What we think of today as “classic rock” would probably still have existed in a world without Mitch Ryder, but it most likely would have sounded quite different. Mitch Ryder & The Detroit Wheels ruled the radio and monopolized the singles charts between 1965 and ’67, taking the R&B sounds emanating from their native Motor City and elsewhere and amping them up into a sweaty, ecstatic explosion of rock ‘n’ soul abandon. Query any major American rock act to emerge between the late ’60s and the late ’70s”odds are the influences they’ll cite include plenty of classic Motown and Stax artists, but their adaptation of those soulful sounds into their own music will be most immediately informed by the mid-’60s Mitch Ryder hit parade. “I think it’s true when they say that we crossed that bridge from Motown into white-boy rock & roll,” says Ryder. “We had enough R&B influence in our music, but we also had that teenage angst and energy and drive that comes with being a rock & roller, and we somehow magically stumbled onto a hybrid mixture of those two. And that created not only our sound, but it allowed for young rock & rollers to cross over [into R&B].”
In fact, the first half of “Devil With a Blue Dress On/Good Golly Miss Molly,” the 1966 medley that became Ryder’s biggest hit, came straight from Berry Gordy‘s R&B empire. The original version was cut by soul man Shorty Long for Motown two years earlier, at about half the speed of Ryder’s fervid reinvention. “We doubled it, maybe tripled it,” Ryder says of the original song’s tempo. “If the average band was playing 100 beats a minute, we were playing 160 beats a minute, it’s just adrenaline.” That adrenaline helped to make stars of Ryder and his Motor City mates in an era dominated by British groups whose own interpretation of American R&B was watered-down by comparison. Listen, for instance, to the Rolling Stones‘ early attempts at blues and soul back to back with Ryder’s contemporaneous output for verification. In fact, Keith Richards and Brian Jones were guests at the recording session for Ryder’s momentous ’65 single “Jenny Take a Ride,” and the latter artist’s intensity was not lost on them. “There was a little bit of arrogance,” Ryder recalls of the Stones’ demeanor on the date in question, “but there was a genuine interest because of what they were listening to. And they had the ability to acknowledge the fact that the music was exciting, and made predictions that it was going to be a hit. I had mingled with them on and off and seen them in London,” remembers Ryder. “Keith and I actually would go out and party together a little bit in New York.”
Unfortunately, Ryder’s commercial success was nowhere near as long-lasting as that of his British drinking buddy. The Wheels didn’t survive past the ’60s, and Ryder’s last real moment in the spotlight in America came in the early ’70s with his short-lived band Detroit. Though he has maintained an active recording career in Europe from the ’70s to the present, Ryder spent decades as an unknown soldier in the US. His last domestic release was 1983’s John Mellencamp-produced Never Kick a Sleeping Dog, and his next dozen or so albums never came near American ears. That trend is about to undergo a long-overdue reversal with the American release of The Promise. Produced by Don Was, Ryder’s first American album in almost thirty years dovetails nicely with the publication of his new autobiography, Devils & Blue Dresses.
In the book, Ryder chronicles his rise and fall with a candor that spares neither himself nor those who screwed him over in the music biz. Producer Bob Crewe, for example, helped make Ryder’s early hits possible, but also hastened the downward slide of the Detroit dynamo’s fortunes. Asked about Crewe’s current whereabouts, Ryder references the producer’s work with The Four Seasons, mordantly remarking, “The latest quote I heard from him is when [Four Seasons musical] Jersey Boys came out, and he said, ‘That’s like hitting the lottery twice.’ Had I been eating chicken, I’d probably be choking on the bones.'” Ryder nevertheless remains evenhanded in his estimation of Crewe. “He had no lack of confidence, and no morals or ethics either, for that matter. But I give him his proper credit in the book, and state quite clearly that those songs, no matter how talented our band was, couldn’t have become as powerful as they were had he not been present to cause that excitement in the minds and hearts of the young teenagers [Ryder and The Wheels] he was surrounded with.”
Ryder’s book is a fascinating rock & roll memoir along the lines of Tommy James‘s cautionary tale, Me, The Mob & The Music, even featuring some of the same mendacious moguls. Ryder states simply, “If you’re gonna write an autobiography, why glitz it up and try to hide things? Most of my life I’ve lived in Detroit, and Detroit’s a funny place”we can live with omissions but we will not tolerate a lie. So I decided when I started writing that it was gonna be as truthful as it could possibly be. It was so truthful that the [publisher’s] legal department pulled many, many pages from the book. They were afraid of lawsuits. All I did was lay out the facts and told the truth.” Ryder doesn’t let himself off the hook for anything either, casting an unblinking eye on his own personal and professional missteps throughout, but the sixty-six-year-old singer remains philosophical about it all. “If it happened, it happened,” he says, “Why take on any bad feelings about it? We all make mistakes. Why regret something, why torture yourself so late in life with things you can’t change? For me it’s just a documentation of what the trip was about.”
Ryder’s accounts also include intriguing close encounters with legends like Bob Dylan. A twenty-year-old Ryder was a fly on the wall for one of Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited sessions. “That was thrilling,” remembers Ryder. “I was focused like a hawk on a mouse on Dylan, and he was so active in the studio, he would stop a song and take out a notebook and write something down¦suddenly they’d be playing a song and he’d stop and go over to the piano and play something¦it was a long process for him. There was a lot of guesswork on the part of the musicians¦he would do maybe sixteen bars here and the next verse would be ten, and that was all just at his discretion. I remember [Dylan guitarist Mike] Bloomfield just looked at me once with these weird eyes, like ‘This is crazy.’ His music made you think, whereas the music that we had been turning into hits was pretty much party music.”
Nevertheless, the ’70s found Ryder beginning the long process of establishing himself as an incisive songwriter as well as a powerful performer. At least as far as America goes, most of this artistic evolution has taken place under the radar, so many might be surprised at the intensity of the artist’s own compositions on The Promise. “I’m an oldies act here,” he says, “People have no reference point, for all they know I’ve just been real lazy, and just trying to milk that cow until it runs dry, when the fact of the matter is that I’ve been working my ass off and I haven’t stopped.”
With the help of Don Was and a core team of crack players, The Promise melds hard-hitting R&B and rock & roll grooves with uncompromising lyrics that mine the personal and the political with equal aplomb. “Don and I know each other from quite a few years back,” explains Ryder. “I simply called him one day and said ‘Don, what would it take for us to make an album together?’ Because my career in America was really taking a tailspin, and I had to do something to at least let people in America know I was alive so I could work. When I go to Europe it essentially pays my bills for maybe four or five months, the rest of the year depends on the work I get in America. So to survive I had to do something to get myself back into the public eye, and the album was one piece of it. The book became a second piece.”
All these years later, Ryder is still living in the Detroit area, and even as he returns to remind the public of his status as a true rock & roll original, he remains a cheerleader for the Motor City sound. Asked how he looks at the Detroit rock legacy he helped create, as carried through the decades by everyone from The MC5 to the White Stripes, he enthuses, “I’m very happy with it. We just keep trendsetting, and we keep sticking it out there. It still comes out of the city and it’s still being recognized. We have people coming out of here all the time, and it’s been that way since I can remember, so it’s a good breeding ground for artistic abilities. We’re probably more highly educated than the rest of the country would like to think.”
The Bob Seger catalog is the rock & roll equivalent of your skeletal system”you probably take it for granted to the point that you seldom think about it, but where would you be without it? In a crumpled, crippled heap on the floor, that’s where. Seger’s influence is so deeply embedded in American music that even some of his musical offspring might not realize it, as they’re inspired by artists who were in turn inspired by Seger himself, making for a kind of musical trickle-down theory. For instance, at least twenty-five percent of the current crop of male country artists owe their CMA awards to Seger’s heartland rock sound, even though they probably came of age soaking it up second-hand via John Mellencamp, et al.
Most people’s knowledge of Seger’s work extends about as far back as his 1976 breakthrough album, Night Moves, but the Detroit demon had already cut eight other albums before that, recording his first single while still in his teens back in 1961 and releasing his first record under his own name in ’68. He was turning out tough-minded, roots-rocking odes to the proles when Bruce Springsteen was still playing psychedelic guitar hero in Steel Mill, so even when most of the world came to know Seger for the first time some thirty-five years ago, he was already a well-traveled road dog. But after half a century in the business of rocking, sixty-six-year-old Seger seems to have no intention of settling into retirement.
Based in Nashville, Tennessee, the Americana Music Association is a nonprofit organization dedicated to celebrating and cultivating the community of Americana artists across the country. The AMA works around the clock to host events, participate in conferences, conduct research and keep fans in the know. They also know how to put on some incredible concerts, which have featured such influential artists as Lyle Lovett, Nanci Griffith and Buddy Miller. We had the chance to catch up with Executive Director Jed Hilly to hear all about the exciting events and initiatives that the AMA has done in the past, as well as their plans for 2011.
OS: As Executive Director, what is your role in the AMA?
JH: My job was designed to shed light on those artists who otherwise would not be heard. The association was created in 1999 and the group of 30 some-odd folks who became our founding council created the organization pretty much in response to the commercialization of radio in the ’90s and how artists like Steve Earle and Roseanne Cash, these great artists of integrity, were pretty much shut out from airplay. So that’s where it started from. We’re a trade association, but I feel like I work for the artist. The beautiful and wonderful thing that seems to be happening in the last couple years is that there’s a tremendous momentum in the Americana world. Some of these artists that have embraced the Americana community and style and genre of music, they don’t need me to shed any light on them at all…artists like Elvis Costello and John Mellencamp and Robert Plant, and yet, I’m thrilled that they’ve embraced this style of music because my job is to raise the tide for all ships. The participation and support of artists like that really helps.
OS: What are the advantages to joining the AMA?
JH: Well, I tell people that we are a non-profit with a very small staff…there’s actually only 2 full-time employees. I wish we were larger…people think we’re a much bigger organization. Because of the passion of the volunteer efforts that we receive, we put on a festival and conference each year. It’s an exceptional event and an amazing volunteer effort. About 150 people join forces with me and Dana Strong, our Director of Operations, and make it this wonderful community gathering. The benefits [of becoming a member]…you get a discount on our community gathering, we keep you updated, we’ve joined forces with an independent insurance plan, which is really helpful for artists who are always on the go. I would encourage people to support what we’re doing because I truly believe that we’re changing the landscape of the music business and it’s long overdue.
OS: The AMA recently announced the Top 100 Americana albums of the year. How is this list compiled?
JH: We have about 75 radio stations that are sanctioned certified reports, what they call a “radio panel.” When somebody says to me, “How do you define Americana?” This is our tool. Through these stations, they report spin counts”the number of times they play a particular song from a particular record. When you add them all up across 75 stations, your Top 40 chart is going to look different from every station, unlike mainstream stations, where it’s 10-20 songs played over the course of a week in every city in the country. This is unique, it’s a cross-section of 75 stations and specialty shows and the like, where we’re getting their definition of what Americana is. As spin counts accumulate, they bubble up. When you look at that over the course of a year, there could be a debate about some of the artists that could be at 700 or 800, but when you get to the Top 100, there’s your definition. There’s your landscape of the Americana world. Our radio stations are our heatseeker chart, if you will.
OS: Every year, you have a showcase at the Americana Music Festival & Conference. What do you look for in acts that submit applications for this opportunity?
JH: Similar to the way you’ve got 75 stations who are putting forth what they perceive to be the songs most worthy of airplay on their stations, so too do we have a committee that both surveys online and physical product that is submitted to us. They go through it, and I love what they do. Last year we had over 800 acts submit to play our event. The worst month of my year is when the 700 letters of regret, as we call them, go out, because we’re a small organization. We can only invite between 85 and 100 artists to be a part of this and it’s not necessarily the best of the best. Sometimes artists’ schedules change and they can’t come, or vice versa. But the bottom line, musically, is that Americana music” as we define it”is contemporary music that honors or derives from American roots music. And after that, a number of factors come into it. We’re grateful because the venues extend to us their homes, for free. This is our annual fundraiser. One of our venues, for example, is the world famous Station Inn in Nashville, which is the mecca of bluegrass. What you’ll find in that particular venue are more singer-songwriter, bluegrass-oriented performances. The room holds about 200. By contrast, we use the Cannery Ballroom, which holds over a thousand. That’s where we put people like Dirks Bentley, who played our event last year. So in the case of some of these artists who we’ll put in the Cannery, it’s because they can put a thousand people in there, and that’s how we make some money to survive.
OS: The AMA endorses Sound Healthcare. What can you tell us about this initiative?
JH: That’s our insurance plan. Sound Healthcare is an organization that has gone to a number of nonprofits, like the AMA, or the Country Music Association or the Folk Alliance. It’s a managed healthcare plan by consolidating these non-profit groups. An organization like the CMA has anywhere between 4,000 and 6,000 members. We have 1,000…but it’s great that we are all a part of the same plan that gives us the volume and numbers to support getting reasonable rates by being part of it. I think it’s a brilliant idea that the folks over there put together and we’re thrilled to be part of it as a benefit from our membership.
OS: What is your most memorable experience from an Americana Honors and Awards Show?
JH: It’s hard for me, because I’m working that day! (laughs) I’m a ball of stress, hoping everything goes well and it always does. But I remember a few years ago when Lyle Lovett came. He showed up at rehearsal and the great Buddy Miller is our band leader. We generally ask people to tell us what song they’re going to do and Buddy puts together this incredible all-star band. Last year, the band featured Buddy on guitar, Don Was on the upright bass, Greg Leisz on steel…just an amazing array of musicianship supporting the artists who perform in our show. Lyle didn’t deliver a song to me or Buddy, and quite honestly, I’m not going to push Lyle Lovett to a decision! So Lyle shows up and Tony Brown, the great producer, happened to be in the house. So Lyle’s standing there and he says, “What should I do?” Tony says, “If I Had a Boat!” and Lyle says, “Does anybody have a copy of ‘If I Had a Boat’ for the band to hear?” And they pulled it up off iTunes and there was dead silence. One by one, Buddy and the members of the band start playing along with it, halfway through the song. The song finished and Buddy said, “Can we hear that one more time?” And they ran it through, and it was amazing. Just watching this level of artists and musicians listening, thinking, absorbing…and about 45 seconds into it, They went and did this first take, not ever having played the song together. It really was an extraordinary moment, sitting there for the next four and a half minutes, and they stopped and Lyle said, “I think you got it!” (laughs) It was truly wonderful and the essence, I think, of what the Americana community is all about. It’s about the enjoyment, the passion and the love of music and it’s about the talent level. Man, they nailed it.
OS: You’ve said that, “The typical Americana act is in the music business for the long haul.” Why do you think this is?
JH: I think they’re artists. I heard Emmylou Harris talk a couple years ago…she had been presented with one of those big platinum awards, commemorating 15 million records sold or something. She looked around at the room and said “I’m honored and privileged to be able to do this, but I’m honored and privileged to play with all of you. Whether we made money on this or not, I think we still would have done it, and I think we still would have been playing music, because that’s what we do.” Living in Nashville can be so hard. There’s that old bus station story about Nashville, where you show up with your guitar and you leave without it to get the bus ticket out. But that’s not this community. This community is about telling a story through song in the best way they know how. It’s not about selling records. To me, it’s the difference between fine art and commercial.
OS: What are some events that the AMA has coming up in 2011?
JH: We will be back at SXSW and doing our annual showcase there. We’re thrilled that the organizers of that great event give us a pretty nice venue. We get to be at historic Antone’s every year and have had some wonderful performances. I’m not at liberty to say who will be performing this year, but what I can say is that it will be a cross-section of 5 or 6 artists, among them will be some newcomers and truly legendary figures from the American music world, which will be pretty special. We do a Bluebird series, which is a pretty nice little event. It’s a benefit. We’ve had artists from Nanci Griffith to Rodney Crowell put on shows for us. About 100 people fit in the room. We don’t make a ton of money on it but it’s a pretty magical event. We’re planning a little mini festival that will be a benefit to support the AMA that will take place at Blackberry Farm, which is truly one of the country’s finest inns. It’s a magnificent inn and spa and culinary experience.
The 12th Annual Americana Music Festival & Conference event dates are set for October 12th “ October 15th 2011 in Nashville, TN. For more information on the AMA and to register for the conference, visit their official website!
The recent Americana Music Awards in Nashville may be over, but Grace Potter’s still savoring her memories of the event.Besides mingling with such country, bluegrass and Americana heavyweights as Rosanne Cash, The Avett Brothers, the Courtyard Hounds, and John Mellencamp, Potter had the chance to chat with Robert Plant, who has embraced Americana despite his long rock legacy.
“It was so awesome. My life was changed forever,” said Potter. “Not only did I meet Robert Plant, but he knew who I was. I was completely bowled over¦.Normally I wouldn’t brag about that but in the whole world, he is my model. He’s graceful, serene and all about being the bad boy, too.”
The smart money bets that Potter will have plenty more household name artists seek her out in the coming months. Ever since Grace Potter & the Nocturnals burst onto the scene in 2007 after signing with Hollywood Records, they’ve caused a ruckus among music lovers.
Now that she’s done a duet with Kenny Chesney on the song “Hemingway’s Whiskey,” the title track of Chesney’s new album that was released September 28th, the buzz is louder than ever.
“It still feels really fresh to me,” said Potter of the song and her excitement at his request for her to join him in song. “When [Kenny] emailed and asked me to join him, I couldn’t stop thinking of [his] song ‘She Thinks my Tractor is Sexy.'”
Although she knew of Chesney’s talent, Potter said she was wasn’t prepared for the beauty of “Hemingway’s Whiskey.”
“It was stripped down and beautiful,” she said. “[I especially loved] the really nice, subtle drums. I thought the song was just magic as it was¦.[For the full version] they didn’t want it too fancy or over produced or polished. I felt it was the perfect song for me to be a part of and it was a bit of a departure for Kenny, something his voice fits perfectly into¦.He’s such an amazing vocalist.”
Although her goal is to tour with Chesney, for right now Potter is focused on her own tours and promoting the band’s self-titled album that was released in June. The Vermont-based group’s new line up has made it more hard-charging and working with producer Mark Batson has finally propelled Grace Potter & the Nocturnals into a musical space they’ve always wanted to inhabit.
“This is just what I always wanted,” said Potter of the sound. “This album was almost 10 years in the making and it’s exciting to absorb it¦.The band is my focal point right now.”
And it’s on fire, with players grabbing sounds from each other and advancing them in certain ways, which gives the music elasticity. That’s why the music might take on more of a country vibe at a Nashville concert but add dollops of soul when they take a Memphis stage.
“We are very much a chameleon band,” said Potter. “I celebrate that we have this gray area. Our show has changed to [not just incorporate more] country but bringing around sexy style too. I’m not afraid to shake it and dance on stage.”
Grace Potter & the Nocturnals are on tour. For a complete list of dates and cities, check here.
By Nancy Dunham
Nancy Dunham writes about music for Country Weekly, AOL Music’s site The Boot, The Washington Post, Relix and other publications.
Check out Grace Potter and the Nocturnals’ new video for Paris (Ooh La La) below, and see vintage Grace in a video interview on OurStage from 2008.
Another year, another batch of deserving, long-overdue and not-so-worthy nominees for induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. This cycle, the biggest mystery doesn’t involve the ones they omitted but the legend they finally got around to recognizing. After 22 years of eligibility, Neil Diamond made the short list for the first time.
What took them so long?
Steely Dan, John Mellencamp and ZZ Top”great acts all and all short of legendary” already have secured their Hall of Fame spots, and the powers that be in Cleveland are just getting around to noticing the glaring absence of Diamond? I love the video for “Legs” as much as any child of the ’80s, but in what universe does the ZZ Top songbook hold up to that of the guy who wrote such classics as “I’m a Believer,” “Girl, You’ll Be a Woman Soon” and “Red Red Wine”?
As for his fellow first-time nominee Bon Jovi (Alice Cooper, Donovan and Dr. John also made their short list debuts), sure they had a lot of hits and continue to sell respectably, but have they influenced any kid with a guitar and a song in his (or her) heart since hair metal went out of fashion? Oh, and where are the nods for Electric Light Orchestra and Roxy Music, a band that helped define ’70s glam rock while paving the way for the New Romantic movement led by super ’80s groups like Spandau Ballet and Duran Duran?
Did the ELO and Roxy nods go to LL Cool J, a surprise nominee (to me) who is barely in his 40s? He started out with a big bang in the mid ’80s for sure, and he was rap’s first solo star, but the quality of his output went into steep decline after “Mama Said Knock You Out,” as he became more hitmaker than visionary. Now he seems to have set aside his creative pretensions in favor of a comfortable middle age on prime-time TV as the star of NCIS: Los Angeles. Though he deserves to be demerited for going from gangsta to hack, I’d let him in over Bon Jovi and Donovan, but only if Beastie Boys, nominated for the second time, get in too.
The late Laura Nyro is also a return nominee for inclusion into the (mostly) boys club, and I’d say it’s time to let her in when the Class of 2011 inductees are announced in December and feted at the ceremony next March 14th. Ditto the queen of disco Donna Summer, a second-time nominee. But where pray tell are the nominations for Linda Ronstadt, who helped define mainstream rock in the ’70s and has been eligible since 1994, and Dionne Warwick, a ’60s legend without whom the Burt Bacharach/Hal David songbook might be just another bunch of songs? (Maybe the latter’s psychic friends can look into it.) Dusty Springfield had to die to get in in 1999. Let’s hope the Hall of Fame doesn’t make the same mistake (twice) again.
Jeremy Helligar is a former staff writer for People, Teen People, Us Weekly and Entertainment Weekly, who now writes about celebrities and pop culture from his couch in Buenos Aires.