Hello Stranger from Issue #49
As we were winding this issue to a close, I got a call one afternoon from Van Alston, who was cruising through my old Texas Hill Country stomping grounds on his way to visit Alejandro Escovedo. This was just a pit stop on a much longer journey for Van and his girlfriend Christy; they’d departed Raleigh in late November and were heading down through Texas, then across the length of Mexico and Guatemala, finally to reach their destination of Honduras sometime in early-mid December.
Van was one of the reasons I ended up moving to North Carolina, in a roundabout way. A die-hard fan of Raleigh’s best alt-country bands, Alston had, over the years, done everything from running bars that featured live music, to starting a label that released a couple of records, to road-managing Ryan Adams’ first few solo tours after Whiskeytown’s demise. I met him somewhere in the midst of all that, and found myself visiting Raleigh often in the late ’90s, usually crashing on the couch at Van’s house.
Coincidentally, Van struck up a friendship with Alejandro around the same time. They’d met in Austin at South by Southwest, and the next time Alejandro came through Raleigh, he ended up playing songs in Van’s living room into the wee hours of the morning — something Alejandro has done on more occasions and in more living rooms over the years than could possibly be imagined.
Alejandro’s willingness to share his music so freely and directly with his fans is what has resulted in legions of them rallying to support him in the past year, as he has struggled to deal with complications related to Hepatitis C. More than twenty benefits have been held to date, from Austin to Boston, from Chicago to Seattle, from San Francisco to New York.
On November 23, Raleigh took its turn, and it was no surprise to find Van at the helm of the 15-hour bash (which he’d organized in cahoots with Caitlin Cary, though she had a show in England on the day of the benefit). The event raised over $12,000 to go toward Escovedo’s medical expenses, and lured out of mothballs both the Backsliders and 6 String Drag, two bands that hadn’t played in years. They reunited for Alejandro, but also, they reunited for Van.
They did it because Van has always been one of those guys who, in the midst of a social circle crowded with slackers, always seemed to be able to get things done. The same could certainly be said for our friend Jack Emerson, times ten. Jack took that same spirit of making things happen and applied it on a grander scale, repeatedly raising the bar for what is today called alt-country.
I first met Jack by a singular stroke of fate in November 1993; I was traveling in the south and heading to Nashville from Atlanta, where I’d met someone who suggested I stop by the Praxis offices. A couple years later, we found ourselves engaged in similar endeavors, Jack having started E-Squared Records with Steve Earle at about the same time I’d teamed up with Grant to launch No Depression.
It turned out to be Grant who got to know Jack better over the years, on account of them both living in Nashville. But the occasional encounters I had with Emerson left me with the same impression everyone seemed to share of the man: He was a kind soul, fighting the good fight. Despite the odds, he quite often won, and those victories energized all of us.
The night of November 22, I attended a transcendent house-concert performance by Marah, a promising Philadelphia band E-Squared had championed early on. Part of the evening had been dedicated to Gerry Livers, a Philly expat who’d moved to North Carolina and had passed away unexpectedly in October.
Checking e-mail after the show, I found a message from Grant saying that Jack had died. The next day was the Alejandro benefit. Marah was playing an afternoon set; I told them about Jack beforehand, and they offered a sweet dedication to him from the stage. In the crowd, Lynn Blakey of the band Glory Fountain was shocked and saddened to hear the news; she had sat with Jack in his garage two decades earlier, stuffing copies of Jason & the Nashville Scorchers’ first single. The last band of the night, 6 String Drag, had released an album on E-Squared. For a guy who supposedly worked behind the scenes, it was telling to see how many people’s lives Jack had affected.
Jason Ringenberg was kind enough to share his memories of Jack in this issue’s Farther Along section. In the meantime, as I mourn the loss of Jack, I am grateful that Alejandro is still with us.
And I tip my hat to Van. He must’ve made it to Honduras by now…