“I’ve been a big fan of Americana since it was ‘called’ Bruce Springsteen.” So said my friend Eddie recently by way of introduction to a group of fans of music that’s known as Americana or alt-country or a half-dozen other names. In addition to being a snappy little intro, Eddie’s line spoke to the slippery and often transitory nature of labels, with the world of country and roots-influenced music no exception. In fact, it may be built on the slipperiest ground of all. But, at least in North Carolina’s Triangle region, it’s also ground that’s exceptionally fertile.
I’ve been a big fan of Triangle-based Americana since it was called Phil Lee & the Sly Dogs and The Accelerators. The latter’s ’91 release, Dream Train, qualifies as the first roots-rock album that I bought after moving to North Carolina, and a show headlined by the former served as my coming-out party. In April of ’92, I caught Jeff Hart’s The Ruins opening for Lee and his crack, country-leaning rock band. It was my first live exposure to music made by and for non-twangophobic Triangle-ites, as well as a gathering of key characters that would figure in its future.
Having already survived two bands, Hart formed The Ruins in 1990 with a guy named Chip Robinson. Among others supporting Hart in The Ruins on that spring night (Robinson had already moved on) was teenager Dave Bartholomew, whose brother, Ron, had been in those first two bands with Hart. Eight years later, the Brothers Bartholomew would help Gerald Duncan resurrect The Accelerators. Lee, based in Nashville these days and the architect of two fine but long-time-in-coming solo records, had already been making music professionally for more than 20 years, from N.C. to NYC and L.A. and back again. The Sly Dogs’ bass player, Danny Kurtz, had also been in The Ruins, and in 1995 he’d join Robinson in a self-described “hardcore honky-tonk” band called The Backsliders, which Robinson and fellow guitarist Steve Howell had started as a duo four years earlier. Another Backslider-to-be, Brad Rice, played guitar on Dream Train, and both he and Kurtz would eventually spend time in the punk-bred revolving door known as Whiskeytown. Has your head exploded yet? I haven’t even mentioned The Woods, Available Jones, or a Clemson, S.C. band that would relocate to Raleigh, 6 String Drag. You’d need time and a big-ass piece of construction paper to tackle the Triangle’s alt-country family tree.
If you want to point to one moment where things coalesced into an “official” scene, try a winter-of-1995 show in Raleigh. “It was the first time that the ‘Alt-Country Trilogy’ hit the Brewery,” says Kurtz. “I remember the poster for it well: It had a guy on a horse smoking a fat doobie, leaning up against a cactus in the desert. Under it, it read: ‘Backsliders, 6 String Drag and Whiskeytown–One Night Only at the Brewery. Smoke ’em if you got ’em.’ The joint [pun possibly intended] was on fire that night, with both 6 String Drag leader Kenny Roby and Whiskeytown wunderkind Ryan Adams joining The Backsliders at one point.”
But this isn’t merely a Glory Days rumination: The Triangle’s alt-country scene is even stronger these days than it was on that pyromaniacal night. The Big Three are no more, but their spirits, and most of their musicians, play on. Roby released a superb solo album a couple of years ago that confirmed he was a one-man Band, and Robinson continues to own stages both alone and as the possessed frontguy for various on-again/off-again roots-rock collectives. Howell has a new, red-hot bluegrass and classic country outfit while Kurtz plays with the under-appreciated Greg Hawks & The Tremblers, whose early-2001 release, Fool’s Paradise, unfortunately slipped a lot of minds by the time year-end lists were submitted.
And what of Whiskeytown? Adams no longer lives in the Triangle, but his three Grammy nominations–related to last year’s mightily hyped Gold and his contribution to the Hank Williams tribute album, Timeless–are probably helping him cope with any lingering homesickness. Caitlin Cary, Whiskeytown’s harmonizing and fiddle-playing heroine, is still here, and she’s going to flat-out floor people with her full-length debut, While You Weren’t Looking. (Cary released the accomplished EP, Waltzie, in 2000.) Due out in late March, While You Weren’t Looking is an old-fashioned tour de force that visits Memphis-style roots soul (“Too Many Keys”), Carole King-inspired pop (“Pony”) and even (Tom) Petty-perfect rock in the form of “Thick Walls Down.”
Cary sings that last one with the tune’s co-writer, Thad Cockrell, a soulful, pure-country vocalist and the Triangle’s best alt-country story from last year. Cockrell went into the studio with Chris Stamey, who also produced Cary’s two releases, just to get a handful of songs down with his Starlite Country Band–maybe share ’em with a few folks. The resulting album, Stack of Dreams, earned the “Essential Americana Album of the Month” honor in the well-respected British music magazine MOJO and ended up on its Americana Top 10 list for 2001.
Cary and Cockrell’s introductions to Triangle alt-country couldn’t have been better scripted. Cary recalls enjoying the first show she saw after moving to Raleigh to enter the creative writing program at N.C. State: Superchunk at The Brewery. But she fell in love with the second band she saw: The Backsliders. And Cockrell also tells of being a newcomer to the area and wandering into Spinning Mule Records on Hillsborough Street and asking about “this alternative-country stuff.” He was quickly directed to a 6 String Drag show at the Cat’s Cradle.
And we can’t forget 2001’s New Year’s Eve band at the Cradle, Tift Merritt and The Carbines. Their heavily anticipated debut, Bramble Rose, is now slated for a June roll-out on Lost Highway, also home to Adams. John Howie’s ace country band, the Two Dollar Pistols, who teamed up with Merritt for a 1999 EP, is still going strong, and Trailer Bride continues to imagine a world where Flannery O’Connor shares a Chatham County doublewide with Jeffrey Lee Pierce. Then there’s Hobart Willis and the Back Forty (honky-tonk is introduced to rock courtesy of a pair of hot-shit electric guitarists) and Hooverville (three guys, one mic, plenty of mountain soul). Hart has even formed a new band, the Brown Mountain Lights, with Janet Place and former Independent alt-country expert Greg Bower. And the newest Lights member is Back Forty bassist Pat McGraw, who, thanks to his past with the Two Dollar Pistols and non-twangers The Gladhands and Poor Valentino, is this area’s Kevin Bacon.
A true alt-country Kodak moment occurred at S.P.I.T.T.L.E. Fest 2002 a few weeks ago when Robinson’s latest band, the Vibe Killers, offered an inspired reading of “Purple Rain.” Robinson was front and center, with the well-traveled Mike Krause (Two Dollar Pistols and The Tremblers, among others) stage left and Dave Bartholomew stage right. Ex-Whiskeytowner Skillet Gilmore was on drums, with Cary and Patty Hurst Shifter’s Chris Smith coming aboard mid-song for some background vocalizing. And on deck was Cockrell. A quote from Robert Earl Keen–Adams’ and the Carbines’ labelmate at Lost Highway–came to mind: “The road goes on forever/The party never ends.”