Over the years I’ve written for a number of publications. Check out the pages linked here, where I’ll be putting some of my “greatest hits,” some features and reviews from the past.
From around 1997-98, I think…
“Reasons To Rock Again”
In the annals of the Columbia music scene, few bands have been loved or missed more than the pop-punk crew 49 Reasons. Their ubiquitous logo can still be seen on sturdy T-shirts around town four and a half years after their breakup, sporting the “I Got My Reasons” slogan. The appeal of the band isn’t hard to gauge, proficient as they were at coming up with killer hooks within a power-punk framework. Their demise wasn’t exactly surprising, either, given the usual dismal success rate of punk bands anywhere. Their timing was just a little off, given the huge success of similar bands like The Goo Goo Dolls or The Offspring in more recent years.
49 Reasons actually began life as a band in Florence, South Carolina in 1986. Drummer Darrin Gray recalls, “We moved to Columbia to be rock stars, because it was ‘the big city.’ We drove Cole (Charles, lead singer)’s blue Dodge Dart here, thinking it would be the greatest thing in the world.”
The band’s biggest contribution to the local music scene may have been their practice space, a storefront on Rosewood Drive dubbed, “The Double Deuce,” which served as 49 Reasons’ primary public performance space as well. Many truly ‘underground’ shows were played in that sweaty room, Darrin remembers, “Until in 1989, when we got thrown out–the city of Columbia found out I was living there.” More than a few old school Columbia punks will understand when he talks about all the “Free shows, and just a lot of fun. It was sad when that came to an end.”
When the band itself ended, it didn’t even happen in Columbia. As Darrin explains, “We were on a tour where we tried to do thirty shows in forty days, little punk rock gigs in basements. Any time you attempt that, things get tough.” He goes on to claim, “It’s not that we were mad at each other, it merely got to the point where we just wanted to do something different.”
Cole Charles, the band’s singer, notes that he never thought it would be a permanent breakup, but, “By the time we patched everything up, everyone was doing other things.” Those other things include a list of some of Columbia’s best bands, past and present. Cole formed Swig, a peppy punk-influenced combo that retained many of the endearing qualities of 49 Reasons. They’ve since broken up as well, but not before releasing an excellent CD, Crappy Hour. Darrin Gray spent some time touring with the Florence punk band The Independents before returning to Columbia and bands like Bone Machine, which mutated into Tarwater before collapsing, and most recently The Green Scrubbies and The New Jack Rubies. Bassist Allan Mozingo is also in The Green Scrubbies these days, and guitarist Chad Conn has been managing a music store back in Florence. It was Conn who indirectly facilitated the upcoming reunion gig, according to Cole. “When Chad got married, it was the first time we had all been in one place in a while. We just thought of doing the reunion as a spur of the moment thing.”
Rehearsal for the show has been a joy all around for the members, it seems. During our conversation, Darrin commented that he wished they were rehearsing that evening since he was having so much fun, and Cole was laughing about the video they had dredged up to help with practice. “It’s a tape of this show at Frank’s Hot Dogs that Chris Bickel (of In/Humanity) recorded in 1993, just before the breakup,” Cole explains, “There were a couple songs on it that we had forgotten about, since they were written that week and never played again.” Those songs, and many more that will undoubtedly bring back some memories for many Columbia music fans, will be on display when the band performs this one-off reunion show. It is a look back for them, and us, and a look forward in some ways. For Darrin Gray, this is a farewell show of sorts to his adopted home of Columbia. The ever-busy drummer has signed on to the Birmingham, Alabama rock band Smithwick Machine, and will move to that locale soon. It’s definitely an upward move for Darrin, as his new employers have recently been courting interested bids from several major and large independent labels. For Columbia, however, it means that not one but two bands, New Jack Rubies and Green Scrubbies, are in limbo, a notable loss to the local music scene. All that takes a back seat to nostalgia and good old-fashioned raucous punk rock power pop, however, when 49 Reasons hits the stage for the last time and reminds us all that no matter what they do, they got their reasons.
The following grab-bag piece was an early attempt to group some bands playing in town around the same time into the ‘new’ alt-country’ genre:
Alt-Country Weekend: “Country Come To Town”
Blue Mountain: Elbow Room, Friday 19th
The Gourds: Pavlov’s, Saturday 20th
Kim Richey, Big Back 40: Elbow Room, Saturday 20th
Forget Electronica, the hottest musical trend in America today has to be what’s variously referred to as “Alternative Country,” “Y’all-ternative,” or, “No Depression,” (after a magazine devoted to the genre, and an album from current influence of the moment, Uncle Tupelo) a style that’s as much about a lack of being in style as it is about a growing number of artists making music the way they want to, labels be damned. It’s a movement that’s come and gone in cycles, from the late 60′s/early 70′s California country of Gram Parsons, Flying Burrito Brothers and The Byrds, to the late 70′s “Outlaw” country of Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, and Kris Kristofferson, and the mid-80′s cowpunk and roots-rock of Jason & The Scorchers, The Blasters, The Beat Farmers, and Lone Justice. In the 1990′s, the latest wave started with a midwestern band called Uncle Tupelo, the demise of which reaped two of the most popular bands in the current crop, Son Volt and Wilco, and also includes The Jayhawks, Whiskeytown, Robbie Fulks, and many more.
Columbians have a rare opportunity this weekend to partake in a fistful of bands associated with this new vanguard of country and rock, including Blue Mountain, Kim Richey, Big Back 40, and The Gourds, who are all playing Columbia bars Friday and Saturday, and touring behind new albums that illustrate the true diversity behind “Alt-Country, the marketing term.”
Blue Mountain has the best family connection of the bunch, but possibly the most tenuous musical thread holding them in the fold, a quality that bodes well for the band’s ultimate longevity. Bassist Laurie Stirrat is the sister of former Uncle Tupelo and now Wilco member John Stirrat, and Blue Mountain at times does rival UT’s propensity for whiskey-soaked tales of miners and mongrels. Cary Hudson is Blue Mountain’s driving force, and he pushes the band toward the southern rock edge with searing lead guitars straight out of Skynyrd/ZZ Top-land, all the while singing his heart out on their second Roadrunner Records CD, Homegrown. “Generic America,” the first single, is a top-down blast from start to finish, and other tunes, like, “It Ain’t Easy to Love A Liar,” or, “Myrna Lee,” illustrate the band’s plaintive, easygoing, overalls and an RC Cola side. While country music is a recognizable starting point for Blue Mountain, they’re more akin to the bluesy Americana of CCR or The Band than to anyone in a cowboy hat.
Kim Richey is the closest this crowd gets to Nashville, and she’s still somewhat of an outsider, as well. Two albums into her recording career, Richey is a universally admired songwriter who has released some of the best “New Country” you won’t hear on a radio station this year. Choosing to use her own excellent touring band rather than Music City session men to record her last CD, Bittersweet (Mercury), made Kim Richey’s music stand out from the rest, and in the current commercial country music climate, that’s not really going to result in much airplay. Instead, Richey’s been taking it to the public herself, with a string of live dates since the album’s spring release including a stop here in Columbia, where she won over a crowd that came out to gawk at Junior Brown’s guit-steel. Richey’s version of country leans toward the slick, shimmering pop side, but her songs are anything but generic.
Big Back 40 is the big rock side of the recent roots-rock resurgence, preferring to bludgeon much of the implicit twang in their songs with giant guitar riffs, booming drums, and the anthemic vocals of Sean Beal. Like The Del Lords, The Rainmakers, or The Blasters, Big Back 40 take the bigger-is-better approach, resulting in great sing along anthems like, “Blood,” “Monte Carlo Girl,” or the relatively understated, “Bested.” Closer to Better Than Ezra or Soul Asylum than country, Big Back 40 nonetheless employ enough pedal steel to join the alt-country crowd.
The Gourds, from Austin, Texas, are the only real “country” band of this weekend’s candidates, but before you break out the line dancing boots, realize that their vision of country extends to Hank Williams, Clifton Chenier, and Jimmie Rodgers, rather than imitating yet another hat act. Their last album, Dem’s Good Beeble, is a slap-happy good time, touching on ragtime and vaudeville busker sounds on songs like, “Caledonia,” and, “Piss & Moan Blues,” and the lonesome Neil Young-ish high of, “When Wine Was Cheap.”
If this onslaught of supposedly like-minded bands teaches us anything, it’s to disregard labeling as much as possible, and enjoy the new alternative country, or whatever it is, for the great music it is bringing to the attention of the growing masses.
The following piece spotlighted a local Columbia, SC band, the band’s long gone but lead singer Rick Hack is alive and still making music in California.
Trends in music come and go, but there’s always a place in rock music fan’s hearts for a solid band with great harmonies and memorable songs. The Tinbenders, from the fertile musical manufacturing town of Columbia, SC, are one such group. The Tinbenders sound is full-throated melodic rock, heartfelt and earnestly performed. When lead singer Rick Hack wraps his resonant baritone voice around a lyric, the energy is palpable, transferring itself to the band’s growing audiences.
Their largest audience to date was last year in Columbia’s Finlay Park, a show that was “The biggest show we’ve ever played, by far,” Rick states. “The crowd was very receptive to us.” An impressive reaction, considering the band’s short existence, just over a year now.
The Tinbenders formed from the scattered remains of a couple other nondescript Midlands area bands, and quickly surpassed their former groups in both quality and quantity of just about everything. They are heading into a studio soon to begin sessions for what will become the first Tinbenders CD later this year.
As for that unusual name, it was a source of much consideration, and a final, sudden inspiration. “We agonized over it for weeks,” Rick Hack claims. “If anybody needs a band name, just ask us–we’ve got about five hundred of them we didn’t use.” Those rejects included such bizarre appellations as, “Seltzer,” which was rejected as, “Too alternative-sounding.”
The winning choice was “The Tinbenders,” something which Rick admits was chosen, “As much for what it didn’t say as for what it did.” The term “tinbender” is jargon for an air conditioner installer, a topic of conversation which came up due to the band’s practice space location, in an A/C unit mechanical plant. Rick also likes the interpretive possibilities inherent in the name–”A tinbender is a guy who makes life cool for lots of people,” He points out, a vocation which, it could be argued, a good rock band is also in. It won’t be long before the Tinbenders name is wrapped around the tongues of many, many more people, a scenario which the band members would most assuredly view as very cool, indeed.
This next piece was the first (and only) chance I got to interview one of the members of the great Raleigh, NC band The Backsliders–they gave me the lead guitarist Steve Howell instead of lead singer and main writer Chip Robinson, though.
“Throwing Rock Into Country”
The Backsliders Shoot for the Moon On New Album
by Kevin Oliver
Don Quixote tilted at windmills, imagining fearsome foes and enemies that were just as real to him as any thousand-strong army. The Backsliders twist that ancient theme into a down-home honky-tonk two-step dance, with heartache in the lead role. In the title track of their new Mammoth/Atlantic album, Throwing Rocks At The Moon, they sing about an “Angel with a dangerous side,” and “A razor sliding on glass, a stranger’s hand on her ass.” The narrator pines for her in vain, “In my front yard, throwing rocks at the moon.”
There are countless moments like that on this album. Drop the proverbial needle anywhere, and you’ll be rewarded with a blast of country-rock that’s authentic and reverential, yet fresh and energetic. According to singer and guitarist Steve Howell, “Every song is different, but there are certain things to write about, and imagery you can use to help create a certain feeling.” The predominant feeling one gets from listening to a song like the Gram Parson-esque mellow gold of, “Crazy Wind,” though, is entirely different from the emotions raised by a barnburner of a tune like, “My Baby’s Gone.”
The mood swings are just something that happens, Howell figures, not unlike the band’s authentic country sound. “Everybody in the band is a big music fan,” Steve claims, “And we always heard Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard, and old rockabilly like Carl Perkins.” According to him, “It’s not very hard to go from that to what we’re doing.” Not hard at all, in fact. Buck Owens, Merle Haggard, and the whole Bakersfield country connection figures highly in the Backsliders melange of country and rock. It isn’t their only source of inspiration, however. “The Rolling Stones,” Howell says, when asked how to best explain his band’s ‘sound’, “Compare us to the Stones. They did country, blues, you name it, and it was just rock and roll to them.” Howell himself is a big bluegrass fan, and speaks of the days when the Raleigh area was a hotbed of string bands, like The Red Clay Ramblers. “There is a bluegrass tradition here,” he reveals. “Country is one step away from that.”
The Backsliders are just one more step away from country, at least the kind of country that’s popular in Nashville right now, the kind that owes more to Poco than to Hank Williams. Howell isn’t sold on any of this talk, however. “Chip and I have been performing as the Backsliders for five years now,” he offers. Long enough to not be accused of any form of genre bandwagon-jumping, onto the latest resurgence in “cool” country music, dubbed ‘alternative country’ this time around. The rest of the band, Howell says, have more eclectic backgrounds. “Brad, our lead guitarist, played in the Accelerators, and another rock band, Finger,” Steve informs me, “And our drummer and bass player were in rock bands, too. In fact, most of the guys are more rock oriented than me and Chip.”
No matter what you call it, or where you end up filing it, Throwing Rocks At The Moon is plain good music, period. The marketing and classifying, Howell feels, are best left up to others. “You’ve got to make it available for people to find it,” he admits, “And you’ve got to find that potential listener who might like it.” As for how to do that, Steve demurs, stating only, “That’s the label’s job, really.” The Backsliders job, as he sees it, is just to write and play their music, and the rest will follow. “Any real band I’ve heard,” Steve notes, “The live stuff is more in your face than any record, anyway.”
Columbians will get two chances to see the Backsliders this Saturday. First at Riverfest, Saturday afternoon in Riverfront Park downtown, and later that night at Rockafellas, with the V-Roys, a Nashville country/rockabilly band with a Steve Earle-produced album, opening.