Carrying a thick spiral-bound notebook filled with dates and stories, Jonathan Lee is always ready to talk music, though he hardly needs his notes. As an early member of the Guitartown listserv, which fostered a community among Triangle alt-country fans, Lee seems to have an encyclopedic memory, recalling details as specific as his other purchases when he bought Trailer Bride's* Smelling Salts from Chapel Hill's Record Exchange—a No Depression anthology and Whiskeytown's "Theme for a Trucker" single, for the record.
Guitartown-related events compelled Lee's drive to the Triangle nearly every weekend from Eastern North Carolina and his eventual move to Raleigh a decade ago. He later took on an administrative role for Guitartown's Facebook page. "People weren't active like they once were on the discussion group, so I began staging shows," he remembers, the first being a weekend of shows in 2014 celebrating Guitartown's fifteenth anniversary. Guitartown now presents a series at Steel String Brewery along with regular shows at Berkeley Cafe and The Pour House, among others.
Keeping the Guitartown community alive means far more to Lee than simply having a place to discuss music online. "Guitartown gave me something to hang onto that I was passionate about, even during the depths of my depression," he explains, even going so far as to refer to it as his lifeline while going through a particularly rough stretch the past several years. Lately, Lee says he mostly has better days. Leading up to Guitartown's nineteenth anniversary party at King's, Lee discussed some of the artists that have meant the most to him over his tenure with the organization.
WHISKEYTOWN, FAITHLESS STREET, 1995
Ryan Adams conjures moody imagery on this deosolate early demo.
JONATHAN LEE: The first time I saw Whiskeytown was at The Brewery in 1998. They went on late, but it was really good. After the break, they started playing more Strangers Almanac songs, then all hell breaks loose. It gets dark, they're shaking up beers and spraying each other with them, they're taking their guitars and ramming them into the amps and tearing off the grills. There's a lot of feedback and noise, then the lights come on and it's over. I'm thinking, "What in the fuck was that?" and later found out it was a Whiskeytown original called "Piss on Your Grave." I hung around for a bit, then Ryan emerged and I told him, "Dude, I just rode all the way up here from Jacksonville for y'all to play an hour and fifteen minutes then quit," and he said "Well, sometimes it just happens that way." He was telling me the truth. I knew their shows could be a train wreck or one of the most moving musical experiences you'd seen—or both, and that's what I got that night. It's dysfunctional, fucked up stuff—the songs and the band—but it works in so many ways.
THE BACKSLIDERS, THROWIN' ROCKS AT THE MOON, 1996
The title track from the hardcore Raleigh honky tonkers' seminal debut album is a perfectly ragged alt-country anthem.
The first time I met Chip [Robinson] was after that Whiskeytown show in 1998. I saw him play for the first time on the Ryan Adams & Friends show at The Brewery in October 1999. They'd just released Southern Lines, and Chip was pissed because that record wasn't being properly promoted after Mammoth Records was absorbed. By that time, The Backsliders were the version with Terry Anderson and Mike Krause, so I never saw the original Backsliders until recent years. They still had a lot of that oomph of the original Backsliders, but there probably was something missing without Steve [Howell]. Their marriage of The Rolling Stones and George Jones—what they call hardcore honky-tonk—has that traditional country sound, but you wouldn't be surprised if they broke into The Ramones.
"QUIT THAT JEALOUSY"
TRAILER BRIDE, SMELLING SALTS, 1998
Before leading The Moaners, the twang of Melissa Swingle's ramshackle swamp-goth trio was unlike any of its peers.
I first heard them on those Revival compilations on Yep Roc and I was just completely taken with that sound. Trailer Bride was among those first few alt-country albums I purchased, along with Strangers Almanac and Throwin' Rocks at the Moon. I came up for Sleazefest in 1998 mostly to see them, but I also liked Southern Culture on the Skids a lot. I'd never been to Sleazefest and there was some crazy ass shit going on, like barbecue baptisms with Scott's Barbecue Sauce poured on your head and different ways of distributing watermelon, chicken, and banana pudding to the audience, including a wading pool with a big oar to sling banana pudding. Trailer Bride was the first band to play, and I was completely taken by Melissa Swingle and the whole band.
RYAN GUSTAFSON, DONKEY, 2009
Prior to leading The Dead Tongues, Gustafson got dark and stormy on this solo cut from his first LP.
I saw Ryan at Local Band Local Beer when the Drughorse thing was going strong. Max Indian was the gateway, but I was really enthralled with him and thought that people needed to be paying attention to him because he was the Ryan [Adams] of that time. That era leading into Donkey is just unreal. It gives me chills, thinking about how great it was to discover Ryan at that time.
I'd go see him any chance I got after that, but he's a chameleon. One night at Tir Na Nog when he and Carter Gaj were performing, they had pedals all over the stage so they would just walk around and hit the pedals to set off sounds. Someone walked in and asked when the band was starting because it looked like they were tearing down or setting up.
MEGAFAUN, GATHER FORM & FLY, 2009
Here, the experimental roots trio conducts a campfire round over a digital patchwork of natural sounds.
I like the cacophony of the sound collage. The rain gives it an outdoors feeling, and it's very rustic and rootsy without being the same shit we've heard over and over again. I hate to make a Dead comparison, but the records are more like a blueprint. The live show was where it was at.
When I moved to Raleigh in 2008, Chris Malarkey was still at The Pour House and told me I'd really like the band that was playing and let me in. I was completely blown away. I immediately bought Gather, Form & Fly and, from talking to Brad, got to know about their Dead and Drive-By Truckers influences. I noticed the shows would usually end with the band in the crowd, which can be a cliché thing, but it never felt that way with them. They were always involving the crowd in some way and I just really loved that connection, the give-and-take with the audience.
DRIVE-BY TRUCKERS, PIZZA DELIVERANCE, 1999
Indicative of the Southern rockers' early sound, mandolin and pedal steel back this Patterson Hood tune.
There's a lot of Guitartown ties with the Truckers. [Guitartown founder] Alison [Williams] was friends with them, and they used to stay with her when they came up from Athens to play. Patty Hurst Shifter formed as a way of helping them out so they'd have a band to perform with. [Mike] Cooley [the band's cofounder] also lived in Durham in the late nineties. When the Truckers played Pine Hill Farm in 2001, things got kinda loose and wild as the evening went on. When they played this song, Thad Cockrell came up to sing it with them. There's video of it that I haven't watched yet because I prefer to keep my memory of it for right now.
*This article originally misstated that Lee had purchased Trailer Bride's self-titled debut. The correct album is Smelling Salts.