"Is No Depression still around?" Kurt Underhill asks, devoid of sarcasm or irony. It's an indication of what Underhill--the founder of Mood Food Records, the mid-'90s label he began just to sign Whiskeytown--means when he says, "That's just a chapter I've closed in my life, and I don't really try to reopen it."
Underhill, criticized by the alt.country media after Whiskeytown was forced to sell the masters that became Rural Free Delivery to him to move to Geffen Records affiliate Outpost, is past music now. He works as a financial planner and lives with his wife and children in Fuquay-Varina.
"I deal with stable people everyday for a change, and that suits my personality," he says.
That Whiskeytown is still an essential band in the ragtag coterie of alternative country goes without saying. Rolling Stone senior editor David Fricke has called the band the genre's Nirvana. That said, Ryan Adams--the Jacksonville High School dropout-turned-Raleigh renegade-turned-complete rock star on late-night television--may not be its Cobain or Cornell.
He's a rare combination of it all: at 30, a survivor with a bent for self-indulgence and one of the most prolific, exhausting catalogues of any modern songwriter. He returns to Raleigh for the first time since 2001 on Wednesday, June 8 at Meymandi Hall, several magazine covers, albums and Grammy nominations later.
Underhill remembers hearing Adams for the first time as a Schoolkids Records employee in 1995. A coworker knew the band and played a demo at work.
"I knew right away there was something there," he recalls. "As soon as I heard the songs I knew there was something with his talent."
Underhill headed to Local 506 that week to see Whiskeytown, and soon began negotiating a record deal. The relationship was constantly tumultuous--from Adams' request that some members' songs not be recorded on the band's debut to his demands to be released from his Mood Food contract.
"I still have all the original masters," Underhill says, adding that they are always for sale. "I haven't listened to them in years, and I don't suspect I will."