For a music journalist, there’s no better feeling than finding out your initial instincts were correct. Meet one of Idaho’s best bands.
BY FRED MILLS
Musically speaking, Idaho tends to ping the national radar only occasionally; for the indie-rock milieu, Josh Ritter and Doug Martsch (Built to Spill) are probably the best-known Idaho native sons. Yet the state does in fact have a thriving music scene, with plenty of bars and breweries on hand to play host. You can count Boise’s Like A Rocket among the extant talent, championing regional breweries and arriving soon with their third full-length, High John The Conqueror.
The trio— guitarist/vocalist/songwriter Bobby “Speedy” Gray, bassist Andy Cenarrusa, drummer Max Klymenko—powers straight outta the gate with raucous, roots-rock raveup “Ain’t It All A Work Song” (it’s below, and also at their Bandcamp page for purchase as first single from the album), sending a sonic statement from the get-go they are here to kick up some dust and kick some ass. Sinewy yet deeply melodic Americana is the name of the game, from the twangy, Georgia Satellites-esque “Follow Me Down (to the party by the river)” and slide guit-powered stomper “The Devil of T.V. Paul’s” to the straight-up country rock of “Tuxedo and Anna Leigh” and lovely, Latin-infused cowboy ballad “Magdalena.”
There’s also the album’s psychological centerpiece, “Dark Blood.” Following the stage-setting, 30-second title track, a rippling acoustic guitar instrumental, this rumbling, brooding blues unfolds as a fatalistic tale of mortal sin and retribution: the former, at the hands of Gray’s haunted protagonist; the latter, courtesy album namesake High John, a living, breathing hellhound on the singer’s trail. Classic blues imagery abounds—roosters that are crowing, muddy waters that keep flowing, slaves on the block, “Tarrytown,” ropes dangling from trees—as Gray, voice framed amid a steadily rising chorus of snarling psychedelic guitars and tense martial percussion, realizes his time is near (“Brother, dear brother, take my fine young wife/ ‘cos I got a meeting comin’ with High John’s knife”). It’s a masterful performance, part Steve Earle, part “Sympathy”-era Stones, part Robert Johnson, all Like A Rocket.
As a band, this is a fluid, flexible beast, shifting easily between multiple styles while maintaining a taut, focused core. (A perfect example of this style-shifting is “Cry Baby Cry” which, with its low, echoey, shantylike vibe, initially suggests classic cosmic twang; but as the tune progresses, it ascends and turns anthemic, a marriage of gospel-inspired vocals and power pop guitars.) With songwriter Gray as their not-so-secret weapon—he seems to have absorbed a lifetime’s worth of influences yet instinctively knows when to put them on display and when to deploy them subtly, and nuanced—the three men also demonstrate a collective gift for arrangements that allows them to transcend the physical limits of a “mere” trio.
Ultimately, with High John The Conqueror, Like A Rocket is—pardon the painfully obvious cliché—clearly poised to take off.
Full disclosure: For yours truly, there’s a bit of a personal connection here. During the mid/late ‘80s, in my capacity as music editor for a Charlotte, NC, alt-weekly, I covered Gray’s early band, Helpless Dancer, on multiple occasions, and I instinctively gravitated to their glammy, hard-edged brand of power pop. (I still own a 45 they released during that time.) Their fan base was broad, and devoted. By that point Gray was already a scene veteran with serious chops he’d honed as a teenager touring as part of a gospel group, and after Helpless Dancer he wasted no time in forming a terrific post-punk group dubbed The Dollmakers. After I moved to the Southwest, however, I lost tabs on him, so to not only discover his current outfit now, many years later, but also learn that he made a similar move westward, also in need of a change of scenery, not long after I did makes for an oddly satisfying bit of synchronicity.
See, I’ve always felt that time and distance shouldn’t diminish memories or undermine old loyalties. Support the home team, so to speak. Here in 2017, I frequently encounter favorite musicians from back in the day who are still making stellar art, and in a weird way, having that type of insider knowledge about their backgrounds seems to subtly enhance my appreciation of their current efforts. It’s not necessarily a matter of comparing one incarnation to another one, but rather of having something relevant in common, and I’d reckon anyone can identify with that.
To all the rest of you, there’s plenty about Like A Rocket that, if you have an appreciation for honest, well-wrought, immensely tuneful American rock ‘n’ roll, you’ll be able to identify with. Crank up the stereo (you can get a quick taste at the aforementioned Bandcamp page, including a five-song EP, Raucous, comprising additional material cut during the album sessions) and make up for lost time—just like I’m doing now.
Fred Mills is the editor of BLURT magazine and Blurtonline.com
In which a former detractor (sorta…) decides maybe it’s time to eat his words (or Mojo Nixon’s words…) and become a huge fan (okay, maybe that’s overstating matters…). But that “Boys of Summer” song will always be a guilty pleasure, right?
BY FRED MILLS
Starting back in the late ‘70s and lasting roughly a decade, there was a distinct us-versus-them mentality at play if you were a denizen of the Amerindie underground. No righteous punk, college rocker or avant-tilting muso would be caught dead listening to the likes of Journey, Billy Joel, Hall & Oates or The Eagles, with even the occasional grey area artist such as Pink Floyd—who at one time epitomized the very notion of “underground” but became semi-permanently stained when Johnny Rotten decided to rock that infamous Floyd teeshirt emblazoned by the scrawled prefix I hate…—generally falling on the wrong side of “cool.”
Hold that thought.
Nowadays, the tracks-downloading, history-eschewing, tradition-ignoring musical milieu known as the millennials clearly fails to grasp the concept of The Enemy. How else to explain the aforementioned Hall & Oates’ inexplicable latter-day ascendancy, the annoyingly adoring cheers that greet Steve Perry’s every appearance at a Giants baseball game, the historical revisionism that under-thirty music journalists routinely deploy when according the Eagles’ members “Americana godfathers” status, or the criminal lack of criticism that greeted Billy Joel’s 2013 Kennedy Center Honor? I mean, seriously; for the record, once upon a time Perry would have gotten a pie in the face if he turned up someplace in public without one of his handler/bodyguards that routinely flanked him back during his Journey tenure, such was the vitriol “we” harbored. But those days are gone, and to this day I still cringe reflexively when certain artists’ names are uttered in hushed, admiring tones. And I say this freely admitting that, yes, there will always be certain songs that rank as guilty pleasures for moi, like “Don’t Stop Believing,” “Maneater” and “Takin’ It Easy”—although, let me be clear, I absolutely draw the line at that Joel toad.
Getting back to my denim-wearing, coke-snorting whipping boys the Eagles: in the mid ‘80s I became friends with gonzobluesabilly rocker Mojo Nixon, having reviewed his albums and regularly hanging out with him whenever he’d come to town. At the time I was living in Charlotte, NC, and as these things turn out, in 1990 I was working as the Music Editor for Queen City alternative weekly Creative Loafing, the same year Nixon released the album Otis containing the scathingly satirical song “Don Henley Must Die.” Per its title, the tune poked fun at the Eagles co-founder, essentially calling him an uptight, humorless, pompous egomaniac—which, at the time, was generally the reputation Henley had garnered; a laid-back, taking-it-easy, Laurel Canyon hippie type he was not. Mojo Nixon, of course, had made a career sending up pop culture and its icons, but the Henley track was particularly brutal—or sweet, depending on your perspective.
Here’s the Nixon song; the lyrics follow, and after those there’s a revealing MTV interview with Nixon (“What the hell does Don Henley do? It’s not rock and roll!”)
This is the sound of my brain.
Then I said, this is the sound of my brain on Don Henley!
Then I said, 1 2 3 4…
He’s a tortured artist
Used to be in the Eagles
Now he whines
Like a wounded beagle
Poet of despair!
Pumped up with hot air!
He’s serious, pretentious
And I just don’t care
Don Henley must die!
Don’t let him get back together
With Glenn Frey!
Don Henley must die!
Turn on the TV
And what did I see?
This bloated hairy thing
Winning a Grammy
Best Rock Vocalist?
Compared to what?
But your pseudo-serious
Crafty Satanic blot
Don Henley must die!
Put a sharp stick in his eye!
Don Henley must die!
Yea yea yea
Quit playin’ that crap
You’re out of the band
I’m only kidding
Can’t you tell?
I love his sensitive music
Idiot poetry, swell
You and your kind
Are killing rock and roll
It’s not because you are O L D
It’s cause you ain’t got no soul!
Don’t be afraid of fun
Loosen up your ponytail!
Be wild, young, free and dumb
Get your head out of your tail
Don Henley must die!
Don’t let him get back together
With Glenn Frey!
Don Henley must die!
Put him in the electric chair
Watch him fry!
Don Henley must die
Don Henley must die
No Eagles reunion
The same goes for you, Sting!
Er, yeah – Sting. Please add him to my above list. But I digress… The Nixon song gained a good deal of notoriety, and while I don’t specifically recall reading whether or not Henley ever came out and made a public statement about it, there’s no way he wasn’t aware of it. This was not a man to shy away from taking on the critics (for you youngsters out there, think of Henley as the Ryan Adams of his generation).
As I would learn one Monday morning later that same year…
The setlist wiki site Setlist.fm details the 1990 Don Henley tour for his Top Ten-charting The End of the Innocence, noting that Henley appeared at the Charlotte Coliseum on Saturday, July 7. As fate would have it, on that same Saturday my editor at Creative Loafing was working at our office, trying to do some catching up and taking care of preliminaries for the upcoming week. As he subsequently would inform me on Monday, the office phone rang while he was there, and since neither the secretary nor the office manager was on hand to take the call as usual, he picked up:
[brusque voice]“Is this Creative Loafing?”
“Er, yes it is…”
[combatively] “This is Don Henley.”
[more assertively] “No, I AM Don Henley. And I do not appreciate the negative comments you published about me in your so-called ‘newspaper’!”
What the person on the other end of the Loafing phone line was referring to was a concert preview blurb that had appeared in that week’s issue. Each week we compiled column called “Music Menu” comprising a selection of 75-to-125-word mini-previews of our concert picks for the upcoming week. And as I was the Music Editor, the lion’s share of those blurbs was penned by yours truly, so let the truth be told, I took it as my mission to keep the paper credible by also including pans alongside the picks. (This caused the ad sales execs no small degree of vexation when they had to placate local club owners who did not appreciate my dismissive comments about their tired cover band and whiteboy reggae bookings as opposed to the struggling punk dives’ attempts to bring in truly unique indie and underground bands, but that’s a story best saved for the memoir I’m working on…)
Henley rightly divined that he was on the receiving end of a pan; I’d love to know who brought it to his attention, or be a fly on the wall while he was reading it. But this was not just any pan; my Music Menu blurb for his concert that Saturday night—which, let’s face it, was probably sold out or close to selling out by the time he picked up the phone to call us—consisted totally of the above-quoted Mojo Nixon lyrics, no side editorial commentary by yours truly necessary. (Did I mention that compared to the vanilla approach taken by the local daily paper, we took to heart a CREEM-type snarkiness to our music coverage of the city?) By my way of thinking, it summed up our paper’s general disdain for the overtly mainstream rock acts that regularly passed through the larger venues of Charlotte.
You can check in, but you can never check out, dude.
Henley, revealing himself in all his thin-skinned glory, proceeded to read the editor the riot act, barely giving him a chance to get in a word edgewise. Eventually my boss was able to point out that (a) all we were doing was quoting lyrics, not writing a negative review; (b) we frequently adopted an irreverent attitude, which of course was at times the mandate of alternative weeklies in the U.S.; and (c) since we actually respect both Mojo Nixon AND Don Henley (& the Eagles), if he—Henley—would be interested in commenting for the record or even writing a rebuttal, we would absolutely publish it.
[Aside: just in case you are wondering at this point, no, we never questioned whether or not it was actually Henley calling. I would have asked him to sing a few bars of “Witchy Woman” just to be sure, but my editor told me that the agitation was so clearly personal that it had to be him, and that anyway, he’d heard enough interviews with Henley over the years to more or less recognize the voice. “Plus,” he added, “Don’s a known prick. No way would he delegate a call like that to some roadie.”]
Henley declined the latter offer, but he did seem somewhat placated, and calming down his tone a bit, he just groused a little bit about how the Nixon song painted him as an asshole when he was really just passionate and very outspoken at times, and that by this point he was just so sick and tired of hearing about the damn song that it rubbed him the wrong way in a major way, blah blah blah.
Fair enough. The conversation apparently ended on a moderately civil note, although I don’t think he offered to put our paper on the guest list or anything like that.
I got to hear the tale when I arrived at the office Monday morning to turn in some of my copy and check the mail. In the parlance of today’s times: WIN!!! It’s not every day that a journalist gets direct feedback from an artist about something he wrote, much less gets called on the carpet. My old friend Jim DeRogatis probably gets the Grand Prize in that regard, for his notorious Ryan Adams Telephone Altercation. But I’d like to think my crossing swords with Don Henley (admittedly, via an intermediary) counts for something.
Sometime later I was able to tell the story to Mojo, and he got a big kick out of it. And it is absolutely worth noting at this juncture that on at least one occasion Nixon and Henley intersected in a very public way: according to Nixon’s Wikipedia page, “Several years after [the release of the song] Henley jumped onstage with Nixon at The Hole in the Wall in Austin, Texas, to perform a new version of the song called ‘Rick Astley Must Die.’ When Henley jumped out of the crowd, the dumbfounded Nixon immediately asked, ‘Is Debbie Gibson here too?’ Nixon later praised Henley in this way: ‘He has balls the size of church bells!’”
Per my dek at the top, there’s a point to all this. I will freely admit to generally subscribing, for years, to the notion of Henley-as-asshole. All those tales of rampant coke snorting, groupie bonking, money-worshiping, ego-mongering Eagles die hard, no? Glenn Frey didn’t do much to dispel the image when he turned up on Miami Vice either. Ultimately, though, it’s the music that endures, not personas (or even urban legends). One of the greatest ever rock songs—and moving videos—is Henley’s “The Boys of Summer” (view itabove). To this day it brings a little catch to my throat when I hear it, and the guy has written a slew of other terrific tunes, period. I suspect Mojo, who has his own radio show nowadays as part of the “Outlaw Country Channel” on Sirius satellite radio, would agree, at least partially.
Which is why the following article, posted last week at Rolling Stone as part of Henley’s promotion for his new solo album Cass County, caught my eye: “Don Henley on ‘Sloppy’ Songwriting, National Values and Cultural Decay” reads the headline. In a nutshell, the songwriter comes off as a serious stand-up guy for art, craft, musicianship and, above all, the people who practice them. Read the entire piece, as it’s both revealing and informative, but here are a few choice quotes worth thinking about:
“Rock & roll has always been associated with rebellion, but I think rock & roll, country music and all kinds of music have always had a role to play in terms of creating community.”
“[Music] crosses political, ethnical and religious boundaries and it brings people together, so that’s why I think it’s more important than ever that we focus more on the quality of the music we’re making in this country and the message that we’re sending to the rest of the world.”
“It’s incumbent on us to export something that has some quality to it, that reflects our culture in ways that are positive and meaningful.”
“[There is] a lot of bad [country] songwriting going on, really sloppy stuff… Music will get really slick and poppy for a while and then there will be an improvement back to pure country or neo-traditional country like Randy Travis. . . He ushered in one of those neo-traditional eras back in the late Eighties and I’m hoping that’s about to happen again.”
“It’s just ridiculous, the things we focus on, how shallow our culture has become, how you can get famous now for not really accomplishing anything. Fame, at one time, was associated with accomplishment, but in this day and age fame and notoriety have become confused. If you can build a multi-million-dollar empire just by taking your clothes off and going on the Internet, there’s something very wrong with our values.”
“The things we prioritize and the things we worship are upside down. I’m really worried about American culture, and American society and politics. I’m worried about the future of my children, what kind of a country they are going to grow up in because I’ve never seen a country this divided since the Civil War. It’s not like we’re all in this together anymore. It’s every man for himself.
“[But] the survival of the individual depends on the survival of the whole. If you can’t figure out a way to come together and go forward as a group or nation, or as a whole community, then you are doomed.”
These are not the thoughts and words of an egomaniacal power monger. Sure, the dude has had his moments—extended moments, let us be honest here—of coke-fueled narcissism. But what I’m hearing here, in 2015, is a gentleman who genuinely cares about his family, his fans, his country, and the music that nurtures us. And the stuff he’s saying needs to be said. We should have more artists who are willing to speak up for what they believe in, regardless of the consequences; folks like Springsteen and Earle, even the Dixie Chicks, because I’ve never subscribed to that whole “shut up and play your guitar” mentality.
So while I can’t possibly take back any criticisms I might have made of Henley some 3 decades ago, any more than he can remove from the public record any of his comments, missteps or just plain arrogant, druggy escapades, well, hey—everybody gets a chance to grow up eventually, right? It’s up to the individual whether or not you pick up that option. Henley certainly did.
I guess I can as well. Good on you, Don. If you’re ever in the neighborhood some sunny summer afternoon, get in touch. We’ll catch a baseball game or something.
Above: Henley, pictured with Rodney Crowell, receiving a special honor at this year’s Americana Awards in Nashville. Go HERE to read our feature on the festival. (Photo by Alisa B. Cherry)
Listening to Tarheel singer/songwriter/rocker/twanger Michael Rank’s stunningly great new album Horsehair a lot lately—hell, it’s been a goddam fixture on the office and car stereo for weeks now. It finds the former Snatches of Pink frontman collaborating with Mount Moriah’s Heather McEntire, and it’s a match made in Gram ‘n’ Emmylou heaven. As we noted in the BLURT review of the record, he marries back porch soul to countryish roots rock, and “matters of the heart rarely stray far from Rank’s worldview, as he colors the rest of these outlaw folk tunes with nods to ex-wives, current flames and, of course, son Bowie Ryder, his most consistent muse.”
I practically had to arm-wrestle contributing editor (and Blurt blogger) Michael Toland for who was going to do the review honors as Toland is as much a fan of the dude as I am. (Go HERE to read his review of 2013’s Mermaids, and HERE for my review of 2012’s Kin.) Ultimately I said “uncle” and gave Toland the review, since I’ve written about Rank so frequently over the years that I risk being viewed as not particularly objective when it comes to his records. Well, fuck objectivity, y’know? The whole notion of “being objective” when it comes to discussing art, and particularly rock ‘n’ roll, is a journalistic smokescreen; you can’t write about an emotional experience from a distance, and when critics attempt to do so, their lack of engagement with their subjects shows. I’ll take passion over objectivity any day, because the whole reason I got into rock writing in the first place was because I realized that just listening to music wasn’t enough for me—I had to share my enthusiasm, share the wealth so to speak. In that regard, “Rock Journalist” became the proverbial accidental career.
Horsehair is Rank’s fifth solo album in three years, last year’s Deadstock and 2013’s In The Weeds joining it and the other two mentioned above. That’s a pretty impressive output by any measure, and it’s not an overstatement to say that Rank’s been on an extended creative roll during this time; release-wise, he basically went silent in 2007 following the release of the final album by his previous band Snatches of Pink. In absorbing Horsehair of late and thinking about what Toland wrote, I found myself thinking back to when I first encountered Rank and his music—the aforementioned Snatches of Pink.
It was 1985, and a cassette tape arrived in the mail with little fanfare. Titled The Stupid Tape and boasting a somewhat primitive-looking dark blue j-card, it featured six songs performed by what was at the time a 4-piece Snatches—Rank on guitars, Andy McMillan on vocals, Sara Romweber on drums and Jack Wenberg on bass. Raw and ragged but definitely right, the six-song tape had a primitive, careening-yet-hard-twanging cowpunk/garage quality to it on such eventual Snatches classics as “Salty Dog” and “Ones With the Black” that seemed thoroughly at odds with the prevailing jangly college rock of the day.
1987’s Demonstration/Demolition, also a tape, continued in the aesthetic, and by the time of the first “proper” Snatches release, 1988’s Send In the Clowns LP (released on the Athens-based Dog Gone, a short-lived indie label founded by then-R.E.M. manager Jefferson Holt) the group was also developing into a solid live act with a decent fanbase.
I forget exactly when I saw the group play for the first time, but it was probably around this time in Charlotte, at which point I was the resident Music Editor for alternatively newsweekly Creative Loafing and it had become my “mission,” as it were, to cover artists that the other local media either overlooked or deliberately ignored. Snatches of Pink certainly fit that bill, lurching into town from Chapel Hill on gas fumes and truckstop tacos and aiming to shake some action while shaking up the populace. “Where is the nearest liquor store?” most likely was the first thing they would ask when they arrived at the club.
Booze clearly fueled this band, which had slimmed down to a trio, McMillan having assumed the bass position (and sharing vocals with Rank) for 1989’s Dead Men. This LP, along with next year’s 4-song mini album Deader Than You’ll Ever Be, which was cut live at CBGB as a promotional radio release, is what solidified their image as a hard-drinkin’, unrepentantly badass group who clearly did not give a shit what folks—and, significantly, club owners and bookers—thought about the band as long as they came out to the show. That was another quality about Snatches which more than simply endeared me to ‘em: hailing from a long line of rock ‘n’ roll rebels that included such miscreants as the Rolling Stones, Iggy & the Stooges, Alice Cooper, Johnny Thunders and the Replacements, the Rank-McMillan-Romweber musical mafia were long, and I do mean loooonnnng, on attitude. They lived the part and looked it, too, each member’s shaggy, unkempt hair shrouding his or her face to the point that you figured it was only a matter of time before someone tumbled off the edge of the stage (no doubt this happened on a number of times, but I can’t say if it was due to not being able to see or simply too fucked up to walk). Rank in particular had a British rock star thing going for him, part Keef, part Nikki Sudden, part Hanoi Rocks, what with his penchant for tight pants, flowing shirts and colorful scarves. I mean, he probably wore eyeliner as well, but since I couldn’t see his eyes from under all that hair…
Snatches of Pink were the kind of group that drew a line in the sand between them and the “nicer” artists that the Triangle generally sent down to Charlotte, and a lot of us opted to join ‘em on their side of the line. My good friend Michael Plumides operated the city’s 4808 Club and was an early supporter like me, his own thumb-your-nose-at-the-powers-that-be sensibilities fully in synch with Snatches’. On more than one evening, standing in the audience watching the trio in full spin cycle and at maximum decibel, he and I would marvel at their undeniable outlaw charisma while assuring ourselves that, yes, this is the best fucking group in North Carolina right now. The band was a helluva lot of fun to hang out with, too, whether passing the bottle around or yammering on about the latest records we’d bought or bands we’d seen. During this period I struck up a friendship with Rank that I am proud to say endures to this day; he knew I was a fan, first and foremost, but I think he also knew that I “got” where they were coming from and weren’t simply fostering an image for no other reason than they could do it. He was a guy that understood rock ‘n’ roll tradition and wanted to find where he fit in to it.
There were naysayers and detractors too, one of them also owning a local rock club. I remember having a long conversation with Jeff Lowery (R.I.P.) of the 13-13 Club in which he groused about how unprofessional and arrogant Snatches was. Lowery was an astute booker and brought hundreds of terrific acts to town, but since he was coming from a businessman’s point of view, it probably wasn’t surprising for him to have a problem with a group that knocked over mic stands and monitors, left broken bottles on the stage and ignored the soundman’s pleas to turn down the volume and distortion. I have no doubt that Snatches left a trail of disgruntled club bookers in their wake during their initial run.
Not that their reputation among fans didn’t precede them. They scored a semi-major label record deal for 1992’s Bent With Pray; Dog Gone was, by design, a regional indie, so the distribution and marketing oomph of NYC’s Caroline Records was a no-brainer. In addition to benefiting from a decent recording budget the record found the band experimenting with a softer, psychedelic, more overtly melodic side; just opening track “Mother Crane” alone, with its strummy acoustic guitars, dreamy backing vocals and modal vibe, suggested some heretofore only intermittently displayed folk and roots influences. They didn’t go soft, however, merely expanded the range and depth of their songwriting and arrangements—which, I reckon, is the product of any band’s natural evolution and maturation—while still being able to rock out on a moment’s notice.
The album also served to introduce the stylistic shift displayed on Rank’s subsequent solo debut, 1993’s Coral, also on Caroline, which was dreamy and gorgeous and bursting at the seams with plangent guitars and no shortage of 12-string flourishes. In retrospect, these two albums can be viewed as a foreshadowing of Rank’s current incarnation as a folk/country-tilting troubadour, not necessarily examples of proto-Americana (the records have more of a baroque British feel) but certainly a glimpse of where his songwriting was headed. They also suggested great things loomed for Snatches, given the proper marketing and a healthy touring regimen to get their music showcased outside their immediate region.
And then—silence. In the summer of ’92 I left for Arizona, and as a result, lost touch with a lot of NC friends in the pre-Internet era. Meanwhile, no more music would emerge from the Snatches camp until 1996, and when it did it was, confusingly, under the name of Clarissa rather than Snatches of Pink. Perhaps someone at their new label, Mammoth, had convinced them that the original name was a tad too suggestive for the brave, bold, politically correct new world of commercial alt-rock; or maybe the band just viewed the three-year hiatus as an opportunity to start with a clean slate, but either way, it was a misfire, strategically, as the group’s Silver album failed both to capture a new audience and to hold on to the old Snatches fanbase. Of the former I am certain, because I was working in a Tucson record store and observed firsthand how Mammoth totally dropped the ball in terms of exploiting its distribution arrangement with Atlantic to effectively market Clarissa; of the latter, well, this particular fan thought it was a wonderful record, but my gut feeling is that a lot of people just thought Snatches had disappeared off the face of the earth.
Which it pretty much did after that, at least until 2003 when Rank resurfaced with not one but two albums, one as a heavy-rocking reconstituted Snatches Of Pink, Hyena (featuring Romweber on drums, Marc E. Smith on second guitar and a procession of bassists) and the other as a new group, Marat (whose Marat album was a co-writing project of Rank and John Ensslin, late of NC’s Teasing The Korean). The new-look Snatches would also go on to release Stag in 2005 and Love Is Dead in 2007, with Marat issuing Again in 2005, and all five of these Rank-helmed projects from the ‘00s are worthy entries to the man’s discography but none of them really got the exposure they deserved.
At any rate, this story is less an abbreviated history of Michael Rank and more a belated appreciation for one of my favorite North Carolina bands, the classic Snatches lineup of Rank, McMillan and Romweber. I dearly love those core records and I cherish every memory of seeing them perform live.
Interestingly, there doesn’t seem to be a ton of info out on the web about Snatches; there aren’t even all that many good early photos of the band online. And the Trouser Press entry is relatively succinct, and incomplete, while the Wikipedia listing is criminally bare-bones and way out of date, with a bunch of dead links listed. There is an official Snatches of Pink website, although it appears to have gone dormant in 2009, and it doesn’t really deal with the early lineup(s) and albums, just the latter-day incarnation. It’s worth noting, though, that during that phase an indie documentary about the band, Now It’s A Rock N Roll Show, was released in 2007 by Trickle Down Productions and directed by Daniel Adams so you can get details about it at the site. (Below: two trailers for the film, which includes plenty of early-days content)
Meanwhile, Bent With Pray, Rank’s Coral and Clarissa’s Silver (which in my mind is a Snatches album) are all readily available, and fairly inexpensively, at eBay and sundry online sources while the three Dog Gone titles surface from time to time (the somewhat rare CD version of Dead Men is even showing currently at Discogs, ranging from $9 to $35). The more recent Snatches CDs can be found easily too, and Love Is Dead is also available at Rank’s Bandcamp merch page along with all his recent solo titles.
Almost as good, and maybe even better considering the ease of access: Rank has posted Send In the Clowns, Dead Men, Deader Than You’ll Ever Be, Bent With Pray, Hyena and Stag all at that Bandcamp page as free downloads (even though I own physical copies of everything, I have been downloading each title while writing this because, well… just because). Speaking of free downloads, back at the Snatches website is a link just called “bootleg” and whattaya know, it is 13-song, lo-to-medium-fi live show from the group’s trio days, Charlotte’s Fucking Web, pictured below, featuring such Pink gems as “Ones With the Black,” “Goin’ Down” and “Salty Dog” plus a ridiculously thrashy cover of the Rolling Stones’ “2000 Light Years From Home.” I’ve got a pretty good idea about that concert tape’s provenance, but I’ll leave that to your fertile imagination, fellow Snatches buffs.
Bottom line: don’t just take my word for how great the band was—find out for yourself by listening to ‘em. The stuff’s out there. Then go get that new Rank album Horsehair. Dr. Toland and I command you.
It’s been a great run, Michael. Salute! Keep ‘em coming, brother.
“It’s your job just to go out there and throw your punches”: the sonically pugilistic Americana duo shows its moves to the BLURT braintrust.
BY JOHN B. MOORE
The Americana duo Shovels & Rope is an anomaly in music these days: a critically-hyped band that actually manages to live up to all of the effusive praise.
Charleston-based husband and wife team Michael Trent and Cary Ann Hearst originally had no intention of combining forces, both seemingly content as separate solo acts. But a couple of fortuitous gigs in which each act served as the other’s sideman, years ago at a North Carolina club, got the pair thinking about the benefits of combining forces. Three albums (including their latest, 2014’s frankly amazing Swimmin’ Time, released on the Dualtone label), a handful of awards, and millions of fans later, Trent and Hearst are still living up to the hype.
The two took some time recently to talk to BLURT about the band’s beginnings, making a documentary and holding their own at festivals.
BLURT: I’m sure you’ve heard this question a lot over the years, so I apologize for you having to hear it again: You both started out as solo musicians; how did you decide to come together as a band?
TRENT: We had made a record while we were still very much doing things on our own and that record ended up being titled Shovels & Rope, so it was already like we had a toe in already. We hadn’t planned on every being a touring act or anything, but people would respond to that in a way that was different to the way they responded to the other things we were doing. At some point, there was one specific weekend when I had a gig in Charlotte at a club called the Evening Muse and Cary was my back up for that gig, and the very next weekend she had a gig at the same place and I was her sideman. It just seemed ridiculous at that point – we could probably put on one pretty good show between the two of us. We could actually stay out on the road for a while if it was both of us doing it together.
How much did that change the way you go about writing your music? Obviously when you’re solo you don’t have to run a song by anyone else to get their buy in.
HEARST: It doesn’t change the way we write together, but sometimes Michael will write by himself and sometimes with other band members; I, 99% of the time, wrote by myself and so before we started touring really hard we co-wrote the first Shovels & Rope record together – he brought in some songs and I brought in some songs… When we started touring together, we’d spend all of our time together and realized it was fun to write together. We still write separately and together for records.
Do you ever feel you have to stand up for a song that the other one doesn’t like?
TRENT: Usually one of us is standing up for a song that the other person wrote, that they don’t really like,
HEARST: That’s exactly right.
TRENT: We’ll have a very honest conversation with each other: “You have to show me all of them, even the ones you may not think are any good.” A lot of times, it’s those (songs) that end up striking a real chord with the other person and end up turning into special songs.
I love my wife dearly, but could never imagine working a job with her every single day. Being married and in a band together, did you ever have a discussion up front on how to make it work?
TRENT: We thought the exact same thing, so don’t count yourself out.
HEARST: Yeah, it wasn’t either of our ideas as the ideal thing to do, spending that much time together.
TRENT: But it has actually worked out and we give each other space when we need it. At this point, I can’t really imagine doing it any other way. But at first, we were both like “no, we shouldn’t do this.” It took a minute before we both came around to the idea, primarily because we’d both been doing our own thing for so long that it would be weird to go in with someone else, especially your spouse… It’s been great.
HEARST: Ever since we got married, and we’d been together a real long time before that, we’ve been traveling ever since our honeymoon. We’ve been on the road ever since, so we honestly don’t know any different.
HEARST: The documentary is a super precious, awesome experience that we cherish. We’re also humbled by watching ourselves. I think some people really love to see themselves on camera and neither of us, even someone who is as big a ham as I tend to be, neither of us really love to watch ourselves when that deep dark mirror is shining back on you. You say stupid things and don’t realize it until afterward.
TRENT: The way it all came about in the first place, when we first decided we were going to do this, that we were going to be a band called Shovels & Rope, we heard about these guys and did some live videos with them, so that we would have something to put on our website so that we could get gigs. We spent a day with them and just made all kinds of videos. A couple of weeks later they called us back and had this idea that they wanted to do a documentary about us. We didn’t have anything going on at the time. Nothing.
They just sort of wanted to document the way a family band was just working, how we did our thing. It was supposed to a couple of months and then it ended up lasting a year and then two years. Things just kept popping up. They ended up following us around for about three years when all was said and done.
HEARST: Yeah, we really became great friends with them… the fella that produced it ended up becoming our manager during the course of making the documentary. Those guys are great artists and we had a really great time working with them… We’ll be so gratefully to have this looking back 40 or 50 years. We’ll be able to prove to our grandchildren what we did.
So is this just the first step on your path to a reality show?
HEARST: Oh yeah (sarcastically). It’ll be called Take My Eyes Out with a Dull Spoon.
You guys have a very packed summer, based on your tour schedule. You’re also playing a lot of festivals. Do you enjoy those are or they kind of a necessary evil at this point?
TRENT: It’s just different and every festival is different from each other. The smaller ones definitely feel a little more special. The big ones can be such a spectacle, there’s so much going on and so many people, I sort of feel like it’s harder to connect than if you’re playing in a club. You’re also playing to all these other bands’ audiences as well as your own. Whereas headlining show all of those people are there to see you.
It’s a neat opportunity, it’s just a little different.
HEARST: It’s trial by fire. You’re standing before the gun line and you give everything you have and you only have half the time to do it. Thank you Cleveland!
Have you ever had the situation where you’re playing to a crowd and you guys just don’t fit it?
HEARST: Oh yeah! But I will say that we’ve also played in front of crowds that we don’t necessary get into, but I will argue that we hang pretty tough. We’ve never gotten the idea that anybody is like “I hate this band. Get them off the stage.” People will let you know that they like you and they’ll also let you know that they’re just waiting for the band you’re opening for. That’s ok. That’s just part of the game. It’s your job just to go out there and throw your punches.
Paying tribute to the rocker and singer/songwriter who is BLURT’s Artist of The Year 2013. Go here to read our interview with Isbell.
BY FRED MILLS
In my capacity as editor of this magazine I’ve had the privilege of interacting with Jason Isbell on several occasions. (The first time actually predates BLURT: backstage at the 2006 Warren Haynes Christmas Jam in Asheville, NC, prior to a set from the Drive-By Truckers, I ran into Jason, chatted briefly, and had him sign one of my DBT record sleeves.) Then in July of 2008 he came to the Grey Eagle club in Asheville, NC, with his 400 Unit guitarist Browan Lollar, to do an acoustic show. That afternoon I and Associate Editor Andy Tennille interviewed Isbell for series of video clips for the BLURT website, the two musicians additionally playing “In A Razor Town” and “The Magician.” Both in front of and away from the cameras, Jason was engaged and thoughtful, preferring to talk more about songcraft and musical heroes than himself. (He also inscribed a tour poster to my young son: already a fan of Isbell’s, he proudly displayed it on his bedroom wall.) Continue reading →
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