Ross Grady has trouble with dates: In the early ’90s, he took over Smash Hits, a friend’s local radio show on N.C. State’s student-run station WKNC. It was 1992 or 1993. Two years later, he dropped out of graduate school. Initially, he’s not sure if that was 1994 or 1995.
But when it comes to music, Grady doesn’t forget a thing. During a two-hour conversation about the best bands he’s seen in the Triangle since he arrived in Raleigh in 1992, the names, dates and memories pour out quickly.
“They broke up Memorial Day of 1999, I’m pretty sure,” he says, dissecting the tenure of one of his favorite local bands, the six-years-gone Bicentennial Quarters. “They were one of the best bands I’ve ever seen. Watching them watch each other and play from one another was beautiful.”
Music makes Grady’s mind hyperactive–recollections, opinions and ideas about the best and worst things he’s ever heard flow. He speaks about the music he loves in hyperbole: “They were brilliant.” “They’re one of my favorite bands.” “She was the best fucking drummer I’ve ever seen.”
Since 1996, those ideas have been the core of trianglerock.com, a Web site Grady created to document the local music scene. Nearly every week, he compiles an extensive list of rock shows worth seeing in the Triangle and posts that list to Trianglerock and to the newsgroup alt.music.chapel-hill, which he runs. His descriptions of the bands combine a snarky sense of music criticism, humor and advocacy, incorporating a strong sense of scene history with references to bands and clubs long since passed. Those descriptions aren’t always flattering, which makes Grady an object of fear and loathing to some.
But he says he’s less interested in being a tastemaker disseminating his own views on the local music scene than in maintaining an access point for information about local bands and clubs. Grady is the guy at the rock show with a digital camera in hand. He posts the photos to his site, along with updates on the band in the picture. He’s even added a music player to the site that offers tracks by touring bands coming through the area. There are also recordings of local bands’ live sets on his long-running radio show Local Live, which airs Sundays from 5 to 7 p.m. on Duke University’s WXDU 88.7 (www.wxdu.org).
It’s a wealth of free material, ten years’ worth of music–recordings, photos, descriptions and links, a massive archive for the curious running over with some of the best output this area has produced. There’s no advertising, just an urgent statement of support for the area’s music scene.
Grady isn’t a musician himself. He’s just a little obsessed with music. He started writing music criticism for his college paper while getting his undergraduate degree at Rice University. Despite an offer to become music editor for the Houston Press, he headed to Raleigh to pursue a graduate degree in English. He arrived just as the national media buzz over the Triangle’s music scene hit a high note. Publications such as Detail and Spin started to cover Chapel Hill as “the next Seattle.” Grady started writing for the Independent, where he was the sole critic interested in tackling this area’s growing indie rock scene. The paper’s other writers weren’t quite as keen on unorthodox tunings or high volumes as he was. “The area was getting this attention nationally, but no one was paying attention here. The guys that were [at the Independent] definitely weren’t interested in getting it. The Archers of Loaf did not necessarily interest them,” he says.
As he covered the ascension of Triangle indie rock and, later, alt.country, “I had developed a reputation,” he says. He began to coordinate the paper’s music coverage, but the pressure to be critical was sucking the joy out of the job. “We made a point of always having one bad review in the paper. I felt like I was being pushed to have fewer shades of gray and to gratuitously diss people. That was frustrating.”
Grady didn’t desire the role of provocateur, so he quit music criticism in 1995. He left graduate school and his post as WKNC the same year. After his record label Cred Factory Records released two albums that went into the red, he quit that, too. But Grady, who had been working since the early ’90s with local programmers and Web pioneers interested in offering music online, found his calling in Trianglerock.
He created the site while on a Christmas holiday from his full-time job at IBM. He says he took to the Web after realizing that record labels, given time, would co-opt the Internet’s ability to host music and hinder access to online material. The site relies on server space and support from ibiblio.org, a project of the UNC School of Library and Information Science. He also inherited the task of managing the newsgroup alt.music.chapel-hill (and its mirror, the ch-scene e-mail list) several years after it was formed in 1994. It’s a forum for discussions of the local music scene populated by musicians, DJs, club owners, record store owners and fans. The list’s archive is itself an impressive catalog of the Triangle music community, replete with contentious debates and digressions about barbecue.
Like that group, Grady is completely focused on the local community. “I don’t give a rat’s ass whether anybody outside of North Carolina knows about this stuff. It’s about people interacting,” he says. “Around here, if you can have an open mind, then playing a show for a bunch of your friends isn’t a pejorative.”
That ethic is an extension of the do-it-yourself spirit he learned as an Indiana-born teenager in Clemson, S.C., the small college town to which his family moved when he was 10. He and local bandleader Kenny Roby were part of a tiny underground scene of rock revelers that launched a South Carolina punk scene with little but a string of basement shows and one small record store. Each afternoon, Grady would drive to the store, SoundTrax, and spend two hours just learning. He also ran sound for Roby’s country-punk rig, The Lubricators.
“We learned the whole DIY thing, really, because there was nothing else to do. There were house shows because there was nowhere else to play. It wasn’t political at all. We would have played club shows if we had clubs,” Grady says. “It didn’t seem like it was important at the time, but–now, looking back–it seems like it was, for all of us.”
At 35, Grady says he’s too tired to see as many shows as he once did. But he insists that the scene is alive and kicking. Trianglerock lists more than 400 current rock bands, and Grady says he likes more than half of them. Almost every night of the week, he says, there’s something worth seeing within a reasonable driving distance. And he doesn’t even try to keep up with the fragmented, three-ring circus that is national indie rock. “I’m still in this ’90s mindset where I think it’s possible for me to listen to everything, but that’s impossible,” he says. “But focusing on local music is one way to cope with that impulse. If I draw a geographical boundary around the things that I have to know about, I think I get closer to accomplishing it.”