Chris Stamey – Southern man
In 1982, when Chris Stamey was in the process of leaving the dB’s, he released an album that he called It’s A Wonderful Life. He wasn’t really thinking in terms of a solo career, for “career” is a word that makes Stamey gag. He much prefers “adventure.” The moody, adventurous music of this transitional solo effort didn’t evoke the Frank Capra hugfest (the album’s back cover offered the flipside: “It’s A Miserable Life”), but the title has proven prescient in a George Bailey sort of way.
A couple decades down the road, when friends (he has a few) and fellow artists wax rhapsodic about Stamey, they tend to talk as much about the encouragement and inspiration he has provided them as they do about his artistic accomplishments. So many musicians from his native North Carolina express a similar sentiment: They have become who they are because Stamey is who he is.
“I can’t think of any single person who has given me as much support and interest and continued inspiration as Chris,” says Peter Holsapple, Stamey’s dB bandmate and frequent collaborator (they plan to record another duo album this year, a belated follow-up to 1991’s Mavericks).
“He’s really an exceptional producer, but he’s more than that,” says Caitlin Cary, who has worked with Stamey from Whiskeytown demos through her solo emergence and recent Tres Chicas collaboration. “He’s one of a very few people who convinced me that I was capable of doing this.”
“Everyone in North Carolina has to go through the ‘School of Stamey,'” says Tift Merritt, whose second album for Lost Highway is slated for late August release. “He was the first real producer I’d ever worked with, and he’s such a smart and sensitive person that it made me feel like a legitimate artist just to be in the studio with him.”
Though Stamey has put production ahead of his own music since returning to North Carolina more than a decade ago, the June 15 release of his new Travels In The South on Yep Roc serves as a reminder and a renewal of his singular style. In its balance of heart and smarts, the art-pop tension between the classicism of his melodies, harmonies and chorus hooks and his more experimental tendencies in terms of structure, sounds and effects, the music is recognizably the work of the same guy who guided the dB’s. He’s still reconciling the divergent inspirations of the Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson and Television’s Tom Verlaine.
The album additionally serves as a bridge between generations and genres, a testament to Stamey’s role as a catalyst for more than a quarter-century of music in his native state. Its supporting cast extends from mainstay peers such as Holsapple and Don Dixon to Cary, Merritt, Ben Folds, Thad Cockrell and Ryan Adams among the generation that has benefited from his mentoring. It’s like a “This Is Your Life” reunion of those paying tribute to someone who has given them so much.
“When I was growing up around here, it was like you knew everybody in the state who could bend a guitar string,” says Stamey. “Now there’s just a whole lot more musicians around.”
And maybe one of the reasons there are more musicians around, at least more musicians who are receiving national attention, is because Stamey returned to North Carolina to notice them and nurture them — to tell them there was a place for them in the world of music beyond Chapel Hill or Winston-Salem, and to show them how to get there.
Just the fact that Stamey had done it — that he’d made his mark at New York’s CBGB, that he’d released an indie single and started a record label back when no one was going those things (or at least well before everyone was doing those things), that he’d worked with artists from Bob Mould to the Golden Palominos to Yo La Tengo — signified that there were no geographical limits to the music that came from the mid-South, no strictures except those that are self-imposed.
“People like me need Chris Stamey records like we need Big Star records, like we need to drive to Georgia every once in awhile and dye our hair blonde, and watch people banging on art school equipment for the first time,” says Ryan Adams, who received the Stamey seal of approval during the formative Whiskeytown years and whom Stamey credits for the impetus behind Travels In The South.
“I think Chris saw in Ryan early on what a lot of people have seen since,” says Cary, Adams’ former Whiskeytown bandmate. “From the start, he just got it. And because I was so naive going into this, I just kind of accepted that these things were happening. So, Chris Stamey wants to work with our band? It didn’t really hit home what that actually meant and what a compliment it was.”
During the time between Stamey’s departure from North Carolina for New York in 1977 and his return to live in his native state 16 years later, the musical terrain has experienced a series of upheavals. When Stamey cut his musical teeth, “southern rock” meant one thing. Now it connotes something very different, as different as Whiskeytown is from Marshall Tucker, as different as R.E.M. is from Lynyrd Skynyrd. It would be hard to overstate Stamey’s role in this progression, this rejection of southern stereotypes of blooze and boogie and embrace of musical possibilities that are as reflective of the personality and spirit of the region as the Allman Brothers ever were.