“Watchman, what of the night?”

Historic Celebrations of the Emancipation Proclamation in Shasta County

[this article originally published in Zombie Ant issue 0.5]

Juneteenth may be a somewhat new holiday to some of us, but it actually dates back to 1866. The holiday commemorates the reading of federal orders in Galveston, Texas on June 19, 1865 proclaiming all enslaved people in Texas were now free. Although enslaved people in Confederate states were freed by the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863, the lack of Union troops in the state allowed the practice of slavery to continue unabated until 1865.

California, of course, was admitted to the Union in 1850 as a “free” state, though de facto slavery of indigenous peoples continued for many years afterward, de juris segregation for many decades, and de facto segregation still continues today.

The Shasta Courier doesn’t record if or how local African-Americans celebrated the Emancipation, but accounts of local celebrations began to appear in local papers no later than 1867.

The fourth anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation was celebrated on January 1, 1867 by “the colored people of this town” at the stately Empire Hotel on Main Street in Shasta, which stood just west of where the courthouse museum is located today. The celebration included a banquet, a ball, and an oration by George Bailey, an African-American man who emigrated to Shasta from New Bedford, Massachusetts several years earlier. The Courier reported the hall was “adorned with flags, shields, mottoes, eagles, pictures of Washington, Lincoln, Grant, Sherman, etc., and the entire affair, from beginning to end, was quite credible.” The paper even printed Mr. Bailey’s oration in full, as I will below:

The Empire Hotel in Shasta, date unknown, decorated for an unknown holiday (possibly Independence Day). It may have looked much like this on January 1, 1867.

“Mr. President, Ladies and Gentlemen: I thank you for the honor conferred upon me, and at the same time I feel my inability to properly perform, the task assigned me; but you will please remember that mistakes are incident to, and inseparable from, ignorance, and in no wise emenating from the heart.

This is the third anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, and to us it is fraught with an interest such as no other day possesses, save one, in the calendar of time second only to the day on which the Great Creator of the universe rested from his labors.

When a race of people have been hound down by unjust laws, and denied rights and privileges accorded to all other members of the community around them, it has been the custom in all time to celebrate their emancipation by some particular observance of the day thus signalized. Thus we find that among nearly all nations some particular day is regarded as possessing a sacredness second only to that devoted to Divine worship. We, as a people, have hitherto been almost the only exception to this rule; but the rosy morn that ushered in the First Day of January, 1863, gave to us a day of thanksgiving and praise ‘a day of universal joy’ a day on which, laying aside all petty controversies and personal differences, and meeting upon one common ground, united by a common sympathy, we may forget all else save that we are one common brotherhood, and that as we have suffered together, so also will we rejoice together.

For long years has the cry of oppression ascended from our brothers in the South, and not there alone was sadness ; but from hearths in the freedom loving North, around which were gathered the sable sons and daughters of Adam, has ascended the cry: ‘How long, O! Lord, how long?’ and there, too, has joy descended like an angel with healing on its wings.

Rejoice, aye. rejoice, men of our sable race, that the aspirations of genius, smothered in your breasts by tyranny, shall he transmitted by you to your sons, and in them be brought to their full fruition. Rejoice, women of our dusky race, that you shall no more be compelled to witness the evidence of compulsory submission depicted upon the faces of your children, and that you are no longer compelled to yield obedience to the requirements of brutal oppressors. Rejoice, one and all, that henceforth the paths that lead to the temple in which the arts and sciences are enshrined are unobstructed by false prejudices ; for free in body, and unfettered in intellect, we will march on until the names of Africa’s sons shall be inscribed upon the golden tablets which shine in the loftiest niche of the Temple of Fame.

I now propose to glance at the position we occupied a few years ago, and notice some of the changes that have taken place. Recollect that I will ‘nothing extenuate nor aught set down in malice.’ It has been but a few years since the Fugitive Slave Act was discussed, submitted, and became a law. When that act became a law there was virtually no longer a free man, woman or child of color within the confines of these United States. After this came the Dred Scott decision a decision as chilling to us as the night winds blown from the clouds that encircle the Poles declaring to us in words of frozen tyranny that the black man had no rights which the white man was bound to respect; or, in other words, declaring that one-sixth of the people of the United States had no right even to life unless it happened to suit the capricious whims of those among whom their lot was cast. We all remember, too, the exodus of the colored people from California in 1852-3, consequent upon the Act of the Legislature requiring all persons of color to leave the State unless they could procure white vouchers for their honesty and morality ; and for vetoing that bill John B. Weller gained immortal renown among the colored people of this State. But I will pass over the rest of our wrongs in silence, nor reopen wounds that are nearly healed. I will turn to the other side of the picture.

To-day we are recognized as an integral portion of the population that goes to make up the People of the United States, and have the right to testify in the Courts of law, the right to accumulate property, and the full protection of the law in the enjoyment of the same, from Maine to San Francisco, and the right also to travel all over this broad country without challenge. In gaining all this we have done well ; but we still have troubles, and to overcome them let us observe the same patience as heretofore, and before long we will be able to hail the watchman upon the tower of liberty with ‘Watchman, what of the night?’ and receive the cheering answer: ‘The night passeth away, the daystar has arisen, and the rosy gleams in the cast herald the approach of a perfect freedom.’

Our father, Abraham Lincoln, the great, the good! His generous, loving heart is now still in death, hut let us try to emulate his many virtues, and teach our children to love, honor and revere his memory. And now let us take the starry Flag, so often borne on fields of blood as our symbol ; its red, as emblematic of the patriotic blood that we are willing to shed in its defense; the white, of our unsullied loyalty ; and the blue, of our unswerving fidelity to freedom ; and the whole flag as symbolic of our devotion to the Union, in defense of which death shall have no terrors for us.”

The oration of George Bailey, as printed in the Shasta Courier of January 5, 1867.

Another celebration, consisting of a ball and supper, followed the next year, where the Courier noted (in a much shorter article) that Mr. Bailey “acquitted himself creditably” in the oration.

The Courier didn’t report on any additional celebrations, if they occurred, through at least 1872. The next celebration I have located (so far) occured in Redding, on New Year’s Day 1903.

Redding actually had quite a large African American population in the late 1800s and early 1900s. According to the 1900 Census, African Americans made up 4.1% of Redding’s population, a much larger percentage than the 1900 statewide percentage of 0.75% and nearly 3.5 times their percentage of Redding’s population in the 2010 Census.

The local African American community had their own Masonic lodge, chapter of Eastern Star, baseball team, coronet band, political club, and a church that still stands on the corner of Trinity and California Street downtown—the oldest church in Redding.

The year 1903 would have been the 40th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation and the local community was determined to have a grand celebration to commemorate it.

The Jacobson Building circa the 1920s. The second floor was originally rented out as a meeting hall to the community. Redding’s African-American community held Emancipation Proclamation celebrations here in 1903, 1906, 1907, 1908, and 1913.

The event was hosted by local African American Masonic lodge (African Americans were not welcome in “mainline” lodges until about the 1970s) and drew attendees from as far as Sacramento. The lodge rented out the second-floor hall of the Jacobson building downtown and decorated it with red, white, and blue streamers. The evening opened with an invocation by Reverend E.H. Brown, who also served as master of ceremonies. The “national hymn” was sung next, though it’s not clear what exactly was meant by this—the “Star-Spangled Banner” did not formally become our national anthem until 1931. Next came the reading of the Emancipation Proclamation, followed by a program of musical performances, addresses, speeches, and dancing. The Courier-Free Press gushed “one does not exaggerate in saying that it was the greatest event in the history of Redding’s colored society.”

There remains much research yet to do, but celebrations were also held in at least 1906, 1907, 1908, and again for the 50th anniversary in 1913.

Unfortunately, the 50th anniversary was not without incident. A group of young white men—Fred Eckles, George Lack, Roy Winsell, and Ray Winsell—crashed the event and caused trouble. The account in the January 7, 1907 Searchlght is (no doubt deliberately) vague, but it appears there was disagreement about with whom the the crashers would be dancing. Harsh language was used and the four were forcibly ejected from the premises. “The celebration practically broke up and several fist fights were the result during the early morning hours,” the Searchlight wrote.

The local African-American community was so incensed at this assault that that two young men, Henry Coleman Jr. and Beauford Clark, swore out warrants against Eckles, Lack, and the Winsells, who were arrested and brought before Judge Herzinger.

George Lack was released after, according to the Searchlight, “there seemed to be a misapprehension on the part of the complainants that he was in part responsible for the trouble.” The other three plead “not-guilty” to charges of disturbing the peace and were released on bail of $50 each (nearly $1,300 in 2020 dollars).

A few days later, Eckles and Ray Winsell changed their pleas to guilty and were fined $15 each, (just shy of $400 in 2020 dollars). The charge against Roy Winsell was dismissed.

Seven years later, according to the 1920 Census, African Americans made up just 0.9% of Redding’s population. It’s yet not clear why there was an exodus of Redding’s one-time sizable African-American population. Research has not yet turned up any recorded major traumatic events that could explain it, but it is worth noting that is widely agreed that the Great Depression hit Redding ten years earlier than the rest of the country with the collapse of the local copper industry in 1919. It is hopefully just a case of families choosing to seek better opportunities elsewhere.


Mythbusting: The Hall of Records in Redding, California

Recently, I heard someone repeat a recurring falsehood about local history that has been going around for at least 15 years. The claim is that Robert L. Reading, a son of early white settler Pierson B. Reading, was the architect of the Shasta County Hall of Records building that stood next to the county courthouse in Redding for nearly a century.

The Hall of Records (left) and Shasta County Courthouse in Redding.

I’m not sure with whom the falsehood started (though I have my suspicions), but I have a pretty good idea how it started. It’s another great reminder to always evaluate your sources with a critical eye, do thorough research, and go back to primary sources.

Notice of Removal of County Seat, published in the Shasta Courier on April 21, 1888.

Redding finally became the county seat on May 19, 1888 following a number of elections and a court battle that made its way all the way to the California Supreme Court.

According to the June 9, 1888 issue of the (Redding) Republican Free Press, the Board of Supervisors wasted no time in calling for an election to be held the following month on the question of issuing bonds to fund the construction of a new courthouse for the new county seat. Voters approved the bonds, and by May of the following year, painters were putting the final touches on the new courthouse.

A very early view of the Shasta County Courthouse in Redding, prior to the construction of the Hall of Records.

The supervisors were interested in building a fireproof hall of records no later than 1899, but those early attempts seem to have fallen through. On January 15, 1906, the Sacramento Union reported the Shasta County Board of Supervisors had ordered the county surveyor (who was Robert L. Reading at the time) to prepare plans and specifications for a hall of records. It’s likely that the errant historian came across an article from this time and considered the matter settled.

Chico Record, December 11, 1906.

However, further research reveals an article in the December 11, 1906 issue of the Chico Record reporting that the Shasta County Grand Jury summoned a county supervisor to explain why nothing had been done in regards to constructing a hall of records. The supervisor claimed that it was due to the changing conditions brought on by the catastrophic fire in San Francisco following the earthquake in April of that year. Why San Francisco’s misfortune did not hasten the fireproof hall’s construction rather than delay it is not made clear.

Matthew W. Herron’s plans for the Hall of Records were accepted by the Shasta County Board of Supervisors on January 11, 1908, according to this article in the January 12, 1908 (Redding) Searchlight.

A little over a year later, the (Redding) Searchlight reported that plans had been accepted by the Board of Supervisors from Matthew W. Herron for a Hall of Records, expected to cost $40,000 (January 12, 1908).

Local history or architecture buffs may recognize Matthew W. Herron as a prominent local architect who designed Redding City Hall (now known as Old City Hall) and the (demolished) Carnegie Library, among other local buildings.

Shasta County Hall of Records, date unknown.
Redding City Hall, circa 1915, also designed by Matthew W. Herron. Note the similarities, particularly near the roofline.

Bids were solicited, and the construction contract for the building was awarded to Roberts Bros. & Co. of Oakland for $46,995 (Courier Free-Press, July 15, 1908). Grading at the site began the following month (Courier Free-Press, August 12, 1908). Work proceeded quickly, and on March 16, 1909, the (Redding) Searchlight reported the Hall of Records stands completed and “there was no attempt at anytime to vary the plans of the architect, M.W. Herron.”

As reported in the (Redding) Searchlight of March 16, 1909.

The Hall of Records originally showcased its red clay brick construction, but was covered with a cement render (using cement obtained from Weed) the following year to eliminate seasonal stain and “preserve the imposing appearance of the county building” (Sacramento Union, September 14, 1910). The Board of Supervisors found the appearance so agreeable, they ordered the courthouse to receive the same treatment (Ibid).

The Sacramento Union went on to note “the effect of treating the buildings with the Weed cement is to give them the appearance of marble structures, and it is expected that the lasting qualities of the cement will prove equal to the appearance” (Ibid). Unfortunately, cement renders often result in the opposite effect, as the cement interferes with the contraction and expansion of red clay brick and lime mortar during shifts in the weather, and the brick often destroys itself in the process.

The original courthouse was demolished in 1963, after the completion of the current courthouse, to make room for an annex (Redding Record-Searchlight, March 5, 1963).

The Hall of Records stood in the courthouse square in Redding until 1998, when it was demolished due to its unsafe condition despite attempts to save it—a story all too common in Shasta County history (Redding Record-Searchlight, February 20, 1998).

“Furthermore, the roof leaks extensively, which contributes to the progressive failure of the building’s masonry and plaster, while its structural components are also seriously deteriorated.

The mechanical and electrical systems are unusable and all interior finishes and furnishings have been destroyed by water and 90 years of service, Lyman wrote.”

“County Wants Building Razed,” Redding Record-Searchlight, October 4, 1997.

Sadly, in all of the many newspaper articles reporting its poor state of repair, none of the reporters seemed interested in finding out how the county building got into such a condition—or, more pointedly, why the building was not properly maintained by the county and who was responsible for the lack of oversight. That, too, is a story all too common in Shasta County history; but perhaps one for another time.

[Note: This post was edited on August 27, 2019 to correct a misspelling.]


Maybe Not the Best Venue

Weekly Shasta Courier, January 19, 1856.

Another Untold Tale of Shasta County History

As we transition from Black History Month to Women’s History Month, I thought it would be a good time to share a story of solidarity from Shasta County history that you won’t read anywhere else.

Jane Olney

Jane Olney was one of Redding’s pioneering business women. After her husband, Albert, died on March 4, 1901, she inherited his assets, including a saloon and the building it occupied on California Street. A little over a year later, a massive fire erupted on the block, destroying the Paragon Hotel, her saloon, and a number of other buildings1. Mrs. Olney’s loss was estimated at $1,200 and she was only partially insured2.

The brick Olney Building in the 1930s or 1940s

Nevertheless she was able to rebuild bigger and better, hiring Holt & Gregg to build a two-story pressed-brick building designed by Charles H. Barrett, architect of the Lorenz Hotel, for $5,0003.

In the coming years, Olney parlayed her business successes into a small theater empire. Her first theater appears to have been The Majestic, in which she was initially a silent partner or acquired between June 1909 and February 1910. In February of 1910, she also acquired a half-interest in the Dreamland theater. That May, she got out of the saloon business, selling the operation but apparently retaining the building.

At some point during the 1910s, Olney also operated the Victory Theater, which was operating in 1914. Olney also eventually bought the other half-interest in the Dreamland at some point and operated it until June 1918, when she sold it to J.R. Bauer 4

The tale of solidarity comes from a 1915 article in an African-American newspaper called the Western Outlook. At this time before “talkies,” it was common for theaters to have live music to accompany vaudeville and silent film. The Dreamland had a boys’ band that played out front three times a week and may have accompanied the shows as well. The visiting writer for Western Outlook was pleasantly surprised to see a 12-year-old African-American boy, Adolph Norman, playing trombone with the band and asked about it. The reporter writes:

“On inquiry, we learned that some of the boys objected at first, but the lady who owns the theater promptly informed them that Adolph was going to play [even] if he played alone, so they could suit themselves about playing. This was about a year ago, and they are all playing yet. He is a sight reader, a natural musician and the best in the bunch.”

Western Outlook,October 16, 1915.
Adolph Norman and the Dreamland Boys Band, circa 1914.

This History Matters

It’s no secret I have become highly critical of the Shasta Historical Society’s board of directors and their recent decisions. Decisions that have resulted in the loss of highly trained and capable professional staff, waste of financial resources, ongoing neglect of their irreplaceable collection, and alienation of community members. Since last summer, I’ve come to expect little from the organization, but I must admit, even I was shocked by a recent Facebook post by the Shasta Historical Society.

The society runs a “Today in History” feature on Facebook, something that many historical societies do in one form or another. For the Shasta Historical Society, it’s usually just something found in an old newspaper, devoid of any context or interpretation. It’s easy to understand why they do it; it’s a pretty easy way to generate content. It’s not great history, but usually harmless enough.

But the historical society crossed a line with its post of January 25, 2019, seen in part here:

Part of Facebook post by the Shasta Historical Society from January 25, 2019.

The text is a weird hybrid—some of it is obviously lifted verbatim from an uncited source—note the outdated construction of “and etc.” The anonymous author of the post made a token attempt at political correctness by including the phrase “Native American,” which was not in common use at the time (if at all); however, the post author then uncritically repeated the source’s breathless declaration that all of the “non-Native Americans” were “murdered.”

The original source is probably the Shasta Republican, a newspaper published in Shasta, California from 18551 to 18612. The account was republished in the Daily Alta California the following month:

Presumably the original source for this report, as reprinted in the Daily Alta California in February 17, 1857.

The problem with omitting context and/or interpretation from “Today in History” content is, intentionally or not, you often end up misleading people. The “account” is actually a letter to the editor of the Shasta Republican by one A.M. [Alexander ] Rosborough. Who was Alexander Rosborough? We’ll circle back to that shortly. For now, let’s examine the claim itself.

The phrase “all the inhabitants in Pitt River Valley” sounds considerable and the attack devestating. How many people come to mind? Dozens? Hundreds? The actual number of victims? Five.

The victims of the attack, as listed in the letter, were: H.A. Lockhart, A. Boles, Z. Rogers, Daniel Bryant, and “a German.” Who were these men? Did this attack happen out of the blue or was it part of a larger story? The historical society doesn’t tell you, so I will.

Notice published in the December 23, 1854 Shasta Courier, indicating a business relationship between H.A. Lockhart and A.M. Rosborough.

Alexander M. Rosborough was an attorney and eventual Indian Agent residing in Yreka. Along with H.A. Lockhart and others, he was a founding member of a joint stock company to form a toll road between Red Bluff and Yreka via the Pit River Valley. As a resident of Yreka, he also no doubt knew H.A. [Harry] Lockhart’s brother, Samuel, a saloonkeeper there. One of the most important things historians should do is evaluate their sources. How biased is it? Is there an agenda? Who benefits? Is this a firsthand account? In this case, Rosborough could hardly be considered an impartial source, because he had a clear incentive to overstate the devastation of the event while understating mitigating circumstances.

In June of 1856, the road between Red Bluff and Yreka finally opened, and the Yreka Chronicle reported “at and near [Harry] Lockhart’s Ferry, on Pitt river, several farms are being opened, and a sawmill building, and things will soon present the appearance of a thriving settlement at that place.” 3 The developing settlement served as the only overnight stopping point on the 180-mile road, and Harry Lockhart no doubt turned a tidy profit from the arrangement, which could continue so long as travelers could safely pass along the route and stay at the new settlement.4

The Lockhart Brothers treated Native Americans as subhuman or condoned such treatment of Native Americans by their employees. According to one account, Harry sent two Indian youths in search of two lost horses. When the pair failed to find the steeds, Lockhart “‘shot them both.'” 5. Another account reported two of Lockhart’s workers killed two Indian men, who in the past had often helped the white settlers by giving them wild game. The workers then abducted the deceased men’s wives 6.

According to a report published by the Shasta Republican, one of the Lockharts bragged of poisoning Indians while living in the Pit River Valley. The Republican dryly opined, “Since hearing of the above conduct, we have lost our wonder at the untimely fate of the settlers of Pit River Valley” 7. Sources at the time applied greater scrutiny to accounts of the event than the Shasta Historical Society.

The historical society also neglects to discuss the toll of the “war” that broke out following the attack on Lockhart’s Ferry which Rorsborough’s letter no doubt help instigate. A more accurate term than war would be “massacres” or “ongoing genocide.” That spring, a group of approximately 25 or so volunteers rode out to mete their version of “justice” for the deaths at Lockhart’s Ferry.

An Achumawi woman, photographed circa the 1920s.

“Between about April 1 and April 18, they attacked the Achumawi three times, killing some twenty people including at least ‘two or three women and one child.'”8 By the time the expedition was finished, the company reported it had killed 59 Indians and abducted thirteen children. 9 They were later paid $5,000 by the State of California for their “services.” 10

A wise person once said, “History without interpretation is trivia.” Trivializing genocide is inexcusable. So is trivializing ethnic cleansing, and yet, as I was editing this post for publication, the Shasta Historical Society did just that.

The Shasta Historical Society’s “Today in History” post for February 5, 2019.

There is a term for this kind of writing—tergiversation.

Redding’s Chinatown was described as “vacated.” That’s an odd word choice considering the circumstances that lead to the mass exodus of its inhabitants. Why was Chinatown vacated? Was it by choice? If it was not by choice, why did it come to pass?

Excerpt of an article from the January 23, 1886 issue of the Redding Free Press.

Redding’s Chinese community was forced to leave town by Redding’s “‘best citizens,'” in the words of the Redding Free Press. At a meeting on the evening of Friday, January 22, 1886, the long-simmering anti-Chinese sentiment boiled over (again). The meeting was called to order by County Supervisor Frank C. Tiffin. Other prominent participants included Frank M. Swasey, James F. Scamman, Jerry Culverhouse, Samuel J.R. Gilbert, Chauncey C. Bush, and Franklin Primm.11 It was unanimously decided the Chinese must leave, and quickly, too. The Chinese were notified by the self-styled “Committee of Forty” Saturday afternoon that they if they left by 9:30 the next morning, “they would not be harmed or defrauded in any way.”12 Five men were allowed to settle “business affairs,” and Committee of Forty was even generous enough to allow the Chinese cooks and house servants “one week to stay to enable their employers to procure white help.”13

Less than two week after the expulsion of the Chinese, in the wee morning hours of Friday, February 5, 1886, a fire leveled the buildings of Redding’s Chinatown. The Redding Free Press, a strongly anti-Chinese paper, gamely reported the cause of the fire was “unknown; [but] it is thought by some that the Chinese returned and set them afire, while others believe it was done by tramps.”14 (Apparently blaming the homeless is a longstanding Redding tradition.)

Redding actively expelled anyone of Chinese descent for the next three decades. By 1915, Redding, Eureka, and Truckee were the “only places in the state now prohibiting them by an established rule.”15 The community finally relented in 1917.

As I noted above, when you omit context and/or interpretation, you frequently end up misleading people. When the practice becomes habitual, it becomes a problem. Again, historians are trained to evaluate their sources. So let’s evaluate the Shasta Historical Society as a source.

According to their website, the Shasta Historical Society’s Board of Directors currently numbers 13 individuals—a prodigious number for such a small organization by any standard. Who comprises this board? It is currently composed of 11 men and 2 women. (Women comprise 50.9% of Shasta County’s general population.) A conservative estimate would put the board’s median age in the 70s. The racial composition of the board is entirely white, in contrast to Shasta County’s population. (According to the latest U.S. Census Bureau estimates, 12% of our county identifies as other than white, non-Latino.) To the best of our recollection, there has never been a director of Chinese, African-American, or Native American descent on the board, despite all of these populations having been significant to our history.

What does this suggest as the reason for such lackadaisical posts? Museums are rated as more trustworthy than newspapers 16. What are the consequences of consistent misleading statements by the Shasta Historical Society on our community’s shameful past? You tell me.

The members of the Shasta Historical Society deserve better. The community deserves better.


An Early Shasta Christmas

A few years ago, I was reading a transcription of the diary of Royal Tyler Sprague (an Old Shasta pioneer and Freemason), and I thought his entries on Christmas 1850 in Shasta were worth noting:

Dec 24, 1850: “This evening nearly every citizen of our little town seems determined on a general blow out, more than one half are partially intoxicated. Fiddling, dancing, fighting, & yelling. All must drink and none can sleep.”

Dec. 25, 1850: “The carousing of our citizens continued all night. I managed to get about 2 hours sleep. This morning immediately after breakfast I set out with Hawkins, Lemon, and Ray to walk to Roop’s trading post 9 miles from here on Clear Creek [now underwater near Oak Bottom Marina] where we arrived a little after noon and partook of a most sumptuous dinner, after which some fourteen of us went out onto the bottom and took a game of goal. I have not run as much for 15 years. Spent the evening until a late hour in playing cards drinking cider & eating mince pies & cheese. Thus passed Christmas with me this year, quite different from last. Warmer weather than any Christmas I ever before witnessed.”

Dec. 26, 1850: “Immediately after breakfast we paid our bills (mine was $11.00) and set out for home where we arrived late in the P.M. Weather still warm and pleasant.”

From the Vault

From the Vault: Yesterday’s News From Whiskeytown

Whiskeytown circa 1997
Whiskeytown circa 1997

This brief interview appeared in the Synthesis in February of 1998 under a different title. This was one of my first interviews, as you might guess by some of the questions. I was/am a huge Whiskeytown fan and on top of being terribly nervous, I had a horrible head cold at the time. Ryan was friendly and garrulous, and a terrific subject.

For the uninitiated, Whiskeytown is one of the most exciting bands to emerge from the alt-country camp in recent years. They’re best described as bastard sons of the Replacements and the Rolling Stones. Naturally there are country elements—the band is from South Carolina—but the presence of instruments such as fiddle and lap steel isn’t as much an indication of an alignment with the alt-country movement as it is an exploration of their American musical heritage. Recently, I had the chance to chat with Ryan Adams, the singer/songwriter behind Whiskeytown, about the past, present, and the future a band on the rise.

So how’s the tour going?
Oh man, it’s the best turnout. I mean, it’s great turnouts. Things have been really rolling. I think this is probably the best one.

How are sales on Strangers Almanac?
Uh, pretty good as far as I know, I don’t really keep up with that. They tell me its doing great. I try not to get too involved with that part of it. That’s not my job.

That’s not why you’re playing music.
Yeah, it’s the record company’s job to sell it. It’s my job to make it.

Strangers Almanac has received some serious critical praise—Rolling Stone said it could be the Nevermind of the alt. country genre—how does that make you feel? Do you feel pressured by it?
No, not at all. I don’t want to sound snotty, but I agree. I think it’s a pretty great record. I believe in that record pretty hard. I mean, there’s some production things that I sort of distance myself from, and I think that the band, we play the record better now. Uh, like live, the record’s more intense. We usually play the whole album, except for “Waiting to Derail,” which was never a “live” song. We did it for a little while, but I never liked doing it ’cause it was sort of like a studio thing. We kind of walked in—me and the bass player kinda walked in off the street—and grabbed the drummer and told him what the beat was, and we cut the music. But yeah, I think the record’s better now. I think it’s a good record.

Do you like it more than Faithless Street?
No, I like them all equally. I don’t listen to them much, but making the record is really pretty intense process. You have to be satisfied with the end result because it’s going to be out there. If you put out something you think you’re going to regret, it could be really, really detrimental and fucked up to your life. You could spend the rest of your life hating it, y’know?

And trying to live it down…
Yeah, I mean, I haven’t come anywhere near that kind of thing. Usually, the editing process will start after I write a song. If I don’t like it immediately, I don’t play it, you know what I mean? That usually doesn’t happen, ’cause usually if I’m writing a song I can turn it into something I can dig.

Various papers have reported you weren’t happy with how your relationship with Mood Food ended—particularly their release of Rural Free Delivery… Any comments?
Well I can comment on it to a degree but I don’t want to get too completely involved it ’cause you know, the bastard is out of my life now. But yeah, we pretty much got fucked.

Was it a kind of John Fogerty thing?
It was this kind of thing where this guy saw us—we were drunk; we were dumb—he saw money. Eventually what happened was we didn’t get a cent of it. He picked off us off the street and we actually licensed our first 7-inch to the guy with four songs off Rural Free Delivery—it’s a 7-inch you can’t get anymore… I think he called it Angels EP or something, but it was quite cool. Those songs sound great on vinyl. We just licensed it to him. We said, “Here, you can put this out,” because we wanted to put a record out and he had some cash. So we didn’t even ask for any money or anything; we just wanted to finish a record. And then one night he come by the house and he was like, “Let’s make a record and shit,” and all this crap. And we of course said “yes,” and signed this ridiculous contract and got screwed.
I mean, fuck it. I mean at this point, at this point I kinda don’t care. We got to put Faithless Street out; we didn’t get any tour support. I guess the biggest problem was he was a complete asshole to the band. If he had been nice, at least friendly or something, I think our relationship would have been cool. He would been like, “Look, you know, I’m just going to hook you up with a big label. You’ll make money. This is the process.” I might have understood that I could have eventually made a career out of it, but he definitely didn’t approach us that way. He was basically like, “Fuck you, you’re nothing. Losers.” And we were all, “Oh, great.”

So you guys were pretty happy when Outpost picked you up?
I love that label man! That label is great. I mean, I still get in my little arguments with the label, but it’s usually for good reasons about important things that should be considered. But Mark Williams, Scott, Mandy, and all those guys, they’re classic.

So I read you had Outpost buy Faithless Street from Mood Food. Do they have plans to reissue it in the future?
Yeah, it was going to come out this month, but it’s looking like September now. Things move a lot slower up in the big leagues. Which is my only beef… Which is why I make 7-inches on Bloodshot, so I can stay satisfied, y’know.

Speaking of Bloodshot, you recently did an Austin City Limits with the Old 97s.
Yeah, well, we didn’t do it with them. We did Austin City Limits, they just happened to be there. [snorts] They happened to be playing too, I got nothing to do with them.

So, uh, you’re not a big fan of the Old 97s?

So how’d the taping go?

I heard you premiered a new song that you co-wrote with Caitlin?
Um, yeah. It’s not new, but it’s a sort of a classic. Sort of a live staple song that Caitlin and I have done for a while. She and I used to play these little hootenannies by ourselves, y’know? Just she and I, going out on the weekends, and [play for] drink money back home. And that was one of the songs we’ve had forever, but we’ve never cut it to album, so we did it on the show and it turned out incredibly, it turned out really great.

Great! So when does the show air?
April 23 or something like that, I don’t know if that’s the exact date, but it’s pretty damn close to it.

So have you been doing any other recording, like a new album, or…?
We’ve already done some recording. We’re always recording. I mean, if I should ever get in some bad fuckin’ car wreck or should anything ever happen to the band, there’s so much recorded material by this band that records could probably come out for another four years. We’re always recording. I think we’ve got something like probably 150 songs that we’ve delivered, or close to a 100 maybe, to Outpost, either in demo or finished form or songs that I’ve just done by myself.

My god…
Yeah, it was one of the things I wanted in the contract was that at any and all times I could record, that there would be money for it. Considering that’s all I really care about is getting it on tape because I know eventually somebody will be smart enough to put it out. I know it doesn’t suck; I get really heavy sometimes… My moods get really heavy, and I have to go—I have to record. Because I go, “Man, this is fucking too much, I better lay it down.” Because that’s the time you’re in the song, and I’m usually in the fuckin’ song, y’know? I mean, I haven’t been writing on this tour per se so much yet, but we’ve only been out a week or so and I just finished a bunch of recording so it’s kinda’ like the next batch is brewing. I wrote a song down on a bar napkin last night that I like a whole lot called “Still, I’m Not Sleeping.” It’s really beautiful. I might work it up and try to start playing it on the tour. It’s like a real bummer song, it’s kinda cool though. It’s like optimistic bumming out.

In Strangers Almanac, the songs are really honest and they carry a blend of optimism and fatalism.
Yeah, I’m trying to get to this new beautific fatalism. Kind of like classic, razor-sharp songs. Kind of almost scary, yet kind of beautiful? Kind of like, I don’t know, kind of like Billie Holiday would do. Not stylistically that same thing, but the same sort of inherent idea, a spooky honesty.

Like old folk stuff, Carter Family, stuff like that?
Oh yeah, all those classic works. Stuff like “Oh Death,” that stuff scares the shit of me. Or Lefty Frizzell is pretty fuckin’ scary too.

Yeah, that’s more intense than most punk rock nowadays. So what kind of direction do you see Whiskeytown taking in the future? More along the rock/country line or are you going veer off and surprise everybody with a new approach?
We’ll probably surprise people at some point, but I think a lot the stuff that Caitlin and I write or the band does, I think there’s a kind of a style—or at least I’ve come to think there’s one. Because usually if we’re going to write out of our boundaries, we’ll know if it’s kind of out of our thing. I don’t know if that makes any sense. It’s kind of odd, it’s kind of like you can’t see the field from within the field, y’know? But you can try, and I’ll think about that sometimes, thinking about some new songs we might be messing with, and go “Damn, that’s pretty cool.” We have that, it’s like pretty easy to tell when it’s us…
But we do some weird stuff too. We do some swampy blues shit, y’know, we do some real strict country—honkytonk. Caitlin and I can probably get pretty close to bluegrass when we’re sittin’ around pickin’. Usually it’s like those elements of that… I love rock and roll… I love the Stones, they’re my favorite band.

Which album is your favorite?
Probably Exile on Main Street… But uh,

Anything from that era, right?
That era, Beggar’s Banquet, Let It Bleed… That stuff is really important to me. I sort of got into Black and Blue. It depends on what drug on what night, man. [laughter] There’s a different one for each Stones record; there’s a different cocktail that makes it work. I really dig that. I mean, it’s kind of like, I think what I dig about them so hard is that they sort of comprise all these elements of American music and put them together. And that’s kinda’ like what I want to do, or that’s what we do, actually. It’s like what sounds best to me. The thing is, you gotta get deeper and deeper into like soul music, and stuff like that; I’m going as far in as I can get, and with some decent results. I guess it’s a lot like you have a relationship with music if there’s longevity to your songwriting, and eventually the relationship just gets more intense.

So where do you see Whiskeytown in five years?
On tour. [laughter] Working, man. If I’m not working, I’m not happy.

Do you literally want to be the Nirvana of alt-country and be playing coliseums?
When we talked about that earlier, I wasn’t talking terms of success… What I tried to surmise that they mean is that we are kind of like, as good of a band. I think that what they were thinking was that we are how like Nirvana was to the grunge movement musically…. that they were the really good and kind of sinister band. There was a real big darkness to them. You can fucking turn up your guitars and play E chords all night—that doesn’t mean your music is going to be dark. You have to be literal, you have to have a mind for it. I try to look at it like that. As far as the success of it goes, success to me is like whenever we accomplish…When we play, it’s success—when we play a great gig, and that’s happening like every other night. Almost every night, you know what I mean? We’re so hard on ourselves. Other people are probably thinking they’re all great, but I want magic.

Built Environment

More Positive Development in Downtown Redding

The City of Redding Planning Commission has approved a proposal to build another mixed-use building in downtown Redding.

The old Greyhound bus station at the intersection of Pine and Butte streets in downtown Redding has sat empty since Greyhound relocated to the new transit facility adjacent to the
railroad tracks in 2010.

The Redding Greyhound Depot circa 2011, courtesy of Google Street View.
The Redding Greyhound Depot circa 2011, courtesy of Google Street View.

Parts of the Greyhound station date back to at least 1945.

Dean and Jane White bought the building in 2011 intending to renovate it for their medical-billing company, but soon discovered the costs of bringing it up to code would be prohibitive. This
past January, they have applied for (and were granted) permission to raze the structure and build a new building that better embodies the principles of New Urbanism.

The new building is designed by Scott Gibson of Chico, who also designed the lovely mixed-use building across from the Redding Civic Center on Parkview Avenue. The new two-story building will house over 25,000 square feet and feature apartments and offices on the second floor.

The new building will be twice the square footage of the old station and eliminate an empty bus staging and parking area facing Pine Street, another positive step towards enhancing the built environment of that major thoroughfare. This comes on the heels of the four-story mixed-use building built by Brent Weaver one block south.

According to the Record-Searchlight, construction could start as early as June of 2013 and take six months to complete.

The full City of Redding staff report with architect’s sketches of the new building can be found here.

From the Vault

Preview from the Vault: Old Crow Medicine Show

This brief article/interview appeared in the August 16, 2007 Chico News & Review.

Old School
Old Crow Medicine Show’s Ketch Secor takes on modern times

It’s been quite a journey for the members of Old Crow Medicine Show. The band coalesced in 1998 during a legendary trek across Canada, where the members busked and barnstormed for gas money and food whenever they could. Such a tour has destroyed many a lesser band, but once they got back to the States, the boys in Old Crow holed up together in a mountaintop farmhouse in North Carolina, where they worked the farm, brewed corn liquor and learned traditionals from the locals. It was there that they were discovered by bluegrass legend Doc Watson and his daughter Nancy, which led to gigs at Watson’s annual MerleFest, the Grand Ole Opry, and an appearance on A Prairie Home Companion. The CN&R recently talked with Ketch Secor (vocals, fiddle, harmonica), who considered himself an odd kid (“I had an early appreciation for things much older than myself”), about the past, present and future of Old Crow Medicine Show.

How has the band changed since the days of the Canada barnstorming tour?

We definitely became a working band pretty shortly after that, and our whole ideology changed. Our fire became focused. We directed it toward the audience; because they wanted us to—they’ve been calling for it all along. They’re looking for a great time … for some answers. The music is very much about the listeners and the appreciation of it. There wouldn’t be any of this if it weren’t for [them]; we’d still be on the street corner.

What do you think of the current state of the music industry?

Presently, I think it’s just a torrent of lackluster artistry. Everybody’s got a record, everybody’s a pro, everybody’s got a show on Friday night, and everybody’s got a link to tell you about it … I think you can look at the computer and the “interweb” as being a very liberating force, but if it isn’t leading to live music being performed then it’s doing nothing. It’s all about selling something. I’m more [for] digging the ferocity of instrumentation, being real, and being present and linked to the artists. There it is, all happening before you. It’s the genuine article with all of its history and all of its bastard children standing around the cabin. There it is! Look at it! Go up to it, knock on the door—it’ll scare the hell out of you, but do it just to feel something.

How would you describe your show for someone who hasn’t seen it?

It’s a high-energy atmosphere and oftentimes it feels like a revival—but not like a folk revival, like a tent revival. Like a snake-handlin’, venom-spittin’, strychnine-drinkin’ tent revival. There’s a lot of passion, there’s a lot of fire, there’s a lot of emotion. So it’s all those things, but it’s also important to recognize that it’s an acoustic show and a rockin’ show.

Where would you like to be in another 10 years?

Oh, disappeared in Oregon somewhere, up some logging road.

Still playing though?

[Laughs] Ten years from now? I don’t know what’s going to be where. I don’t really feel that I can trust 10 years from now in the way that people from before could. I just think that the rate of change and growth and destruction is spiraling out of control, and I fear for 10 years.

Speaking of which, this show is going to be a benefit for a sustainability fund. What are your thoughts on sustainability?

You couldn’t pick a better band to represent the value of sustainability: Here we are, playing the music that has been played on this continent for 200 years. We’re also adding to it to make it appropriate to the present; we’re enriching it. When you think about sustainability, it’s using the environment you’ve been given, and finding the natural resources that exist freely within it and harnessing them instead of extracting them, destroying them and burning them. The thing about Old Crow is that we have this ability to sing the old songs for people; the songs are healing and the songs are part of who we all are. They’re voices that have strength today and have resonance today. So singing them, it’s a very natural thing.

From the Vault

Review from the Vault: George Jones, The Essential

The Essential George Jones
George Jones
Legacy / Sony

There’s no better way to drown your sorrows than with country music on jukebox, and when a discerning fella needs to drink a gal off his mind, he naturally reaches for George Jones. With songs like “She Thinks I Still Care,” “He Stopped Loving Her Today,” and “If Drinkin’ Don’t Kill Me (Her Memory Will),” you know the ol’ Possum has been down in the dumps, too. The Essential is a great sample of his earlier honkytonk work as well as his later countrypolitan work; and of course, no George Jones retrospective would be complete without a few duets with the late, great Tammy Wynette.
If, like me, you’ve been waiting for the perfect George Jones compilation to come out, this is the one; the transfers are top notch, the track listing has all the classics, and the liner notes ain’t half bad, either. So, next time you hop on your riding lawnmower and head on down to the liquor store, be sure to pick this collection up; it’s one disc that lives up to its name– essential.

(Originally published in the Chico News & Review.)