Triad music scene’s aging lions play on
Photos and story by Daniel Bayer
“My songwriting has always reflected that. The subject matter has always been quite frank or impractical for a typical pop song. I like to write things that break the rules, otherwise it’s just kind of boring.” — Sn’zz
Behind these shades the visions fade As I learn a thing or two Oh but if I had my time again You all know just what I’d do.
—“Ballad of Mott,” Mott the Hoople
Last Christmas my mother gave me a coffee mug that read “Old musicians never die/ they just go from bar to bar.” It’s funny, see, because music consists of bars, and musicians spend a lot of time in taverns and… oh, never mind. Other than betraying my mother’s love of puns, the questionable humor reinforces the popular — though misguided — conceit that rock n’ roll and other forms of popular music make up Satan’s interstate highway system, a Faustian design that lures in the young and idealistic and spits out the jaded and embittered, going back at least as far as Robert Johnson’s pact with Old Scratch himself. And, as chart-topping Mott the Hoople and every episode of “Behind the Music” imply, even when you win you lose.
So just what is it that keeps musicians like myself and others like me playing long after our families’ hints about “finding a real career” have become more than a bit tiresome? How do you make ends meet in an industry where the public image is glamorous but the hours are long, the wages low and benefits like health insurance and a pension non-existent? How does one survive in a career that can offer crushing disappointments alongside the cathartic release of self-expression?
Well I’m pouring my heart out to a mic on a boom But it’s just a product for them to consume They’ll just download my heartache and pain It’s a good thing I play for the love of the game
—“The Love of the Game,” Sn’zz
Britt Harper Uzzell, better known to two decades of area music fans as “Sn’zz,” is playing back some drum tracks in his home studio, located in the wilds north of Winston-Salem.
“This is the best drum sound I’ve gotten yet,” he says, explaining the mix of microphones and technique that make up the arcane science of recording, a skill he’s learned by necessity over his 20-plus years in the business.
“In addition to playing, I had to learn the art of recording,” Uzzell says. “Most people would choose one or the other, but I really had no choice.”
That DIY ethic goes all the way back to Uzzell’s early days in Fayetteville, where he played in “ZZ Top and Van Halen cover bands,” before becoming immersed in the mid-eighties punk scene, playing in bands such as Resist and the Sociopaths.
“There weren’t many original acts in Fayetteville. If you were a musician, you played covers,” he says. “Then I began hanging out in Raleigh and met kids in the punk scene, and that became more and more important to me.” He laughs. “I discovered new forms of rebellion.”
Part of that rebellion was breaking with the classic rock that still predominated outside of the Triad and Triangle in those days. “Covers were the antithesis of punk,” says Uzzell. “Resist was the first band I wrote songs for. It was all about thinking for yourself and creating your own thing.”
It was thinking for himself that led Uzzell to form the Straight Ahead in 1991, which quickly became the early ’90s Greensboro sensation Bus Stop.
“One thing I did that pissed off loyal listeners was that I never played the same thing twice,” he says. “I switched from punk to Bus Stop, which was the kind of music most punks despised. But I’ve never done what I’m supposed to do, so I played blue-eyed soul.
“We were trying to be a rock and roll Hall n’ Oates,” says Uzzell of Bus Stop. “I was Oates, and [singer/guitarist] Evan Olson was Hall. The Greensboro scene hated me at that time, because I wasn’t playing the same music.
“I wanted a challenge and a completely new set of hurdles, not the path of least resistance,” he says of the change in musical direction. “My songwriting has always reflected that. The subject matter has always been quite frank or impractical for a typical pop song. I like to write things that break the rules, otherwise it’s just kind of boring.”
Almost a decade before Bus Stop began playing in Greensboro, the three Cowett brothers — bassist/vocalist Al, keyboardist Dan and drummer Tom — were joining forces with high school friends and guitar players Randall McCorquodale and Steve “Genghis” King to form a punk band of their own.
“I tried to play banjo with Dan, and we discovered we couldn’t play bluegrass,” says McCorquodale. “So we formed the Other Mothers.”
“We wrote our own tunes because we couldn’t play Journey,” adds Dan Cowett.
The band members are sitting on the patio behind Tommy Cowett’s house, where they’ve been rehearsing since reuniting last year. Located in a northwest Greensboro neighborhood, it seems a far cry from the conditions of early gigs as described by the band.
“Our early gigs were usually fights,” says McCorquodale. Like most fledgling bands, the Other Mothers made the rounds of all-ages shows and parties, looking for any place they could set up their amps and perform.
“Huge keg parties,” remembers McCorquodale.
“One time a guy brought a slaughtered cow and started cooking it in a pig cooker,” says Tom Cowett of one gig at an out-in-the-middleof-a-field venue.
The early eighties were a high point for North Carolina musicians, with bands like Glass Moon, Let’s Active and the Graphic playing in the clubs along Greensboro’s Tate Street and drawing national attention to the state’s music scene. The Other Mothers, full of youthful enthusiasm, plunged headlong into this cauldron of fermenting creativity.
“We began playing the clubs in ’83,” says King. “Places like the Nightshade Caf’ and Uncle Duke’s.”
“Our goal was to conquer the world and be the best band on the planet,” says Al Cowett. “We all dropped out of school to do it.”
After releasing a single, “Party Topics,” on Greensboro’s Panda Records in 1984, the group signed with Making Waves, a label in England.
“Spectator magazine had named us the No. 1 band in North Carolina in 1984,” says King. “Godfrey Cheshire, the editor of Spectator, took some tapes we made to England, and that’s how we got signed.”
“They were real fired up about a song we’d written called ’88 Seconds,’ about the Klan- Nazi shootings,” says McCorquodale.
“They were jealous,” says Al Cowett, laughing, “They didn’t have the Klan in England.”
Calculated outrage did seem to be a part of the label’s strategy. The group’s No Place Like Home EP was released in 1985 with a cover photo of the hooded organization burning a cross. While this created little controversy in Klan-deprived London, it had different connotations in a state where the events of Nov. 3, 1979 were still fresh in many peoples’ minds.
“They put out an outrageous record cover, and didn’t care about our reputations,” says Dan Cowett.
“You have to make sure the people you’re trying to reach understand it,” says Tom Cowett of the unfortunate choice of cover art. “I got into arguments with friends at A&T over that cover.”
Despite the cover, the EP reached No. 3 on the British independent chart, says McCorquodale, and a tour of England was in the works, boosted by an appearance on the British music show “Old Grey Whistle Test”.
“‘Old Grey Whistle Test’ filmed us at the Brewery [in Raleigh]. We were supposed to tour after the show went on the air,” says McCorquodale. “Then the show was delayed a month, and that killed all our plans.”
In addition to this setback, things had changed on the North Carolina music scene as well.
“We were killed by Reagan’s drinking laws,” says Tom Cowett. “When it went to 21 our crowd couldn’t show up anymore.” Discouraged, the band called it a day in 1986.
“We realized it wasn’t working out, so we went back to school,” says Tom Cowett.
Here come Slim up the railroad tracks Say I’m a hard livin’ hard times man, I don’t look back Guitar Slim, guitar on his back He’s a hard drinkin’, street smart thinkin’ Cadillac Yea, he’s a Cadillac of the human race Now he’s rambled on to that place where you leave no trace Here’s to the Greensboro Rounder, Guitar Slim “Greensboro Rounder,” Bruce Piephoff
“For certain people, if it’s something you have to do, you do it.”
A prolific writer of songs about those on society’s margins, such as wandering bluesman Guitar Slim, Piephoff himself is no stranger to the ups and downs of life as a performing artist.
“You can feel like you’re having a bad year, but then things turn around,” he says. “I never gave up, but there’s times when you can’t figure out what to do next.”
Like the Other Mothers, Piephoff dropped out of school to pursue music. Though he eventually went back and received a MFA in poetry, he’s spent most of the last 24 years playing music professionally.
“My father was a big Bob Dylan fan, and there’s always a part of you that wants to please your parents. So I decided I was going to be Bob Dylan,” he says. “I didn’t realize how hard it was going to be. I gave it a shot and traveled around a bit. Things got rough, so I went back to school.” Piephoff also tried his hand at being a professional songwriter in Nashville, but “didn’t fit in,” as he puts it.
“I didn’t feel like I could play music and have another career,” he says, when asked if he ever confronted that moment most professional musicians dread, when you seriously consider giving it up and selling insurance for a living. “People should be able to go into the vocation
“I’ve stuck with it,” says Greensboro singer/ songwriter Bruce Piephoff of his music career. they belong in.
“In France the government will subsidize you, so you don’t have to work in a mill or flip burgers,” he says. In the United States, however, “you either get lucky, or get another job.”
Piephoff was one of those who got lucky, at least for a while. In 1986 he became a visiting artist at North Carolina community colleges, a paying gig that lasted until the program was cancelled in 2001.
“I could do the visiting artist thing and still play full time,” he says. “The job entailed doing what I would have done anyway. I would go out in the community and play schools and organize music festivals. [I] could work on my craft and get paid for it.
“I didn’t realize how well I had it,” he says.
Still, he has no plans to trade in his guitar for insurance agent’s suit and tie.
“If you’re a writer, you keep writing until you die,” Piephoff says. “Painters usually keep painting their entire life.
“It’s not like a career you retire from.”
People give up music as a profession for a variety of reasons: changing responsibilities or interests, a desire for stability, a need for a higher income or simple disillusionment. In Uzzell’s case, his recent unexpected hiatus from live performance came about as a result of a combination of our nation’s dysfunctional health care system and a Kafka-esque government bureaucracy.
Following the demise of Bus Stop in 1999, Uzzell had focused on his solo projects, as well as stints as a sideman for Ben Folds and guitar player in the Dickens, an area cover band. Like many musicians and other artists, however, Uzzell found himself unable to afford health insurance.
“I’m a living example of the detrimental situation of not having health insurance,” says Uzzell. “It’s always been beyond my financial means, and there’s no group plan to buy into.” When he was diagnosed in 2009 with Waldenstrom’s Macroglobulinemia, a type of lymphoma, he faced a round of expensive chemotherapy, and applied for Medicaid. He was initially denied, only to have that denial reversed. His medical care was now covered — but at what any musician would consider to be an obscenely high price.
“To be eligible for Medicaid, one has to be disabled,” says Uzzell. “In my case, that means not able to play. Sometimes I can’t play, because of the chemo, but there’re other times when I’m normal. If I’m out playing, though, they can pull my Medicaid. So I can’t do what I love, even when I feel good. It sounds f**ked up, but that’s what it is.”
It’s not that he can’t play in public at all, just not in a publicized or paying performance, he says. Uzzell hopes to get off disability and
resume his live career when he finishes chemotherapy, but he says that the nature of his illness complicates this plan.
“My disease isn’t curable, so I’ll always have it,” he says. “Eventually I’ll need a bone marrow and stem cell procedure, which would cost $500,000. My cancer has one of the highest recidivism rates, so the symptoms could come back in the next 12 months. It’s just something
I’ll have to live with.
“I don’t like being dependent on the government,” says Uzzell. “My goal is to always work. If I lived in Canada [with its universal health coverage], this wouldn’t be an issue. This is strictly an American phenomenon.”
While he waits to see if he can ever perform publicized shows again, Uzzell focuses on his home recording studio, where he’s recorded acts such as Sam Frazier and Decoration Ghost.
“Bands can get away with recording a lot cheaper nowadays,” he says, due to the new generation of digital home recorders and computer software. “You might not equal a professional studio, but recording music isn’t about pristine sound, it’s about the vibe. It doesn’t have to be immaculate to portray feelings to the listener. It’s more about the talent than the microphone.” Still, he hopes that eventually he can resume his live work.
“The reality I’m facing is pretty tough,” says Uzzell. “Playing is my life force. Music is extremely important and I need to play for my health. I have a lot of questions about the Medicaid situation myself, but all I know for now is that I’ll have to stop playing.”
They always come to see you No matter what it takes And tell me “Man, we’d like to see you play, but we can’t stay out that late.” Toss me a lifeline, I’m sinking fast I guess I still haven’t learned how to swim They say “We saw your brother on TV. Hey man, why aren’t you up there with him?” “Living in the Shadow of a Genius,” — Amplify This
“I’ve been doing this for as long as some guys playing out have been alive,” says Uzell’s former Bus Stop bandmate Chuck Folds. “I started to play the second a bass was in my hand.”
His brother Ben, who went on to considerable fame with his group the Ben Folds Five before embarking on a solo career, gave that bass to him. As the lyrics to “Genius” reveal, though, the brothers have one of those tempestuous relationships that are common in rock and roll.
“It’s hard to grow up with a prodigy,” says Folds, who plays in the original band Amplify This, as well as Rubber Band and the Chuck Folds Five, both of which lean heavily towards covers. “At a younger age I didn’t want to have anything to do with music, because I’d be compared to him.”
Folds played original music up until 1999, first in the Channel Cats and then in Bus Stop. When Bus Stop broke up, Folds found himself in the position of needing a steady income to support a growing family.
“I had a kid in 1999,” says Folds. “It’s a tough road playing original music, and I needed to make as much money as humanly possible. So I formed Rubber Band in 2000, and it took me five to six years of playing with them before I could even think of original music again.”
Since then Folds has become a something of a musical jack-of-all-trades: writing songs to order for professional sports teams with musical partner/guitarist Steve Williard, playing in Rubber Band on weekends and with the Chuck Folds Five on weeknights, as well as performing as duo with Williard.
“You have to get your fingers in enough avenues,” says Folds, mixing metaphors. “I write a song on Monday, play an acoustic gig on Tuesday and play with Rubber Band on weekends. I work 60 to 70 hours a week doing something I love.”
Trying to make a living at music, he says, means having to put original projects on the
“If you have responsibilities, you don’t have the time to promote original music,” he says. “If I’m doing something, I have to be making money doing it. I play weekends in Rubber Band, so I can’t play the good nights for original bands. Amplify This plays on Tuesdays.”
Ironically, the responsibilities of fatherhood helped Folds create what he calls “the most successful original thing” he’s done; Big Bang Boom, a trio with Williard and former Bus Stop drummer Eddie Walker that performs songs aimed at children. The group has released a CD entitled, appropriately enough, Why Can’t I Have Ice Cream?
“I’m really digging the children’s band,” says Folds. “I can relate to the moms and kids because I have kids.”
Folds says that he’s earned a masters in Geography as a “backup,” but doesn’t expect to be teaching students to find Iraq on a map anytime soon.
“I’ve done other things, like most musicians: bartended, waited tables, worked in governmental affairs, but I’ve never thought of leaving [the music industry],” says Folds. “I’m too hardheaded. I’m just trying to find the right angle.”
The Other Mothers playing at the Blind Tiger.
The Other Mothers are running through their soundcheck at the Blind Tiger, the clangor of drums, keyboards and guitars blending together through the PA system into something resembling a coherent whole. Tonight’s show is a triple bill with the Malamondos and Easybake and the most recent stop in the band’s “comeback,” which began last year.
“We had nothing else to do,” says Dan Cowett of the reunion.
“And our wives said it was okay,” says Al Cowett.
After the dissolution of the Other Mothers, the various members “farted around” with other musical projects. King played with Shiner, while Dan Cowett wrote the music that accompanied the book Angels Guide. McCorquodale, meanwhile, took the Other Mothers into the internet era by posting their songs online.
“I figured somebody wanted to hear the tunes, so I started a website,” he says. The website, in turn, rekindled interest in the band among both fans and members alike. Last spring the band played what was supposed to be a low-key show at the Green Bean with Sin Tax, but it turned into a raucous packed-house homecoming for the band and their fans (Full disclosure:
I did sound for that show, and feel lucky to have survived.).
“We really got busy last summer and fall,” says King. The band has since played the Blind Tiger, the Garage in Winston-Salem and the venerable Somewhere Else Tavern.
“It was like the old days, when people would see you and get into it,” says King of the show at the Garage.
Tonight the band rips through a set of their old tunes, including “Space Junk,” “You and Yours” and the Brit-jealousy-inducing “Rodeo…88 Seconds.” I notice several people in the crowd from the Green Bean show, including a man wearing one of those iconic Devo flowerpot hats, which winds up on MoCorquodale’s head during the group’s cover of “Uncontrollable Urge.” When the band finishes the show with “Napalm Beach,” members of the crowd join them onstage, banging cowbells and other assorted percussion instruments.
“We want to make a record, but we don’t want to go crazy with gigs, because we’ve got wives,” says Dan Cowett, when asked about the group’s future plans.
“We don’t know,” says Al Cowett. “We just want to play gigs and have fun.”
Bruce Piephoff will be performing at the Six String Caf’ in Raleigh on March 25. The Other Mothers will be performing at WQFS Fest at Guilford College on April 24. Uzzell will be performing when the US government says he can.