Alejandro Escovedo: A fan’s notes


From left, Eric Heywood and Alejandro Escovedo onstage Sunday, May 18, 2019 at Artsplosure in Downtown Raleigh.

Alejandro Escovedo played in Raleigh Sunday to close out this year’s Artsplosure Festival, a show that had a few things working against it — wilting late-day heat, the not-great acoustics of loud music in outdoor spaces, weariness after an all-night drive down from New York and a pickup lineup not entirely familiar with all the songs in the setlist.

“We’re, uh, loose today,” Escovedo quipped at one point after a false start.

As usual, however, all he had to do was start singing and everything was all right. I’ve been going to see Escovedo shows since I was a University of Texas grad-school student in my early 20s, and he’s been maybe my biggest musical, personal and critical constant through three-plus decades. I’ve written about him all over and seen him more times than I can count — playing in nightclubs, theaters, restaurants and living rooms as well as the occasional street corner. And the next time one of his shows leaves me unmoved will be the first.


And that’s me, taking pictures. Photo by Billy Maupin.

I actually find him not terribly easy to write about, simply because my emotional response to his music tends to be along the lines of: If you get it, no explanation is necessary and if you don’t, none will suffice. While I have been, at best, an irregular church-goer as an adult, Escovedo shows are among the closest church-like rituals I have —  not in the sense of worship, but compass-setting. His voice and songs resonate on my particular wavelength more than just about anyone else, and going to one of his shows always feels like bumping into my younger self.

Given the abbreviated outdoor street-festival setting, this wasn’t the full-on epic that Escovedo’s late-night shows can be. But over the course of an hour and 13 songs, most of them recent and focused on his latest album The Crossing, he evoked the journey we’re all taking, and rocked it up.

Not surprisingly, a lot of the newer songs were angry — and how could they not be, given Escovedo’s immigrant roots and what a hot-button issue the U.S. Southern border is nowadays? Songs from The Crossing blazed, especially “Fury and Fire” (written, Escovedo said, in response to Donald Trump’s race-baiting 2015 presidential-candidacy announcement) and the snarling “Teenage Luggage” chorus of, “You think you know me/You’ll never know me/You’re a bigot with a bad guitar.”

But I found myself responding more to “Always a Friend,” and the more personal, upbeat songs. There’s always one moment at an Escovedo show where everything in my world feels like it snaps into place, and this time it was the oldie “Castanets.” A smoking rocker with a Chuck Berry-style guitar riff for the ages, “Castanets” was recorded close to two decades ago right here in North Carolina — produced by Chris Stamey, with Mitch Easter on lead guitar. Eric Heywood ably played it this time, and it was spectacular as always.

The melding of North Carolina and Texas felt like a personal bonus, for those who knew.

Those who can, teach

TAW.JPGWe are now in the midst of Teacher Appreciation Week, May 6-10, which is a fine occasion for giving thanks to the teachers we’ve all had. It’s a noble profession, and I truly admire those who have the love and the skill — in part because I’m not so great at it myself.

I taught for a semester at NC State University in the fall of 2008, a class called “Principles of News & Article Writing.” That was back when the News & Observer newsroom was laying off staffers by the dozen and I was trying to figure out a backup career plan, and the one thing that semester taught me was that I’m no teacher. Oh, I got through it okay by working hard, and I even came away with surprisingly favorable (to me, anyway) reviews from my students.

Nevertheless, it wasn’t really a satisfying experience because I just never felt much of a connection, either with the students or the larger process. My best move all semester was probably when I offered free extra credit to any student who early-voted in that year’s presidential election, and I am proud to note that my class had a voting rate of almost 100 percent. Eighteen of my 19 students voted, the lone holdout being a foreign student who was not eligible (I came up with an extra-credit assignment for her to do instead).

Otherwise, those magic moments of buzz, when I felt like I’d really gotten through and made the students understand something important, were sadly few and far between that semester. I figured that was my fault, not their’s, and I was somewhat relieved when NC State cut its budget for adjunct lecturers the following semester. I had to let teaching go and that was when I began putting a lot more effort into freelancing, which went a lot better. It led to books and also laid the groundwork for the fulltime-freelance hustle I’ve embarked on since departing from the N&O a few months back.

Fortunately for me, I had a lot of teachers who were far better than I ever was in the classroom during my own formative years of education. And the one who probably had the most profound and long-lasting influence was a gentleman I met during graduate school at the University of Texas.

Way back in 1984, I was a UT graduate student mostly by default. I’d made a thorough mess of my undergraduate career by foolishly trying all the majors that led to well-paying jobs on for size. That went about as well as you’d expect, and I finally had to admit the truth: that I just wasn’t cut out to be a doctor or lawyer. So I got an English degree. I had no clear idea what I wanted to do beyond write, and my transcripts and grades were kind of in smoking ruins at that point. Thanks to a good score on the GRE Test, I barely squeaked into UT. So I went to grad school in journalism to try and figure out a path.

At UT, however, most of the professors were encouraging students to pursue thesis topics like designing computer programs to determine the “readability” of stories by counting the number of syllables per paragraph (and no, I’m not making that up). But I was already writing about music for the student-run Daily Texan newspaper and had something a little more offbeat in mind: a history of the already-defunct Armadillo World Headquarters, the funky concert hall that remained a symbol of Austin even though it had been torn down years earlier.

When I started talking to various UT professors about being my thesis adviser, they all reacted with puzzlement — until I approached Professor Gene Burd, who totally got it. Professor Burd had a reputation as, well, the “eccentric guy” in UT’s journalism department. Rumpled and cantankerous, he didn’t drive and referred to those who did as “Carbarians,” often in the midst of angry letters to the local paper.

He also had some fascinating and visionary opinions and ideas about growth, mass transit and the livability of urban areas, all of which were quite prescient because Austin was exploding into a rapid growth spurt that doomed grassroots institutions like the Armadillo. Professor Burd was a treasure trove of Austin cultural and political history, too, which made him the perfect faculty adviser for my thesis. After enthusiastically endorsing my proposal, he went on to give me a great deal of help and insight with the project.

thesis.JPGIn spite of his help, the resulting thesis (windily titled “Music, Media and the Metropolis: The Case of Austin’s Armadillo World Headquarters”) was earnest and amateurish, and contemplating it now kind of makes me cringe. Nevertheless, it was a crucial step in getting me on my way to becoming a writer. Decades later, it even came in handy as bonafides for one of my book projects, convincing Asleep at the Wheel’s Ray Benson that I was just the right guy to co-write his memoir.

I’ve always been grateful to Professor Burd for his faith in me, and the fact that he treated me more like a peer than a subordinate even when I was still a student. Some years after I graduated in 1985, I went back to visit him in his office while I was in Austin for South By Southwest. It had been close to 20 years since we’d spoken; but when I walked in, he nodded and began talking to me as if it had been just a few days since our last conversation. That was the year he talked me into being a judge for a journalism contest, helping to decide winners in the feature-writing category for the Texas Press Association (an enlightening and fascinating experience, but not one I’ve been inclined to repeat).

WalkWithBurd.JPGSince Professor Burd never drove, he would walk to campus from his home two-and-a-half miles away every day — including his final day of teaching in the spring of 2014, when he was retiring. That last day, the students from his final UT class made the walk with him, posting pictures with the Hashtag #WeWalkWithBurd. And of course he went right on teaching, same as always. Along the way, the very first stop they made was at the commemorative plaque where the Armadillo World Headquarters used to stand. When I saw the picture afterward, it made me mist up a little because in a small way it felt like I’d been there. And I was, in the same way all his past students were.

So during this Teacher Appreciation Week, here’s to Professor Burd and all the other teachers out there who have made a difference and left a mark. Whether anyone else realizes it or not, there’s nothing more important than what teachers are doing every single day.

Repeat when necessary

I’ve been writing about music for close to 40 years (!), which means I rarely don’t have something playing in the background — including while I’m at the computer working.  A good bit of the time, of course, what I’m listening to is whatever specific artist or record I’m writing about.

But there are a lot of times I go off-script, too, especially when writing something fictional or longer or not related to music at all, or even just for a change of pace. At those times, I’m usually looking for the aural equivalent of comfort food: something soothingly familiar that I can slip into and eventually tune out, letting it work its magic subconsciously.

This actually isn’t all that unusual, because a fair amount of anecdotal evidence suggests that if you want to really bear down on a task requiring concentration, it helps to binge on the familiar. It’s not just writing, either. My wife works as a real-estate paralegal and recently spent a day with Bob Dylan’s “Not Dark Yet” playing on an endless-loop repeat, and she reported that she felt like it greatly enhanced her productivity.

In my case, I’ve developed a few go-to favorites over the years. Some are individual songs, some are complete albums — and they all help focus my mind. What are some of yours? I’d like to hear about them in the comments.

Television, “1880 or So” — This was the leadoff track on the seminal New York new-wave band’s 1992 reunion album, and it was never any kind of hit. But it still kind of puts me in a trance every time I hear it, and I can listen to its hypnotic guitar interplay and mysteriously murmured lyrics for hours at a stretch. I’ve been trying to wear this one out for more than a quarter-century and it hasn’t happened yet. Another song in a similar vein is “Days on the Mountain” (1982) by Television founder Tom Verlaine. It’s weirder and less tuneful, but also longer and more epic. It scratches the same itch.

Miles Davis, Kind of Blue — This 1959 cool-jazz classic is an album I could happily listen to every single day the rest of my life, and it’s another one I’ve never been able to wear out. In that, I rank it alongside my all-time number-one favorite, Sly and the Family Stone’s There’s a Riot Goin’ On. But Riot isn’t something I put on when I need to really bear down on a piece of writing; too jittery, and it demands too much concentration to serve as accompaniment. Kind of Blue, however, retreats into the background just enough to work perfectly.

The La’s — This Liverpool band made one and only one album, about which there is a fair amount of lore. Unsatisfied with how things were going in the studio, the band broke up in the middle of recording, leaving the producers to piece together enough songs to make up an album. While that’s not a promising scenario, the result is nevertheless one of my all-time favorite start-to-finish records ever. You already know the hit, “There She Goes,” 2:42 of chiming pop perfection. But all 12 songs flow along, rising and falling at a perfect pace. Even though it’s barely 35 minutes long, The La’s really does feel like a satisfying, long day’s journey into night.

Ennio Morricone, Legendary Italian Westerns — I’ve always had a special affinity for the “Spaghetti Westerns” of Italian director Sergio Leone, including the wide-open ambience of composer Ennio Morricone’s elegant scores. Two decades ago, this 1988 compilation of the maestro’s greatest western themes was my main soundtrack while I was writing my novel “Off The Record.” There’s just something that feels intrinsically right about dramatic instrumental movie scores as fiction-writing accompaniment.

Aaron Copland, Copland Conducts Copland — Speaking of cinematic, Aaron “voice of the American Heartland” Copland is pretty much the last word when it comes to broad-brush musical landscapes. Between “Fanfare for the Common Man” and “Appalachian Spring,” this is music that should have your written epic sailing along in no time at all. And Copland’s music is so versatile, it even worked as soundtrack for a movie about basketball — Spike Lee’s “He Got Game.”

Good advices

Early in my time as Piedmont Laureate, one of the first things I did was to get together with a few of my predecessors to compare notes over dinner, and it was immensely useful. They had some terrific suggestions, and I’m going to try and do events with as many of them as possible over the course of this year. I’ve done programs with two so far — 2009’s Jaki Shelton Green at the North Carolina Book Festival, plus 2011’s Scott Huler at Quail Ridge Books — with a third, 2014’s Carrie Knowles, on the schedule for May 20 at Southeast Regional Library. More to come, I hope.

Toward the end of our gathering that night, 2017 laureate Mimi Herman (an amazing poet) told me something that really stuck with me: “Be thinking about what you want to give up, because you’ll have to give up something if you’re going to do this.”

That made a lot of sense and I promised I’d figure something out. But it sure didn’t play out the way I thought it would. Right around the time of that get-together was when the McClatchy Company made every News & Observer employee of a certain age a buyout offer, including me. I’d been turning down all such entreaties over the past decade with hardly a second thought, and my kneejerk was to do the same again this time. But McClatchy has been spiraling downward for years, which made me consider it. And after agonizing over it for a couple of weeks, I decided it was indeed time for me to take my leave from the paper, a process that involved much agony and ecstasy.

So yeah, the N&O turned out to be what I’ve given up during my Piedmont Laureate year. And while I don’t yet know what I’m going to do long-term, it still feels like the right call. Adding laureate doings on top of family responsibilities, freelance side-hustles including a book to finish and a radio show and an already-overwhelming N&O dayjob that was about to become even moreso meant that I had bitten off waaaaaaay more than I could chew.


Photo by Scott Sharpe.

It’s been just over a month since I left the N&O newsroom, and I’m still kind of catching my breath. I actually just applied for a job, a part-time gig that seems like it would fit my life and schedule so perfectly, I almost don’t want to get my hopes up. I’ve written a few freelance pieces for former local rival publications I never imagined would carry my byline, Indyweek and, including a review of this past weekend’s big Dreamville Festival.

Dreamville was the first big concert at Raleigh’s Dorothea Dix Park and it drew a massive crowd of 40,000, which was amazing to witness. It did feel odd to see some of my former N&O co-workers out there covering it, and for somebody else to be writing that story for the paper. But some things never change; just like they’ve been doing for years, N&O photographers Scott Sharpe and Robert Willett snapped a few candid pictures of me on the job that they were kind enough to share (see above, and below). I’d be thrilled with either of these serving as book-jacket author photo.


Photo by Robert Willett.

I’ve done some freelance writing for out-of-town publications, too, as well as a couple of bio-writing jobs. The latter involved a very different editing process from what I’m accustomed to, since the subject has to approve of what is written — which is nothing like the outlook I’ve had for the past three decades of journalism.

I’ve had Piedmont Laureate programs to do, too, including one that went great last week at Cameron Village Regional Library in Raleigh. “Revisiting the Underground: Stories From the Cameron Village Music Scene” was about the old Cameron Village Underground nightclub scene, centered around long-ago in-concert photos shot by my former N&O colleague Chris Seward. I led the discussion and it was quite nice, including anecdotes provided by a few rock stars who were in attendance. The photos will be on display in the library lobby through the end of May, and I’d highly recommend checking them out (here’s a story I did on this exhibit last year when it was at the City of Raleigh Museum).



Live at Cameron Village, to talk about The Pier and other subterranean nightspots from long ago.

I hope the next one goes as well, a “Piedmont Laureate Presents” program scheduled for Wednesday, April 10, at Durham’s Regulator Bookshop. I’ll be serving as emcee and interviewer for an event centered around the beautiful new photo book “Blue Muse: Timothy Duffy’s Southern Photographs.” Also on the program will be recent Grammy-winner William Ferris, and singing from the superlative Glorifying Vines Sisters. Y’all come.

Apart from all that, possibly the biggest gift that giving up the N&O job has given me is that I’ve been able to spend this past month focused on my own book. I am in the final (I hope!) rewrites for “The Big Book of North Carolina Music” — although that was never more than a working title, and the rewrite stage has confirmed that I’ll need to come up with a different name.

Whatever it is to be called, I’ve been working on this beast for either two years or the 28 years I was at the N&O, depending on how you reckon it. The book covers close to a century of music and history starting with bluegrass forefather Charlie Poole in the 1920s up to the present day, with 16 chapters and a Preface.

It’s been quite a slog, and I’ve had to beg, borrow and steal time from elsewhere to work on “Big Book” the past two years. I was humming along on the first draft at a pretty good clip through the first half of 2017, getting through about one chapter per month. But then the N&O started up a big “digital reinvention,” giving me and everyone else in the newsroom annual digital page-view quotas that were somewhere between ambitious and insane. That made the job immensely more difficult and energy-consuming, and from then on every chapter took at least two months to finish. There were a lot of days when I’d stall out and collapse into a recliner before getting to the book, because you can only push the time/space/lack-of-sleep continuum so far.

But I’m finally closing in on the end of it, and this is actually the fun part of the process. I once likened first-draft writing to digging ditches, and I’ve always found that part hellishly difficult. This phase, however, is the payoff, where you give the book another spin through the keyboard to tighten, brighten, fix inconsistencies, ponder word choices and trim redundancies, When I profiled the very fine novelist Ron Rash a few years back, he summed it up like this:

What I enjoy most about writing is revising, and what I hate is getting down the first draft. Once I get into something and it becomes about the language, that’s the good part. How vowels and consonants rub up against each other, the rhythms of the sentences and the paragraphs and the pages, that’s what gives me the most pleasure as a writer.

Amen. And I’d like to add that having this book occupy the center of my work life for a little while, with everything else having to find a place around it rather than the other way around, has felt positively luxurious.

Thanks, Mimi, for the good advice.

We are the champions

It’s been three weeks since I left the News & Observer and entered gainful unemployment, so to speak, and I’m still getting used to this new normal of not having a regular workplace to go to every day. It’s been a strange series of adjustments and jolts, starting with news two weeks ago that North Carolina rock legend Sara Romweber had died. Not having a place to publish a proper obituary was throwing me for a loop, until my former competitors over at Indyweek were kind enough to let me do one there (whew).

There was a bit of a respite last week with South By Southwest, the massive festival in my long-ago stomping grounds of Austin, Texas. Going to Austin every March is one of my annual compass-setting rituals and I was already registered, so I went and it was the usual amazing time, equal parts exhilarating and exhausting. I saw friends and family and ate way too much TexMex and barbecue, and I also kept busy doing some freelance reviews for Rolling Stone.

NametagDMThis week, however, I’m back home and the reality of really being gone from the N&O is starting to sink in. It no longer feels like an extended stretch of days off, but La Vida Freelance, and here we go. It came with a punctuation mark, too, Thursday night’s annual North Carolina Press Association Awards dinner. I attended, and it was most likely my final act as a member of the N&O newsroom team. It will almost surely be the last time I’ll ever wear a nametag like this one.

Us journalists are funny about awards. We all feign nonchalance because it’s what one does, and we talk a good game about how awards are ultimately meaningless, which is certainly true as far as it goes. Deep down, however, we’re just like anybody else: Whether it means anything or not, winning stuff is fun, especially if it involves dinner paid for by somebody else.

So I went and I won two this year — one for the N&O and one for the Durham Herald-Sun, which is now owned by the N&O and shares newsroom staff. I won second place in feature writing for a piece about the singer Nina Simone’s roots in the town of Tryon, a story pegged to her induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame last year; and third place in arts and entertainment reporting for a feature about artists in the down-east town of Kinston.


Overall, the N&O won 34 awards and came in second in the overall-excellence category, behind the Winston-Salem Journal but ahead of the Charlotte Observer, our…or rather the N&O’s former big in-state rival (it’s going to take me a while to start thinking of the N&O as “them” rather than “us”). Now that the N&O and the Observer are owned by the same corporation, the papers are more partners than competitors. But like the old corner store of daily-paper journalism, having them for a rival is something else I miss.

Credit where credit is due, the NCPA organizers put on a much tighter program this year compared to years past, when the ceremony had the pace and vibe of a high-school graduation. I still remember last year’s interminable event, when we were entering Hour Three and one of my co-workers sighed, “Now is when you really miss cocaine” (still my most indelible NCPA memory from years of attending).

This seems like a fitting capper to my 28-year run at the N&O. Going on a month into my followup chapter, I’m still catching my breath and trying to figure out what’s next even though I’ve actually been pretty busy. I’m in the midst of final (I hope!) rewrites on the North Carolina music-history book, and I’ve got a decent amount of freelance work to do. But the freelancer’s lot is to fret about whether or not that will keep coming, a feast-or-famine cycle I’ll have to get used to.

Meanwhile, the Piedmont Laureate calendar is gradually filling up. Please come see me at an event soon.


A few words about…Ryan Adams

DRANYTBack on Feb. 13, when the New York Times dropped its bombshell piece alleging sexual misconduct by my old book subject Ryan Adams, about a half-dozen emails with the story link appeared in my inbox within two minutes of it going online. Most of them were along the lines of OMG have you seen this?! But a few were also inquiries, from people asking what I thought or if I’d be writing about it.

One of the people asking if I was going to write about it was an editor at the paper, to whom I responded: “I’m not touching this with a 10-foot pole.” Figuring that the world could do without my hot take on the situation, I opted to leave it alone.

And yet that did not stop anyone from asking.

I was scheduled to do a few events at last month’s North Carolina Book Festival, and I figured (correctly, as it happened) that I’d get asked about Ryan. So I wrote out a statement that I read at my Feb. 23 presentation about book-writing, figuring that would be the end of it.

Weeks later, however, people are still asking — and I figure it will inevitably come up next week, when I’m at South By Southwest in Austin, Texas. So what the heck, I’ll put the statement on here, too, even though I have no grand revelations. I wish I did.

I have said very little in public about the recent Ryan Adams allegations. Almost nothing, in fact, and I’ve had my reasons.

Ryan has been gone from Raleigh for a very long time, and he has not even played a show anywhere in North Carolina in nearly 14 years — since June 2005. He and I have not communicated directly in many years, either, so whatever insight I may have once had into him as a person does not seem relevant to his current circumstances. Moreover, I have not wanted to give the appearance of trying to sell books or otherwise capitalize on a terrible situation.

For whatever it’s worth, I never witnessed or heard about anything like the allegations in the New York Times story, either back in the day or while reporting on him after the fact. This should not be surprising. Ryan’s time in Raleigh was more than 20 years ago. He was just breaking into the music business and did not yet have his own recording studio, record label or standing in the industry to boost anyone else’s career.

Of course, I heard some stories because everybody in Raleigh of a certain age who was crawling clubs back then has at least one Ryan Adams story. As told to me, they were mostly humorous anecdotes in which no one took him too seriously — like the time he jumped into a hot tub full of women uninvited, or got chased out of a house and down the street in Boylan Heights with a broom.

In light of recent revelations, stories like that don’t seem nearly as funny or innocent as they once did. I think of Phoebe Bridgers, a singer/songwriter and one of the women quoted in the New York Times story. She wrote a song about her time with Ryan, “Motion Sickness,” that kind of induces shudders from the very first verse.

I hate you for what you did
And I miss you like a little kid
I faked it every time but that’s alright
I can hardly feel anything at all…

That leads to the chorus, in which Bridgers declares she has “emotional motion sickness” and croons in a shell-shocked voice, There are no words in the English language I could scream to drown you out.

At least we got to actually hear that song. Some of the other women in the New York Times story gave up music altogether, and the word “tragedy” seems somehow inadequate to describe that.

At this point, I have no idea what a right or just outcome would look like. It’s not my place to either condemn or defend Ryan. I’ve written a lot about Ryan over the years, very possibly too much. So right now, what seems appropriate for me to do is this: to listen.