Interview: Peter Holsapple Celebrates The Prolific Winston-Salem Combo Corner Scene and Live Album ‘Yesterday’s Tomorrow’

Interviews

On May 7th, 2021, Omnivore Records will release Yesterday’s Tomorrow, a select live recording of the reunion concert held in May 2018 at the Ramkat Club in Winston-Salem, North Carolina that brought together a wide swath of the members of the “Combo Corner” scene to play their bands’ memorable anthems once more. For those who may not know, in the late 1960s and early 1970s, a very specific music scene developed and spread from RJ Reynolds high school students and resulted in a myriad of local bands introducing their favorite new music to the world and also crafting original songs for shows. A very high number of those young musicians went on to work professionally in music and the full impact of the strange, new music they were playing at the time on their local community and on other musicians continues to be investigated.

Peter Holsapple was a member of two of the bands in question, both Rittenhouse Square who played music by bands like Free and Wishbone Ash as well as their own songs, and in Little Diesel, Winston-Salem’s first Punk band. For those reasons, he was very much conscripted talent for the Ramkat’s reunion show. But he also went on to record music with Rittenhouse Square bandmate Chris Stamey as The dBs, worked as an auxiliary guitarist and keyboardist for R.E.M. including contributing to their album Out of Time, also joined The Continental Drifters, and has worked on a number of collaborations with former bandmate Chris Stamey, notably Mavericks, as well as releasing solo work like Out of My Way. Stamey and Holsapple even have a vinyl release from Omnivore on June 12th 2021 for Record Store Day, titled Our Back Pages. Holsapple joined us to talk about the whole Combo Corner scene and why it was so enriching for him, encouraging us along the way to be “intrepid” in the music we listen to in order to reap the ongoing positive impact of that approach in our lives.

Americana Highways: When the reunion concert took place in May of 2018, was there already thought of releasing the recording to the wider world afterwards? The sound is so clear on the recording that it made me wonder.

Peter Holsapple: Originally the show was connected with the publication of Chris Stamey’s biography, A Spy in the House of Loud, since the first part of it talks about the Winston-Salem Combo scene. I’m not sure, but there may also be video footage. I’m not exactly sure how the recording came about, but I’m assuming that Chris made sure it was recording in a presentable way.

AH: How far ahead of the performance did you know about it and how much preparation time did the different participants have?

PH: I was involved in basically two bands that were in the show, Rittenhouse Square and Little Diesel. Little Diesel had actually gotten together to play a couple of years before and that was a lot of fun. That was Winston-Salem’s first Punk band. We’ve always stayed in touch, like everyone in this batch of people. It was such a strong scene that we’ve maintained friendships over the years. I think we all sort of knew what we were going to do. Everyone did a few songs. We weren’t terribly worried about that. A lot of these people I’ve known since I was eight years old, and most of them I’ve played with since I was 14. Little Diesel was not a problem to get together.

Rittenhouse, though, had not played together since, I think, 1973. Whenever it was that Bobby [Locke] left the band. There was a taping expedition after that, and then I left for Little Diesel. Then Mitch [Easter] and Chris [Stamey] started figuring out how to be Producers and recording engineers, which they, obviously, have been successful at over the years. Bobby went on to be a successful nightclub owner over the years, but I didn’t get the sense he’d been playing a lot of drums. He was ready to go at that rehearsal, though. He was spot-on and sounds spot-on on the songs that he did. The fourth song that we did, which didn’t make it onto the record, was a cover of “Jailbait” by Wishbone Ash. Bear in mind, though, that this is the third edition of Rittenhouse Square. The first two were entirely different groups with Bobby Locke being the mainstay as the drummer. When we first started playing with me, Mitch, Chris, and Bobby, three of the first four songs we worked up were by Wishbone Ash. I mentioned that to Andy Powell, who is a friend on Facebook, and he was suitably amused. I never did get to own that Flying V! I think it’s a little late in the day for that now.

But some of these songs are really strong, like “King Battle of the Bands.” That’s just a really strong riff and I never forgot it. I can still play Mitch’s songs that we never recorded, we just worked them up. That’s almost 50 years ago now, but I can still recall them. I learned so much from Mitch. He was one of guitar idols growing up even though he’s only a year and a half older than I am. He was just so far advanced.

AH: What kind of music did you all think you were playing in Rittenhouse Square? What sort of words did you use to talk about the music you were into?

PH: If I were to look at the song list we worked up in Rittenhouse Square, since we had a song list, aside from Wishbone Ash, we were playing Free, we were playing Mott the Hoople before any one knew these. There was a part of what we were doing that really flew against what would have been more commercially acceptable for a band in Winston-Salem to play. We were not playing Marshall Tucker. We had to work up “Midnight Rider” so that we could potentially get booked by a booking agency. Every other band was playing “Whipping Post,” so we didn’t see any need to.

We looked at our record collection and said, “Other people would love that song if they could hear it, but they are not going to hear it unless we play it.” So, I can’t say that we sold a lot of those records, but we loved that stuff and we wanted to bring it to people in Winston-Salem so that it would open their minds. I don’t know that we really had a description of what we were playing. The original material was just whatever we wrote. That was adventuresome, but it was probably immature, as you might expect from 15 year olds. We listened to The Move a lot, we listened to The Kinks. Mitch was really big on The Moody Blues and YES. We tried to keep open minds. It was hard because there wasn’t a lot of this stuff on the radio.

AH: As you’re saying this, I’m wondering how you got ahold of some of this stuff.

PH: On Sunday nights, we’d tune into WCFL in Chicago. Before the branding it was “Clear Channel Radio,” so you could actually get it in Winston-Salem. There was a show called, “Ron Britain’s Subterranean Circus.” He played all sorts of Progressive stuff at that point, which was called “Underground” at that point, I guess. I think that’s probably one of the first places that I ever heard Pink Floyd. That was fine, we were intrepid listeners. We also had a record store in town, where I ended up working, that had a listening booth. I had the older guys working there saying, “This is a great record by James Taylor, but maybe you should listen to Lick My Decals Off.” And I said, “Oh, you’re right! And what are these Judee Sill records all about?” I was fortunate to have that. We all started making records early, too. There was a studio in Greensboro called Crescent-City Sound Studios.

There was no feeling of competition among the bands, though. It was a little bit like the R.E.M days, when it was like, “When R.E.M wins, we all win.” We ended up playing in coffee houses or places that served beer, not liquor. A couple of times when I was 16, they had to sneak me in and out of places that sold beer. But it was a wonderful community of bands. Don Dixon’s band, Arrogance, really changed things a lot for us because they had also recorded an original single, “Black Death.” We thought that was maybe the greatest song we had ever heard, but it was by these guys from down the road. It was inspirational stuff.

AH: Did that influence you towards songwriting since you could see someone so nearby also songwriting successfully?

PH: That, and there was the idea of the disconnect between, “What are The Beatles playing on Ed Sullivan?” and “What is this local band doing and how are they related?” For me, seeing the prior incarnation of Rittenhouse Square, that Mitch and Bobby were in, was seeing a big, expansive group of people, left me agog. Seeing that kind of stuff from that vantage point made me realize the connection. I thought, “I can do that. I should do that. I feel good doing that!” I got better equipment and I started writing songs. Then Big Star came along and that changed everything again, somewhere around 1973. We started covering Big Star records then. We were intrepid missionaries to bring good music to people, and I think that in all of the bands that I’ve been in, we’ve really tried to keep that at the forefront. It’s easy enough to play “what the people want” but it’s not very interesting. I have no interest in doing that in this lifetime.

AH: I noticed that around the time of the Combo concert in 2018, you also released a new solo album. Did that bring up any points of reference or contrast for you?

PH: Not so much contrast as evidence of a continuum in what is referred to as my “music career.” There are things that I still do that are still a part of what I heard then and played then. The solo records are informed by all the music I’ve listened to and modern stuff, too. I became a more informed and better listener over time and have been able to listen to stuff my friends can’t stand. I’m really grateful to have had the upbringing in the Winston-Salem music scene that allows me to have an open mind at 65 and still find new stuff. My daughter turned me on to The Regrettes and Beach Bunny. What great bands they are! They are inspiring her to pick up the bass and learn how to play. This is how you stay interested in music.

AH: I love talking to people about music because they naturally put me on to stuff. Also, I tend to look at liner notes pretty carefully, and if I see a particular musician on one album, I might follow them to another and discover new stuff.

PH: That’s what you do. The streaming culture has managed to remove liner notes from our everyday discussion, unfortunately, like metadata. Arwen Lewis is the daughter of Peter Lewis of Moby Grape, a guitar player, and I think he plays on her record, too. When I pulled up the picture to play on my car radio, the picture was of Aaron Lewis of Staind, which is about 180 degrees from her record. The same thing happened with Beach Bunny, pulling up a picture of The Beach Boys with a giant, bearded Brian Wilson face. Nobody’s paying attention. No one’s hand is on the tiller, and it’s a shame.

I think of the hours that I spent reading the liner notes to The Kink Kronikles over and over again. Or The Best of The Move, or Split Ends. I absorbed all that shit. I can’t balance a checkbook, I don’t even know if I’ve got burial insurance, but I can tell you everyone who played on John Mayall’s Blues records for about 15 years. I’m not the greatest guy at a cocktail party but get me to a tribute night and I’ll wipe the floor with you.

AH: How did you choose which songs to play that night at the reunion concert?

PH: For Rittenhouse, we did two songs from the Record, “Like Wow” and “King Battle of the Bands.” We also did the Wishbone Ash song and “Hot Smoke and Sassafrass,” because those were the songs we did back in the day. For Little Diesel, we knew we had to do “Kissy Boys” because you have to do “Kissy Boys” at a Little Diesel concert. That was sort of our anthem. We also played “Hollywood Swinging.” Little Diesel was our senior year in high school band, and we all thought we’d go on to UNC Chapel Hill [to college], but I was the only one who got in. So they all went on without me and they got Mitch and Chris in the band.

All of this is available on the No Lie record that was put out on Tellstar some years ago. It’s a great thing. All of this was recorded in Chris’s bedroom with little 6 inch champ amps which he had mounted on the wall. There were five of us in there in a suburban bedroom making a noisy Punk record. In the set, we tried to do stuff that we had done in the band, and even though I wasn’t in Little Diesel when they recorded “Hollywood Swinging”, we all went to the fairground and saw it played live by Kool & the Gang that summer anyway.

AH: I was going to ask how you got turned on to their music.

PH: “Jungle Boogie” and “Hollywood Swinging” was all over the radios in Winston-Salem. We had good radio stations and we listened to everything. We continued on with that message at the Ramkat show, and I hope that people will listen to these disks and say, “Okay. Yeah.”

AH: We were talking about liner notes, and actually this release comes with a really excellent booklet with photographs, histories, and liner notes.

PH: And a website now too! People are filling in the blanks. I’m going to try to write something. We want to celebrate this. I hope people in Winston-Salem and throughout North Carolina see this as an opportunity to look at what we did and see the interrelationships there with music there now. That’s important stuff.

AH: I heard about the Record Store Day release that you have coming up with Chris called Our Back Pages. I know that’s dBs songs that have been translated into acoustic versions.

PH: Yes, it’s a little bit more quiet than a dBs record. It doesn’t have that reckless age 20 energy. We’ve been doing duo performances for years, and we recorded a bunch of these songs a few years ago at Chris’s studio. We actually put this out as a download a couple of years ago as a benefit record. Now Omnivore has put it out on vinyl, so there’s a nice 12-inch record which I’ve actually played a copy of, and it sounds wonderful. There’s also a CD coming along eventually with a couple of extra tracks.

AH: I heard that these songs, particularly, were chosen because you felt that they stood up to the translation well and cast new light on things.

PH: Agreed. The essence of a good song is if you can just sing it, and it still sounds good, or if you can just hear the bassline and it still sounds good. A lot of people find that when they try to do stuff acoustically, it can’t always be done. It’s good that we were able to find a bunch of stuff to do. I’m really happy with that record and I like it a lot. I hope that a lot of shops will stock it on Record Store Day and people will find it.

Enjoy our earlier interview of Peter Holsapple here:  Interview: Peter Holsapple Identifies as an “Omnicana” Musician, Talks About Model Cars, His Concept Album, and the Disappearance of Credits  Find Peter Holsapple’s music here: http://omnivorerecordings.com/peter-holsapple/ 

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