Celebrating the Winston-Salem Sound (Live at the Ramkat 2018)

The impetus for this extraordinary reunion concert—held May 12, 2018 at the Ramkat, a deluxe new venue in downtown Winston-Salem, NC—was that I had a book fresh off the press, a song-based memoir called A Spy in the House of Loud. A portion of the book referenced my time in New York, but the first part remembered, song by key song, the late 1960s and early '70s creative rock music scene in Winston. This was sometimes called the Combo Corner scene, after the title of a short-lived column in Guitar Player magazine was repurposed to ironically christen our hangout spot at RJ Reynolds High School. Members of bands with names such as the Shadows of Thyme, Sacred Irony, Uppenshades, Arrogance, Rittenhouse Square, and the Imperturbable Teutonic Griffin would gather on those steps near the chess club and try to dodge confrontations with the "jocks" who disagreed with long hair and bell-bottomed jeans on males. A surprising number of the Combo Corner crew went on to play and produce music professionally in the decades that followed—often with each other, in different configurations (e.g., dB's, Let's Active) and different locales. We were still in regular contact the day I suggested we once again try to "play the soundtrack to the book."

We'd caught the tail end of the Summer of Love back then, viewing it with both fascination and skepticism, too young and too suspicious to fully embrace hippiedom but loving its expansive musical excitement. Then we'd watched as the '70s dissolved into myriad diluted streams: of prog rock, party rock, hard rock, soft rock, what was called "Southern rock" (although it didn't seem like our South, most of the time). And many of us would subsequently turn our backs on all of these a few years later, at the end of that decade, when the insurgency of punk and "alternative" rock came along and, at least for a minute, swept the rest away. But we fondly remembered the blossoming of that early high school scene as a time of creativity and a certain magic.

So we didn't really need an excuse, almost five decades later, to reconvene these ensembles from the past. Au contraire: the trumpets sounded and the walls came down; it was immediately heard as a call to action! Some bands had dusted off their setlists a few times already, including Sneakers and Little Diesel. Some, like Rittenhouse Square, Sacred Irony, and the Imperturbable Teutonic Griffin, had not trod the boards in almost five decades but found their fingers still knew where to go. Some missing members, including local wire-bending, plank-spanking legend Sam Moss and Let's Active's Faye Hunter, were now gone beyond our reach . . . but far from forgotten in our hearts; Ed Dodson and Lynn Blakey stepped up to cover and honor their roles. Essential contributors including Ed Bumgardner, Gene Grandinetti, Mike Greer, Rob Slater, Ted Lyons, and Sally Spring, likewise, were committed elsewhere that night, and were missed. But we had critical mass, we had a quorum—and a great group of folks it was, indeed. So we decided to proceed, and simply created a few new lineups—the Love Valets, the Royal Opposition—in order to complete the picture, illustrate the book.

We played at first, in those early years, mostly in church "coffeehouses" on the weekends, instead of in bars. Winston had many of these by 1969. And call us biased, but our own songs sounded great to us then!—what could be understood of them, that is, as we overpowered the Shure Vocalmaster PAs and blasted them out as ear-splitting sonic chaos, some of us in bell-bottoms and Nehrus, decorated all the while by the strobe lights and old cartoons and overhead-projector "wet" shows of local Asgard Lights.

But the next morning, we'd be back in school. And inspirational music teachers there also played into this scene, big-time. Bob Smith taught college-level music theory at Reynolds High and led the stage band, peeling back the curtain on Chicago Transit Authority and Shaft charts. He changed my life. John "Chick" Shelton was an inspiring, patient leader of the Wiley Junior High band, whose influence continued when Ben Folds came along some years later.

After the concert at the Ramkat in 2018, I put the tapes away, unheard, content with the memories of all the fun that night and proud of the brinkmanship of trying so many complicated tunes with so little preparation. Not until 2020, during the enforced downtime of pandemic quarantine, did I pull out the recordings and go through them. I was really surprised at how many successes we'd had that day. I guess it helps when you have adroit players such as Doug Davis and Corky McClellan (of the present-day Vagabond Saints' Society) sitting in, who are able to turn on a dime and help execute such a huge amount of music so skillfully, with so many different bands that they were never in before! And MVP Mitch Easter on guitar, on almost every song that night and the soloist on most; thinking about it now, I don't know how he did it. Robin Borthwick, she originally of the Loyal Opposition and the Shadows of Thyme, seemed to be everywhere at once as well, always confident, always nailing it.

One thing about our little scene is that it was—and is—built on a strong work ethic, and an eagerness for a challenge. (May I submit the fully scored premiere of "The Train Stops Here" as Exhibit One?) I found this to still be true as I played back the multitracks and realized that this whole spectacular shebang was not only an event but . . . a pleasure. From the '50s R & B stylings of "Think" through the dense mystery of "Reptilian Disaster" all the way to the future-punk of "Kissy Boys" and "Condition Red" and the sophistication of "Room with a View," there's a ley line running through a scene and a city, one that you'll find is worth exploring. Maybe every city has a beloved scene in its rearview worthy of celebration?—in fact, I hope this is indeed the case. But this one is our story. Or at least a time-tunnel's glimpse into a part of it. As Captain Speed sang all those years ago, "Our high kites do star those nights, where you can see beyond today, tomorrow . . . forever." Enjoy.

—Chris Stamey, Jan. 2021


"Hot Smoke & Sassafras"
(originally recorded by Bubble Puppy)

"Reptilian Disaster"
(originally recorded by Captain Speed & the Fungi Electric Mothers)

"Room with a View"
THE ROYAL OPPOSITION feat. Lynn Blakey & Mitch Easter
(originally recorded by Let's Active)

"Talk Talk"
(originally recorded by the Music Machine)

"Yesterday's Tomorrow"
(originally recorded by Captain Speed & the Fungi Electric Mothers)

"Hollywood Swinging"
(originally recorded by Kool and the Gang)

"I See Love"
"Black Death"
(originally recorded by Arrogance)

"S'il Vous Plait"
"Got to Get You Into My Life"
(originally recorded by the Beatles; as performed by the Rhythm Method)

"Condition Red"
"Every Word Means No"
(originally recorded by Let's Active)

(originally record by the "

"Like Wow"
"King Battle of the Bands"
"Kissy Boys"
"The Train Stops Here"
THE ROYAL OPPOSITION feat. Mitch Easter and the Occasional Orchestra
(originally recorded by Mitch Easter & Faye Hunter)

"I Am Your Doctor"
"Maybe I'm Amazed"
(originally recorded by Paul McCartney; as performed by Arrogance)

"Good Times"
(originally recorded by the Easybeats)

"Galaxies of Love"
THE ROYAL OPPOSITION feat. Bob Northcott
(originally recorded by Wayne Hurst)

"Too Much to Dream"
(originally recorded by the Electric Prunes)


Rittenhouse Square: Mitch Easter (singer, gtr), Peter Holsapple (singer, gtr), Bobby Locke (drums), Chris Stamey (bass; singer "Hot Smoke")

The Love Valets: Robin Borthwick (drums), Doug Davis (gtr, singer), Mitch Easter (gtr), Corky McMillan (bass); Don Dixon & Jimmy Glasgow (singer / drums, "Black Death"); Mike Greer (gtr emeritus)

The Imperturbable Teutonic Griffin: Robin Borthwick (drums), Ed Dodson (gtr), Mitch Easter (gtr, 6-string bass), Corky McMillan (bass), Dale Smith (singer, gtr); Sam Moss (gtr emeritus)

Little Diesel: Tommy Eshelman (gtr), Peter Holsapple (gtr), Robert Keely (bass), Bob Northcott (singer), Will Rigby (drums); Phil Thomas (bass emeritus)

Sacred Irony: Robin Borthwick (drums), Mitch Easter (gtr, 6-string bass), Corky McMillan (bass), Rick Reich (organ), Dale Smith (gtr, singer); Ted Lyons and Terry Rosinger (drummers emeriti)

Sneakers: Robert Keely (singer, "Ruby'"; bass), Mitch Easter (gtr), Will Rigby (singer, drums), Chris Stamey (singer, gtr); Rob Slater (gtr emeritus)

The Royal Opposition: Robin Borthwick (drums), Mitch Easter (singer, gtr), Chris Stamey (bass), Don Dixon (bass, "Every Word" and "Galaxies"; singer, "Amazed," "Into My Life," "Think"), Doug Davis (organ), Peter Holsapple (piano), Corky McClellan (drums, "Think," "Amazed," "Galaxies," "Think"; percussion); Bob Northcott (singer, lead gtr on "Galaxies"), Lynn Blakey (singer, "Room with a View," "Train Stops Here")

The Occasional Orchestra: Audrey Muck (flute), Laura Thomas & Jack Crouse (violins), Leah Gibson ('cello), Rob Yingling (sax, bass cln), Bernie Hall (trombone), Kenny Butler (trumpet), Don Dixon (trombone), Lynn Blakey and Julia Stamey (choir)

Musical Directors: Chris Stamey and Doug Davis

Recorded by Brian Doub at the Ramkat
Mixed by Chris Stamey at Modern Recording
Additional mixing by Mitch Easter at the Fidelitorium

Mastered by Michael Graves at Osiris Studio Mastering

At the Ramkat: Richard Emmett and Andy Tennille (production coordinators), Jeff Cranfill (lighting director), Brian Doub (FOH mixer and multitrack recordist), Jeff Jenkins (stage manager), Mike Chamis (muso coordination), Jonathan Kirby and Jeffrey Dean Foster (MCs)

Graphic design: Laura Williams
Photography at the Ramkat: Daniel Coston, John Gessner, David Hutchison, Greg Silva

Not performed but not forgotten:
Albatross, The Bean, Big Dipper, Block's Philosphical Battery, the Broken Crayons, Chain Drive Blues Band, Dog Breath Blues Band, Freiburg, Gas Plant, Heavy Starch, Ice, Jerboa, King Money, Life, The Loyal Opposition, The Mystic Five, Oz Monolith, the Popular Misconception, the Ragged Edge, Ratz Vein, Red River Salvation, Rudd, Ruff on Rats, the Shadows of Thyme, Slewfoot, Snaggletooth, the Sound Corporation, Soup, Sour Milk Sea, Stubby the Tractor, Stutz and the Bearcats, Sweet Rye, Uppenshades, the Versatiles, the Villagers—and all the rest. A shout-out to Ben Folds and Jeff Foster and all the rest who followed. And thanks to Ken and Lib Easter and the Nokomis Court Basement Sound Laboratory & Salamander Farm.

Selected Bibliography: Ed Bumgardner's columns in the Winston-Salem Journal over many years, David Menconi's Step It Up and Go! (UNC Press), Chris Stamey's A Spy in the House of Loud (Univ. of Texas Press)

Archivist Grise: Robert Keely


© 2021 Yesterday's Tomorrow