who: Bill Noonan
what: As the frontman of 1990s mainstay the Rank Outsiders, singer-songwriter Bill Noonan, fifty-two, has deep roots in Charlotte's music scene. He began to unearth these roots by connecting with the city's musicians and producers to create his second solo album, The Man That I Can't Be. "It's what I think of as rootsy rock-and-roll," says Noonan, who, with this album, recently reemerged on the local music scene. "Meaning that it pulls from the roots of American musical style. Blues, country, bluegrass, and rock-and-roll."
Noonan's next show is September 25, 9 p.m., The Sylvia Theater, York, S.C., 803-684-5590
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Hear Noonan's latest single "Down At The Biddy Hut" plus what he thinks about the local music scene.
How did you originally get into music?
Just one of those things, really. From the time I was a little kid, hearing songs on the radio, or whenever I would actually see anybody play live, it captivated my attention. I didn't really excel at any other thing in particular, especially in my teenage years. It had never occurred to me that I could actually play music, really. So one of my friends was visiting from another part of the country who could play some guitar, and he said, "I can show you some chords." Until then, I didn't actually put together that I could do it, but when I tried, I did pretty well with it, and so then, I just got more and more into it, from high school into college. I started doing some very, very basic performing in college, and when I got out of college, I became a guitar teacher, and really started to work on improving my musicianship and starting to perform.
Where did you grow up?
I grew up since elementary school in North Carolina, in Greensboro, and then came to college in Charlotte in 1974 -- although feel free to leave these dates out -- and I just have been here ever since.
Does it feel like home now?
Tell us a little bit about your background as an artist in Charlotte.
I have been playing music in Charlotte and the Charlotte area for many years, since the late 1970s and early 1980s. In the 1990s, I had a band called the Rank Outsiders, who kept pretty busy throughout the decade. So I lived in Charlotte for probably twenty-five years, and then, in 2003, I actually moved out of town and am now living down in rural South Carolina in York County. But I've pretty much based my music activity in Charlotte. So when I moved to South Carolina, I got a little bit disconnected from the local scene for a few years. I was still musically active, but just not as focused on it as I had been in the previous decade. This project kind of represents jumping back into things with the new record and also more live shows.
Describe the new project. What about this new album stands out as different in comparison to previous projects?
This is my second solo project. The recording I had done previously was with my old band. It has ensemble arrangements, there's a band behind it, but there's more of a focus on the songwriting. And I like to think that we're moving in a new direction with this project. One of the things I'm really excited about with this new project is the collaboration. It involved a lot of different players from the local music scene. The recording I did with my old band, we did most of in Nashville, so this is the first project I've done that was totally based in the Charlotte music community, which includes both people that I'd known previously, but also some people I hadn't had the opportunity to work with before. So the collaborative aspect of it was really enjoyable, and I think brings a lot to the record. There's a lot of really great players here in town who were very generous with their time and talent, and I think that adds a lot to the new project. A big part of what made this possible is that I worked with Mark Lynch, the producer. And Mark is at the core of a lot of diverse musical activities going on in town right now. He's in a number of bands and producing projects by a number of local artists, and he has been a great help in pulling this process together, involving the different local players that we're able to work with, and helping me get out and play live, as well. Mark played a big role in putting this all together, and doing what a producer does: bring it all together, help the artist find a new direction.
What does the local music scene in Charlotte have to offer its musicians?
I think for anyone involved in the music scene in Charlotte for a long time, whether as a fan or a participant, there is always a sense of frustration, where you feel like saying, "Oh, gee whiz, Charlotte's not the greatest music scene. It's not Chapel Hill, it's not Austin, Texas." But I would prefer to look at what we do have, rather than what we don't have. Let me clarify my perspective: in the 90s, I was very busy with my band, very involved with the scene at the time, and then I kind of went away from things for a while. This project represents me coming back to things, and maybe getting reconnected. So I wouldn't say I'm the biggest expert on the Charlotte music scene, but I can make some observations. Look at the difference between ten years ago and now, and see the growth and evolution. It seems to me to be a very diverse music scene. I mean, there's musical things going on in this town that I have no knowledge of. I know a lot of people involved in music locally, but that's just one part of the music scene. I think it's really gotten a lot more diverse in recent years. As I said of the people I worked with on this new record, there are some really talented people out there, some really great players in all genres of music. In my experience, they've been very open to collaboration, very generous with their talent. Charlotte's a good place to get something off the ground, because there's a lot to work with here. I think any town is going to have plusses and minuses to its music scene, and I think the participants are gonna have things to feel good about instead of things they're frustrated about. It's a good place to play live. I think we could have a more vital live scene here, but with that said, there are lot s of gigs. A band can keep pretty busy. And I think maybe that's an area where there's potential for growth. But, coming back to things as I have with this project, I think there's a lot of positive growth, a lot to work with, so I try to focus more on what we have than what we don't have here.
What else have you seen change in Charlotte's music scene since you were working here in the 90s?
If I could characterize that growth and evolution, it seemed to me that when I was younger and playing here, it was a very band-centric scene. Everyone was in a band, and they played with their band, and there wasn't as much collaboration. And things like the level of professionalism has grown, the quality of the game. Now, you've got lots of people playing music collaboratively, more focus on recording projects, there's a lot of recording that happens here. Rather than just groups of people that are in a band, you've got more people working on projects, more people playing on each other's projects, and no body seems to be in just one band anymore. A lot of people are involved in four or five bands. Say you need a bass player for a gig. Now there's four or five people you can call whereas before there was just the guy who played bass in your band. That's just one thing I've kind of noticed.
If you had to describe your style of music, how would you characterize it?
I have used the term "Carolina roots rock" to describe what I do. It's what I think of as rootsy rock and roll, meaning that it pulls from the roots of American musical style. Blues, country, bluegrass, and rock and roll. So, "roots rock," "traditional rock and roll," a popular term for that kind of music these days is "Americana." I don't like labels, musicians are generally not fans of being labeled, so I think I try to use a diversity of styles, but the term Americana has been used in recent years to sort of classify that kind of music that walks border between country and rock and roll.
Who would be some of your influences?
Some of the primary ones are a lot of the people I got into when I was really young and started listening to music, which would have been in the 60s and early 70s ... those artists were sort of evangelical about their music. I'm talking about people like Bob Dylan and the Rolling Stones, Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris. These were all people who played music sort of like I described, it was very rootsy music, based on older music traditions that they were crazy about. They took those traditions and evolved them into a new sound for their time, and when I say they were evangelical ... if you were to read up on these musicians, or listen to what they did, they would record songs from these older artists that they learned from, and they would talk about who these people were. If you were to listen to somebody like the Rolling Stones, and hear who their influences were, and then go back and explore who some of these great blues artists were (Chuck Berry, for instance). So that's kind of what I did, listening to that first generation of rock artists, I guess, who were very celebratory and sort of following the trail back to their influences. On the country side of things, it leads you back into sort of older country stuff, and bluegrass. So, if you listen to Grant Parsons, or Emmylou Harris, they were very influenced by that. That's sort of how I found my way back to some of those rootsier influences.
What are the particular elements of those influences that show up on this new project of yours?
One thing I think that characterizes this project is that we tackled a lot of different genres. It's not all rock, or all country, or all R&B; I think you'll find that all of the genres that I really like and have tried to play over the years represented on there. Mark Lynch, my producer, is someone who is really well-versed in a lot of genres, as well. So, when we were trying to figure out what to do on a given song, I think we had some common language in terms of what the genre was, what sort of things we could do with the arrangement and the instrumentation, and could really sort of make it through that genre. For example, there's a rhythm and blues ballad on there, a real old school R&B, a very Memphis R&B called "Dirty Ragged Blanket." There's a horn arrangement, and a keyboard part. So there's a couple songs on there that sort of represent that old school R&B genre. There's a tune on there called "Ramblin' Boy Blues" that kind of reaches back to some of your Jimmy Rogers, old time country influence, although that song kind of makes the transition and becomes more upbeat. There's a song called "Tried So Hard to Please Her," which is actually not my song, it's a Gene Clark song. Gene Clark was part of a band called The Birds, who were one of those very influential, bedrock bands that I was talking about a minute ago. The Byrds were really one of the first rock bands to step into country. The origins of the guys who became the rock musicians in the birds when they were teens were bluegrass musicians. They came out of that California bluegrass tradition, and "Tried So Hard" is an example of that rock-meets-country approach to music.
Now that you've reemerged, as you put it, onto the Charlotte music scene, what do you see as the next step?
I think any time that you bring out a new record, it kind of serves as a focal point for a period of activity. You spend a lot of time making the record; then, you invest time, energy, and resources into putting the record out and promoting it, and a big part of that is playing live. You want to be making as many live appearances as you can, because it's also the fun part of it. Playing live is its own reward. It's really just a fun thing to do. You sort of start by conquering your backyard, so I would say we're in that phase of thing, where we're doing a number of shows here in Charlotte and the region. Then, whenever I think you put an album out, I think it's interesting to see what comes back from it, what doors it opens, what sort of opportunities it brings. I think a good scenario would be getting a positive response from the record, which would bring the opportunity to go further afield with things. You know, travel the region. So that would be the plan for this year, and moving into next year. Really, just seeing where we can go with it.
What are you hoping to take away from this new project, and the "period of activity" that it instigates? Is there something behind this new project that you hope to convey to listeners?
At the end of the day, I would want listeners to feel like it's worth their while. I'd like to feel like I've given them something worth listening to, and maybe a little something to think about and respond to. And in terms of live performances, I would want people to have an energetic, positive experience. Live, you know, it's a mutual thing, which is why it's so much fun. I think we've achieved that in a couple of recent shows in Charlotte, and we hope to keep making it worth listener's time and attention.