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The Long Way Around - Feature from Issue #21 May-June 1999

Chip Robinson

Sliding in and out of graceChip Robinson seeks salvation in salvaging the broken Backsliders

Says Wurster, “When we went out to L.A., they were just like pigs in shit. They were proud of what they were doin’, they were realizin’ this dream. When we went down to Louisiana, man, it just had the worst vibe about it…but they would play songs back to us, and the songs were actually sounding really, really good!”

Few capture the truth of a moment, for good or ill, more clearly than Ambel. What he documented was the Backsliders’ equivalent of Shoot Out The Lights, the record Richard & Linda Thompson made while divorcing. On the Dockside recording of “Burning Bed”, Robinson’s voice is a gaping wound, revealing wrenching ambivalence about leaving a mate whose promises have become a prison even as they have been betrayed. It’s magnificent in its honesty, but it is not pretty.

His three-packs-a-day voice on “Abe Lincoln” brings vivid reality to his images of sittin’ on a track with a bottle of wine, fixed on a memory with a killer hook: “You’re fadin’ slow, like a bloodstain on my sleeve/I’m learnin’ faster and faster just what it takes to leave.” In “Southern Line” — which, surreptitiously, is an unlisted track on the album that bears its name — Robinson seems to find solace solo with his guitar, in the comfort of the shirt on his back, with the passing trains his only timekeeper.

When time ran out at Dockside, the band went home, facing a series of dates to help make up for gigging income they’d lost in a month of recording. They played the Northeast in February to dismal winter turnouts, then toured their way down to the South by Southwest Music Festival in Austin, missing a show in Dallas when Robinson mixed up the date.

Soon after their spectacular SXSW set left scorched earth for Jason & the Scorchers (who followed them on the bill), Rice and Robinson went to New York for final mixing on the new record. Rice says he was still “psyched” about the music and the band, but he couldn’t reconcile that with his feelings about the interpersonal dynamics. His wife had been offered a job in Los Angeles, and by the time he got back to Raleigh, he’d decided to quit the Backsliders. He called Dennis with the news.

“I said ‘JD, look, I’m not gonna play in the band anymore. I just can’t take it,’” Rice recalled. “He goes ‘Well, you don’t have to worry about it because Steve beat you to it.” Howell had called each band member, leaving the impression he needed a break from music for a while.

If the stress of Howell’s relationship with Robinson had been the band’s biggest problem, his departure created a new one: Howell had written or co-written half the songs. Robinson recruited a keyboard player, and was actually enthused about carrying on without Howell. But, drained by touring and its toll on their families and incomes, the others wanted to stay home and regroup until the record came out. Moreover, they now insisted that Robinson find management and a booking agent. Kurtz and Dennis had been managing the band’s business affairs with help from the label.

Then even Robinson began to have reservations. Rice now wanted to stay in the band, but he had made the move to Los Angeles. “I just didn’t see how we were gonna be able to rehearse and keep the thing moving forward,” says Robinson, “so that’s pretty much when it just went belly up. A lot of guys can do this flyin’ in and out or whatever, but we don’t have any money for that kind of stuff.” Meanwhile, according to Rice and Kurtz, Robinson had decided for various reasons that he didn’t want to play with Dennis. Harsh words were exchanged all around.

Not long after Rice moved to L.A., the lineup of fellow Raleigh band Whiskeytown was in flux for the umpteenth time, with leader Ryan Adams scrambling for players to open a tour for John Fogerty. Rice offered to play the tour and Adams, a fan of Rice’s work in Finger, took him up on it, but Whiskeytown still needed a bassist. Rice put in a call to Kurtz, and suddenly two Backsliders were in Whiskeytown. For $500 a week, Robinson says he couldn’t blame them a bit.

“If somebody gets a better offer…it happens all the time. You get a hot player in your band and they’ll be guys — their label’s got a bunch of dough, they’ve got a bunch of dough, and they’ll hire them right out from under you. And when you’re worrying about payin’ the rent, if you’ve got kids, takin’ care of just living…When you can better your standard of livin’, man, I don’t blame anybody for that kind of stuff.”

One day when Rice was back in Raleigh, staying with Kurtz for Whiskeytown rehearsals, he opened a newspaper to find an article announcing that Steve Howell had joined Two Dollar Pistols, who were coming out with a new record. Its track listing would include “Lonely Avenue”, one of the six new songs Howell had originally submitted for the Backsliders project.

Robinson, meanwhile, bogged down in the wreckage. As the “Hicktopia” project sat on a shelf at bewildered Mammoth, Ambel rolled up his sleeves to help Robinson put a new band together to convince the label a promotional tour could be mounted. Drummer Terry Anderson (an accomplished songwriter in his own right) and bassist Roger Gupton from Raleigh band The Olympic Ass Kicking Team formed the new rhythm section, with Ambel and fellow New York City guitarist Erik Kristiansen handling the guitars for three autumn dates, including CMJ.

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Originally Featured in Issue #21 May-June 1999

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