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Spreading the Word

Regional, local musicians help raise money, awareness for 4th annual breast cancer benefit

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Now in its 4th year, the Spread Your Wings breast cancer benefit remains one of Charlotte's premier musical benefits and Americana-based multi-act shows. While the show maintains some of the flying-by-the-seat-of-their-pants spontaneity of the first year, co-founders and producers Bob Graham and Missi Ivie (a breast cancer survivor) still yearn to increase the benefit's clout and prestige. In other words, this may be the last year SPY has this intimate of a setting and feel to it -- Graham says he is in final negotiations with a "large corporate sponsor," has held talks with both PBS and CMT (Country Music Television), and hopes to land a "big name" act if the first two elements come through. If all goes as planned, it may greatly increase the size and scope of future benefits. On that we'll have to wait, but for now the benefit remains much as it has over the previous three years. Local, regional and national acts will perform, the silent auction will include all sorts of swag, and the bands will more than likely add that element of live reckless abandon that makes an event like this memorable beyond just the worthy cause it serves. The first year featured Alejandro Escovedo doing an impromptu set with members of Lou Ford, Duane Jarvis and whoever else wandered on stage; last year Renelvis introduced headliners The Gourds, who seamlessly went into "Jailhouse Rock" in thanks when they hit the stage. What will develop this year? Creative Loafing looks at two of the acts playing...

The incidental roots of Tres Chicas
By Chris Parker

Accidents will happen, and serendipity is one of music's best friends. While some hide in their bedrooms nurturing rock & roll dreams, others fall into it unexpectedly only to wonder how it is they wound up living a life they'd never imagined or fantasized about. For Caitlin Cary and Lynn Blakey of Tres Chicas, music entered their lives like a cat burglar only to take up permanent residence. Both first experienced success as a passenger on another's rock train, and then, years later, fell together into a group -- Tres Chicas -- that has the potential to match the success they saw in their earlier bands.For violinist Caitlin Cary, her introduction to rock came through Whiskeytown, and an unexpected phone call.

"I was in graduate school at NC State," Cary recalls. "I must've told somebody in the (Creative Writing) program that I played, though I don't remember doing it, and I certainly wasn't playing at all, at the time. I was buried in the books but I just got a phone call, out of the blue from Ryan (Adams) saying "we started this band and we are interested in getting a fiddle player, would you like to come and play with us?'"

"I had been in a couple bands in college that were truly, just fun, just to have some outlet, but never had I been serious about it," Cary continues. "My perception of the whole Whiskeytown thing is so skewed because I never once thought, "oh this makes sense and I'm doing what I'm supposed to be doing,' whereas every one else in the band had had a rock & roll fantasy forever and knew that they wanted to be in a band. Ryan certainly knew he wanted to be big. I had no concept for it really."

Ten years later, Cary is recognized not only for her sweet, wonderful fiddle playing which carries echoes of the Irish folk music her parents played when she was growing up, or even as the Emmy Lou Harris to Adams' Gram Parsons in Whiskeytown, but as a talented solo artist with two critically lauded full lengths to date.

For Blakey, the idea of being in a band tickled her, but she had barely even picked up a guitar when a friend suggested they start a band. After experiencing the DIY ethos of her home in DC and the early rumbling of the American punk underground at a bar near the UNC-Greensboro campus, where she attended college in the early eighties, starting a band with no experience didn't seem like a strange thing to do.

"I got a guitar and traded a six pack of beer with my neighbor to teach me some chords, and that's how I got into it. We had our first show a month later. We sucked, though not as bad as you might think. We had cool songs and harmonies, we just couldn't play very well. And then I started playing with Let's Active," says Blakey.

She had befriended a young guitarist named Mitch Easter and suddenly started touring with another act whose first albums would wind up being produced by Easter.

"Everybody was hanging out together so it just seemed kind of natural. And it was misleading playing with him so soon after starting to play because I got to go on tour. It wasn't super cushy, but I didn't have to do anything, it was just, "oh, I'm on tour,'" Blakey says with an exaggerated innocence, before delivering the punch line. "We were on tour with REM and played for a couple months across the country. It was very misleading."

Now Blakey and Cary are two of the three cogs that turn the wheels of Tres Chicas, which also features Hazeldine's Tonya Lamm. Together their three voices rise in sweet harmony, taking turns with the pen, turning out ballads of sublime beauty like Blakey's "Sweetwater," the title track of their new record.

"Playing music is funny, it's like dating someone, you don't just date anybody -- you might try and then think "this is sucking,' but still have three hours of the date left. That's how it's like when you get together to play music with someone -- you know within a minute whether you want to make music with them. But you can't just instantly stand up and go, "you know, this isn't going to work.' And sometimes you don't listen to those instincts, and you end up playing with people you shouldn't be playing with, and then realize 40 years later you never quite did what you wanted to do," Blakey says, laughing at her own metaphor.

"I was nervous -- not to play (the song "Sweetwater") for Caitlin, but I didn't know Tonya as well. I thought she was real good and I thought, "what if she hates it?' As soon as I started to play it, I was fine, and when it came to the chorus they started singing along," says Blakey.

While they were initially consumed with passion for the project, other things seemed to step in the way -- Lamm's pregnancy, Cary's suddenly burgeoning solo career, Blakey's new album with her band, Glory Fountain. And just as suddenly, the storm passed, and they again found the time to work together, and the energy followed. The soaring three-part harmonies are certainly a highlight, but just as powerful are the songs that approach the heartache of life with a grudging acceptance and understanding that appreci-ates the long road and many detours -- including the unplanned ones.

Ryan career alive and well -- mostly overseas
By John Schacht

Matthew Ryan is one of those guys. Seemingly a fully formed mature songwriter when he emerged at 25, he burst onto the scene in 1997 with a critically acclaimed major-label (A&M) debut, Mayday, toured like crazy, played Letterman and Conan, released a more challenging sophomore effort that didn't sell, got dropped by A&M, faded from the spotlight, and eventually became a music industry unto himself.An Every Musician for the times. Frankly, Ryan prefers it this way.

"I feel more successful now than I did back then during my first record because I feel like I've proven to myself that I'm my own engine," says Ryan. "When I did Letterman earlier on, it meant nothing to anybody except me. To me it was a moment of absolute disbelief, but to everybody else that was around at the time, it was just business."

It was business that did him in at A&M, of course. 2000's East Autumn Grin didn't live up to the (sales) promise of Mayday despite being a more interesting record sonically. But if he's done nothing else over the course of six full-length releases, Ryan has established a confident voice -- his own. Whether his approach differs from record to record has become almost immaterial; the honesty of the songs is what you remember.

Vocally, Ryan often sounds like America's answer to Mike Scott of the Waterboys, each verse a desperate struggle to tame his emotions, every chorus rife with release and abandon. But the lyrics on his quieter numbers get spat out like tracers, meant to be felt more than heard, recalling heroes like Dylan, Cohen and Petty.

Ryan grew up just outside of Philadelphia and says that city still informs much of his lyrical content. Admitting he's had "blue collar issues," his songs on occasion even invoke that other "blue-collar issues" guy from just across the state line, Bruce Springsteen -- especially on 2001's Concussion, Ryan's Nebraska. But after 10 years in Nashville -- which he suggests has made him "more of a Yankee," even as he reads Larry Brown's Father and Son -- he says the South has definitely crept into his music.

"I find the Southern use of the physical, the environment, in writing, fascinating," Ryan says. "Lucinda (Williams) is really great at that, as far as explaining what was on the table -- how much coffee was in the cup, what the cup looked like. I think those are all important details, particularly when you're in some slow-motion event."

Those stop-time moments are critical, he says, for providing ink in his songwriting quill. "I think we all have those moments where we have our own personal declarations of what we are," he says. "It can be as simple as somebody leaving, a relationship falling apart, even something political...all artists are trying to express their relationship to, and their liberation from, those moments at the same time."

Oddly, it's that content that has secured Ryan a longer career in music -- in America, sure, but more so in Great Britain and Europe. Ryan's records have had official releases in England, and he, like many neglected American artists, is a much better live draw abroad than at home. He makes the point that though there are great American audiences, overall "there's a completely different energy to shows in the UK and Europe," he says.

"When people go to see music over there, they value it more as art, whereas here when people go to see music it's often just a night out. As somebody who spends a lot of time working on what they do, I think you can guess which one would be the preferred night out for me," Ryan adds.

American critics and marketers tried to squeeze Ryan under the alt.country umbrella at first, but the music was, with rare exceptions, too grand and sweeping in its scope, and too eloquent, to be consigned to the barroom. No, Ryan's music is for leaving town, driving home, moving on. Like other American artists forgotten and ignored in their homeland, it's precisely their uniqueness that works against them.

"There are many brilliant artists that work under the radar of popular music," Ryan writes on his website, citing Joe Henry, Sparklehorse, Mark Eitzel and Calexico. "All of these artists work in a medium that defies simple labeling. They may require a few listens before their resonance is clear."

You could -- and probably should -- say the same about Matthew Ryan.


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