Naming a song “Fuck Up” was clear indication that regret wasn’t a word that fit well into her vocabulary. On the other hand, titling a song after Dwight Yoakum did show a certain reverence regardless. Indeed, the fact that the music sticks to a well-worn template — all rootsy, rocking, upbeat shuffles that underscore their barroom bravado — suggests a certain devotion to a timeless template. Consequently, Years, the band’s able follow-up, shows the same grit and sass that they bowed with on their debut. “I didn’t meant to stay out drinking…believe me it just happens this way,” Shook concedes on the tellingly titled “The Bottle Never Lets Me Down.” Likewise, songs named “New Ways to Fail,” “Damned if I do, Damned If I Don’t” and “Heartache in Hell” suggest Shook’s more or less committed to the fact she’ll remain an outlaw and an outcast as long as it serves her songs.

Granted, Waylon and Willie, Kris, Cash and Bobby Bare have all ploughed this path before. Nevertheless, Shook’s unerring insurgence and commitment to the cause are admirable traits, proof that edge and attitude never go out of style.

DOWNLOAD: “The Bottle Never Lets Me Down,” “New Ways to Fail,” “Damned if I do, Damned if I Don’t”

Steep Canyon Rangers – Out in the Open

Album: Out in the Open

Artist: Steep Canyon Rangers

Label: Ramseur

Release Date: January 26, 2018

(www.ramseurrecords.net)

BY LEE ZIMMERMAN

Suffice it to say, the Steep Canyon Rangers are not your typical bluegrass band. Or your typical anything band for that matter. Nor are they simply another populist outfit that draws audiences with their dazzle rather than their dexterity. Indeed, it’s their combination of astute songwriting and deft instrumental interplay that make categorization within any single genre all but impossible.  Their music veers towards a stylistic intersection where folk, country, rock and even jazz find clear compatibility.

Out in the Open, the band’s latest opus, is the band’s most fully realized offering yet, a seemingly improbable feat considering the excellence of so many of the albums that preceded it. Mostly on the soothing side, it’s populated by easy, rambling narratives boasting resolute yet sentimental sensibilities, and easily some of the finest songs Graham Sharp, the band’s primary tunesmith, has ever delivered. The tunes are of such a high quality in fact, that a rugged cover of the archival Dylan classic “Let Me Die in My Footsteps” finds an easy fit, as if it was penned along with the originals.

While the band’s instrumental dexterity still remains at the fore, the vocal harmonies supplied by every member of the band, save departed bassist Charles R. Humphrey III, have never been as prominent as they are here and now. While Sharp’s rich, resonant voice consistently comes to the fore, the vocal blend that illuminates such songs as “Out in the Open,” “Roadside Anthems,” “Can’t Get Home,” “Best of Me,” and the aforementioned Dylan tune play a prominent part in the mix. Producer Joe Henry manages to capture every nuance in the band’s multi-faced performance, creating something that ranks as a near classic of the genre, regardless of whatever genre the band delve into. Out in the Open defines the undefinable and gives it a new name… Steep Canyon Rangers.

DOWNLOAD: “Out in the Open,” “Can’t Get Home,” “Best of Me”

 

Superchunk – What a Time to be Alive

Album: What a Time to be Alive

Artist: Superchunk

Label: Merge

Release Date: February 16, 2018

www.mergerecords.com

BY LEE ZIMMERMAN

It’s one thing to be a prolific musician who fronts a band with a 25 year long career and eleven groundbreaking albums to their credit. It’s quite another to found a successful record label that’s become a bastion to other indie artists. So credit Superchunk singer/guitarist/helmsman Mac McCaughan for accomplishing all that and more, including undertaking several side projects and mentoring other artists with similar designs. It’s a legacy to be proud of, and one that continues to unfold with every new undertaking McCaughan and his crew are involved in.

Their latest results, as embodied in Superchunk’s new album What a Time to be Alive, is similarly inspired, a steady, insistent set of songs of unceasing intensity and punk-fuelled passion. One wouldn’t expect such an intensive effort at this stage in the band’s career, but indeed, a single listen to songs such as “Lost My Brain,” “Break the Glass,” “Dead Photographers,” and “Erasure” offers the impression that they’re still the upstarts they were in the beginning, unrepentant and undeterred in their determination to make a frantic noise. An apparent commentary on our times (“…the scum the shame the fucking lies”) and its insidious origins (“Reagan youth/Taught you how to feel/Reagan your/Showed you what was real”), it’s an album that repudiates the half-truths and tactics of fear and suppression that seem to have become part of our national calling. The music seizes on those dire designs with spit and ferocity, –dark, defiant and fully roused.

Ultimately, Superchunk deserve credits for having not been tamed by success or their great degree of respectability. (This is the same group whose earlier album  once opined “I Hate Music.” An album flush with both vicissitudes and vitality, <I> What a Time to be Alive <I> resonates with its resolve.

DOWNLOAD: “Lost My Brain,” “Break the Glass,” “Dead Photographers”

Triangle Psych Fest Set for June in Raleigh

23 bands across three days, June 7-9.

By Blurt Staff

Organizers are touting it as a gathering of “bold, mind-bending and manic” music for three “unhinged, unforgettable nights”: Raleigh, NC, Thursday, June 7 at Kings, Friday, June 8 at the Wicked Witch and Saturday, June 9 at the Pour House. That would be the Triangle Psych Fest, and it’s shaping up to be one of the most eclectic music fests all year.

As co-organized by Daniel Chavis, of Carolina psych/shoegaze legends The Veldt, the event will feature his band, the Floating Children, Dead Leaf Echo, Timothy Eerie, Giant Red Panda, Heaven, Dex Romweber and plenty more. Both veterans and newcomers will be showcased over the course of the three days. (Full schedule below.) Chavis, commenting on the music scene, noted, “For a long time there’s been a steady stream of left field pop and rock pioneers in North Carolina who haven’t been recognized and celebrated as a closely knit community and a vital part of our state’s musical legacy. People easily associate Athens with ‘jangle pop’ or Germany with ‘krautrock’ or San Francisco with ‘Summer of Love rock.’ We’re shining a long overdue spotlight on North Carolina’s ‘psych rock’ scene.”

Explained co-organizer Mike Allen, the event aims to “build cross-generational collaborations and reinforce the comradery between purveyors and fans of experimentation and discovery.” And fellow co-organizer Pierce Clawson added, succinctly, “We’re the festival that’ll free, blow and expand your mind — and do it year after year.”

Ticketing details are below as well.

Pre-Psych Party, Kings, 6/7

Doors 6:00 / Show 7:00 p.m.

Curtains 1:00 a.m.

 

Midnight – Politburo

https://politburo.bandcamp.com/

11pm – Your 33 Black Angels

10pm – Night Battles

9pm – Micah Gaugh

8pm – Charlie Horse

7pm – Stray Owls

 

Wicked Witch, 6/8

Doors 8:00 p.m. / Show 9:00 p.m.

Curtains 2:00 a.m.

 

1:00am – Timothy Eerie

https://m.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1049069141774824&ref=content_filter

Midnight – Giant Red Panda

https://m.facebook.com/giantredpandaband/

11:15pm – Lazaris Pit

https://m.facebook.com/profile.php?id=493949864134032&ref=content_filter

10:30pm – Tide Eyes

https://tideeyes.bandcamp.com/

9:45pm – Laser Witch Queens

https://m.facebook.com/LaserWitchQueens/

9pm – Andie L

DJ Pangean

https://m.facebook.com/DJPangean/

 

The Pour House, 6/9

Doors 1:00 p.m. / Show 2:00 p.m.

Curtains 1:15 a.m.

 

Midnight – The Veldt

https://www.facebook.com/VeldtThe/

11pm – Dead Leaf Echo

https://deadleafecho.bandcamp.com/

10pm – Heaven

https://www.facebook.com/HeavenbandNYC/

9pm – Lacy Jags

https://www.facebook.com/lacyjagsnc

8pm – Eyeball

https://www.facebook.com/eyeball.ensemble/

7pm – Pretty Odd

https://www.facebook.com/prettyoddnc/

6pm – Floating Children

https://www.facebook.com/floatingchildren/

5pm – Morning Bells

https://www.facebook.com/morningbellsband/

4pm – Dex Romweber

https://www.bloodshotrecords.com/artist/dex-romweber

3 pm – The Quarter Roys

https://www.facebook.com/thequarterroys/

2 pm – Double Quarter Panda

https://www.facebook.com/doublequarterpanda/

 

Tickets:

 

Two-day passes

https://www.eventbrite.com/e/triangle-psych-fest-2-day-pass-tickets-43290523120

Special Pre-Party at Kings

https://www.eventbrite.com/e/triangle-psych-fest-pre-party-kings-tickets-43290437865

Night One – Wicked Witch

https://www.eventbrite.com/e/triangle-psych-fest-night-one-wicked-witch-tickets-43286163079

Night Two – The Pour House

https://www.eventbrite.com/e/triangle-psych-fest-night-two-the-pour-house-tickets-43286216238

 

 

 

6 String Drag 3/9/18, Raleigh NC

Dates: March 9, 2018

Location: The Pour House, Raleigh NC

6 String Drag

N.C. Americana legends hosted an album release (and re-release!) party at the capitol city’s Pour House venue—and packed that House.

BY TODD GUNSHER

String Drag held a party in Raleigh on Friday night, March 9, celebrating the release of their outstanding new record Top Of The World as well as the re-release of 1997’s Steve Earle-produced High Hat. Helping out Kenny, Rob, Luis, and Dan were Scott McCall on guitar and Matt Douglass on saxophone, who sat in on a few songs each. Celebrating over 20 years of making music, they put on a life affirming rock and roll show for the faithful fans who packed the Pour House spending the night dancing and singing along.

Go HERE to read the recent BLURT interview with 6 String Drag and HERE to listen to our premiere of Top Of The World track “Waste Of Time.” (Full disclosure: The new album and reissue are both on BLURT’s sister business Schoolkids Records, and our editor also helped craft the group’s official bio for Schoolkids.)

6 String Drag

6 String Drag

6 String Drag

6 String Drag

6 String Drag

6 String Drag

6 String Drag

6 String Drag

6 String Drag

6 String Drag

6 String Drag

6 String Drag

AMIGO – “And Friends” LP

Album: “And Friends”

Artist: Amigo

Label: Carlisle Beauregard Records

Release Date: January 26, 2018

www.facebook.com/amigotheband / www.amigotheband.bandcamp.com/

The Upshot: Stealth moments of Americana, indie rock, and garage that are guaranteed to creep into your dreamscapes and line your waking activities, from a gifted NC trio.

BY FRED MILLS

Let us dispense with formalities and summarily count the ways:  A rockin’ North Carolina—specifically: Charlotte, NC—twang/psych trio with classic ‘70s singer/songwriter and early ‘90s indie-rock smarts; ace guest turns from a slew of fellow NC virtuosos (among them, mandolin and fiddle ace John Teer, from Chatham County Line); recording sessions with Mitch Easter at his Fidelitorium studio, and mastering by Dave Harris at Charlotte’s Studio B. Sure sounds like a litany of TMOQ signage to this impartial observer. One hazards the statement that “And Friends” by Queen City trio Amigo is about as quintessentially Tar Heel as a Dean Smith tailgate party or a Sen. Sam Ervin memorial barbecue.

Okay, so maybe “this observer” isn’t exactly impartial, having seen the band awhile back—and in about as up close and personal a venue as it gets, during a record shop in-store performance. (Raleigh, NC, store Schoolkids Records, to be specific—the group loves breeding such intimacy, trust me.) So this reviewer doesn’t need much encouragement, having been a fan since 2014’s Might Could album: Frontman Slade Baird, drummer Adam Phillips, and bassist Thomas Alverson have the kind of musical mojo and natural stage charisma that’d create new friends whether appearing on a huge festival stage or sharing a post-gig beer at your local neighborhood pub.

There are elements of both classic and contemporary on “And Friends,” notably (for the former notion) the pedal steel, piano, and woodwind-adorned “I Wanna Live (UK Surf),” a stately, gently moving existential meditation that suggests a tuneful summit between Traffic and American Beauty-era Dead; and “Underground Medicine,” a full-tilt twang/garage raveup guaranteed to make those 2am last calls complete washouts as the audience absolutely refuses to let the group off the stage for another hour. Hey, next round’s on me, Slade.

Beyond that, there are stealth moments on this gorgeous collection that are guaranteed to creep into your dreamscapes and line your waking activities, from stunning opener “The Big Idea,” which conjures sonic memories of The Band (listen, in particular, for the Garth-like organ and some sinewy lead guitar); to an out-of-this-world cover of John Prine’s “Everybody” (did I use the word “raveup” yet in this review?); to a somewhat sneaky reprise of “The Big Idea” that gets retitled as “Almost Something Good” and is recast as a haunting acoustic guitar reverie eventually giving way to a lush country-rock arrangement.

Sings Baird, amid a swell of mandolin, pedal steel, guitar, bass, and drums: “What if I found something good? It’s just the way I feel – I only hesitate because the first time, it was almost something good. A little apprehensive ‘cause the last time was so fucked up.” As vulnerable a moment as you’re likely to encounter in this still-young new year—and a sentiment to let you know you’re not alone for the rest of this unfolding year as well. Lord knows, we’re gonna need some shoulders to lean on.

These guys, well… they’re your amigos.

Grab it on sweet heavyweight vinyl (w/download code included), folks, or on CD and digital should you require. You know what this reviewer recommends…

DOWNLOAD: “The Big Idea,’ “I Wanna Live,” “Underground Medicine”

 

A DETERMINED RETURN: 6 String Drag

“All you can do is bust your ass to make good music”: With new album Top of the World and a re-release of their Steve Earle-produced masterpiece, High Hat, this seminal Americana band from North Carolina marks another new beginning.

BY LEE ZIMMERMAN

There’s a certain truth to the saying “timing is everything.” And there’s no more pertinent application to that adage than in the music biz. Being on top of trends, recognizing relevant topics, and tuning in to an audience’s interests and expectations are absolutely essential when it comes to maintaining a viable and prolific career.

Consequently, when North Carolina’s 6 String Drag made their bow and formed in 1993, it seemed an ideal time in terms of fertile possibilities. The boundaries between rock, pop, punk and country were breaking down, and bands like Uncle Tupelo in particular were opening the door in hopes of encouraging that slow but steady transition. 6 String Drag’s archival influences were obvious — Van Morrison, the Replacements, the Stones, the Kinks and George Jones all made the cut — but the rough-hewn sound they crafted was all inclusive, one that could appeal to anyone with a devil- may-care attitude as well as a taste for homegrown sensibilities.

All was well and good, but despite a razor-sharp sound, a contract with Steve Earle’s E-Squared Records, two strong seminal albums (their self-titled 1995 debut and its excellent successor, High Hat, which followed in ’97 and was co-produced by Earle), the band never got the traction they deserved. In late 1998 founders Kenny Roby and Rob Keller went their separate ways in pursuit of their individual careers and the other band members dispersed as well. Roby in particular went on to a prolific solo career, releasing five solo albums — Mercury Blues (1999), Black River Sides (1999), Rather Not Know (2002), The Mercy Filter (2006) and Memories & Birds (2013; reviewed HERE) — but though he garnered his fair share of critical kudos, the absence between albums served to stifle his momentum.

Indeed, timing is the one thing that 6 String Drag always seemed to lack. Although the elements seemed stacked in their favor, their early masterpiece High Hat failed to win them the attention that outside observers reckoned that they had coming.

“I felt like we were changing the world…making Sgt. Pepper,” Keller’s been quoted as saying. “High Hat was not received like Sgt. Pepper. It was critically acclaimed, yet it did not sell as well as was expected.”

Roby has his own reasons for the failure of the band to maintain its forward progress. “I can’t go out and scream ‘give me some love,’” he insists. “There’s no telling what people listen to or why they listen to something, or why things catch hold or don’t catch hold. Or for that matter, what things come together to sell a band. We kind of broke up as we were on the upward mobility slant or whatever you want to call it. By the time 6 String Drag had a gotten a little bit of press recognition and some radio, and the record had come out, we were opening for Son Volt. We were post- the Uncle Tupelo world, but pre- the 2000 Americana explosion, the Avett Brothers and all that. So we were kind of in a bit of a lull.

“Do I wish I could make a little more money doing music? Yeah, probably. And have a quote-unquote career? Yeah, I guess. But you can’t change just one part of your life, ya know.”

Could the fact that the band only put out a pair of albums before breaking up and reforming some 17 years later have had anything to do with it? Maybe, Roby says. “But 6 String Drag at the time wasn’t much of a ‘pop’ band. If you listen to High Hat, it doesn’t sound like total pop music. We could have gotten into a little niche probably. It wasn’t quite as poppy as a Whiskeytown kind of thing, and it wasn’t as super country twangy as a lot of the country bands were at that time. I guess if I had to come up with an answer, I’d have to say that it wasn’t country enough for country and it wasn’t twangy enough for Americana.”

He pauses to reflect on that.

“I thought we were like a Doug Sahm kind of band, although we didn’t sound like Doug Sahm or the Sir Douglas Quintet,” he continues. “We were like a bar band that liked to embrace all kinds of music and the contemporary music of the ‘80s and ‘90s as well. Like a NRBQ or the Band. We have just as much fun playing to an intimate crowd at a corner bar dive with a bunch of people who like our music and sing along as we do on a theater stage. We’d love $30 a head and 2,000 people, but we’re totally comfortable being a bar band, a pub band. That’s when we’re at our best, just being loose and having fun.”

Likewise, he has a hard time coming up with a precise definition of exactly where the band fit in musically at the time. The explanation eludes him even today.

“We were like a lot of bands around that time, bands that took their cues from the Replacements and the Stones and Neil Young and Crazy Horse, kind of on the rootsier side of rock,” he suggests. “A lot of us grew up listening to punk rock and then getting into country rock. It was very similar to bands like Uncle Tupelo. That’s the kind of thing that appealed to us. I go back and listen to it now and of course I still like it. It’s like that slogan ‘three chords and the truth,’ which helped define punk rock. It’s like three chords and the truth for country, or three chords and the truth for blues…although sometimes there’s four. Maybe that was it. It was all the same to us. I never got into the super sophistication of bluegrass. I was never into progressive rock. I was into the Clash and Black Flag and the Bad Brains and Buck Owens and George Jones. It was always pretty simple, but it was also easy enough for me to do. I didn’t know enough about guitars or songwriting to play more complicated music than that. We didn’t think we were doing anything groundbreaking. It’s just these different waves of whatever’s popular. In the 2000s, they came up with this Americana thing. I thought Americana was a description for furniture.”

“We listen to a lot of different kinds of music and of course that rubs off on us,” Keller notes. “We get on this wavelength where we will get into things all at the same time. Recently, it’s been on the pop rockier side, from ‘60s Kinks to ‘70s glam rock, to ‘80s punk, and power pop. We probably would’ve made more records had we stuck together all these years because we’ve always been into this type of music.”

The sound he’s describing comes full circle on the band’s new album, Top of the World, due for release this March on Schoolkids Records. (Full disclosure: Schoolkids is BLURT’s sister business.) It’s their first undertaking since their initial post-breakup reunion, releasing the Roots Rock ‘N’ Roll album in 2015 (reviewed HERE). It also finds Roby and Heller still at the helm, with recent recruits — guitarist/multi-instrumentalist Luis Rodriguez, drummer Dan Davis, and producer Jason Merritt — offering able assistance. The album, clearly the band’s most effusive and assertive offering in terms of a genuinely accessible sound, follows the label’s vinyl (limited edition white vinyl at that) recent re-release of High Hat.

Roby, for one, is clearly excited about the new record’s direction.

“We recorded a lot of it at the same studio where we recorded the last one,” he explains. “But it’s more of a rock and pop record than the last one was. Real quick, real simple, ‘50s and ‘60s style songs. We tracked the record in four days. There were very few overdubs. For the most part the record was done by the time we walked out of the studio, except for the horns and the live vocals. Oddly enough, that’s the way we recorded High Hat, but High Hat was more of a rock record. We did basic tracks just like a basic rock band in the ‘80s and ‘90s, but we spread out the recording a little longer back then to give us time to absorb the songs. Some of it is done the same way, but some things were done differently. It’s got elements of all of our records, but also the contributions that the new guys bring. I can’t always put my finger on what that is, as far as stylistically, but it does sound a little more layered. It’s a little more mature, although I don’t know if that’s necessarily a good thing for rock ‘n’ roll or Americana.”

As far as the re-release of High Hat is concerned, Keller sees that as a valuable additive that helps underscore the band’s re-emergence. “High Hat has been out of print, so we really needed it in our present catalog,” he says. “Also, it being 20 years makes it a good time to celebrate it. We always want to look forward in creating, so we just coincidentally have this new record at the same time.”

As Keller tells it, he and Roby have always kept in touch over the years, and have even occasionally played some shows together. Still, Roby suggests that the extent of the band’s ongoing efforts has a lot to do with practicality, saying, “We’ll play weekends. We’ve been playing on weekends for the last two years since the last record came out… actually, before the last record came out. We’ve even been doing some weeklong stints. Luis has been with us since we laid down the last album and Danny has been with us for the last year. So we’ve played a good amount of shows. We’ll start playing here and there and get out of the immediate area. But I don’t know how we could go out on the road all the time. With guys in their 40s… I don’t know.

Likewise, Roby is realistic when it comes to measuring the band’s prospects for success this time around. “We still have a lot of fun doing it and the carrot is just to get better at it,” he maintains. “As far as recognition is concerned, you just have to do the best you can as far as making records. You can only do so much. You can work your ass off and nothing will happen. Or you can do nothing, and something will happen. I don’t know what that ‘something’ is.” (Below, “something” happening for the band a couple of months ago.)

Ultimately, Roby remains pragmatic. “Hopefully you have good records,” he muses. “When someone turns around to look at you, hopefully you did your best and you have some good work for them to notice. With us, we haven’t sold a ton of records, so a lot of this resurgence is about looking back and maybe checking out one of the earlier albums or a record from my solo career or whatever. You always want to have good work, because you don’t want people to say, ‘What’s all that bullshit hype about?’

“All you can do is bust your ass to make good music. I’d rather make good music than have more fans. It would be nice to have more fans, but the carrot is still to make the next record the best you can make.”

Read our 2013 interview with Kenny Roby: “Rock, Roll & the Art of Discipline”

Video Premiere: “Boom Boom Boom” – NC Musicians’ Tribute to James Olin Oden

“i gotta confess”: Putting the “pow” back in “empowerment” – and supporting the home team when a fellow rocker can benefit from the collective energy of peers and friends. Everybody pogo!

By Fred Mills

Back in October we posted news about Raleigh, NC, musician James Olin Oden’s hospitalization and battle with a rare cancer — and of the immediate and loving response from the Triangle music community, which found a slew of Oden’s peers convening at his hospital room and performing an impromptu jam session. Oden and these guys are friends of all of us here at BLURT, and and is was doubly inspiring to learn that the musicians decided to take that energy and turn it into a recording and video session in tribute to Oden. I’d call it, support the home team. Who can argue with that?

Joining organizer Billy Warden, frontman for the Floating Children, at Michael Graziano’s Thread Audio studio in Raleigh to cut the “Boom Boom Boom (In The Emergency Room)” track  was an all-star cast: the Floating Children’s rhythm guitarist Jeffro Holshouser (also of Hank Sinatra), drummer Jody Maxwell (formerly of A Number of Things and The Sex Police), lead guitarist Sam ‘Sammy Doddy’ McDonald (also of Uglyography), bassist/key-tarist Matt Thomas (also of Uglyography), and go-go queen Tracey Brown. Also on hand were fellow locals guitarist/co-writer Sam Madison of Hank Sinatra and The Bleeding Hearts, guitarist Larry Burlison of Demon Eye, bassist Steve ‘Stevey-E’ Eisenstadt, saxophonist F.O. Finch of Sidecar Social Club, vocalist Rose Higgins of Back Stabbeth, singer/guitarist Caroline Mamoulides, singer Will Warden of Warehouse Bastards, bassist/graphic artist Jer Warren, and trombonist David ‘Pops’ Wright of Squirrel Nut Zippers and Countdown Quartet.

Now you can check out the all-star results – including a cameo from Oden near the end of the video:

Commented Warden, “The song is about putting the ‘pow’ in empowerment, about using the power of music, love and humor to hit back at whatever life hurls at you. That’s what James did. The key line is simple and true: ‘Music is the elixir / Love’s the ultimate fixer.’ It’s about living with the volume up when the chips are down.”

“Plus, you can dance to it — or at least pogo,” added Holshouser. “Everyone who was part of the recording grabbed onto the spirit of the song right away. The band laid down the basic track in the morning, and then guests started pouring in, whooping it up and casting their own brand of voodoo. Including James, of course.”  (Below: Warden and Holshouser of the Floating Children in full flight.)

The video itself was directed by David Iversen of BriteSpot Collaborative Studios.

And we’d remiss if we didn’t report some extremely good news: According to James, after intense chemotherapy and other treatments, his cancer is in remission. We got your back, good sir.j And we’ll never view a hospital stay in quite the same fashion after having this video for consultation…

 

Below: Rose Higgins, Jeffro Holshouser, James Olin Oden