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Musical Memories

In a new book, Andrew Cothern of RVA Playlist combines his love of local music with a coming of age story.

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For the record, I didn’t set out to write about Andrew Cothern's new book, “RVA Playlist: Stories from the Richmond, Virginia Music Scene."

No, that idea was originally pitched by musician and regular Style Weekly music contributor, Davy Jones. But since Jones had helped edit and research the book, that wasn’t going to fly. This dilemma led Style’s editor, Brent Baldwin, also mentioned in the book, to ask if I wanted to cover it. [Editor's note: Cothern was the calendar editor at Style Weekly from 2011-2013.]

After I finished reading the book, I pointed out that not only am I mentioned, I’m thanked for "lighting his fire," which prompted my editor to respond via email: “I’m wondering if there is anybody who covers local music that isn't somehow involved with this book?” Short answer: Apparently not, at least among those who write for Style; although just being mentioned shouldn’t disqualify us from writing about it.

“RVA Playlist: Stories from the Richmond, Virginia Music Scene” is part-fanzine and part-memoir. The scope is narrow, covering the years from 2006 through 2016, and the author’s experiences within the thriving music scene. As Cothern emphasizes from the first sentence, the book is not trying to be a definitive chronicle of Richmond music history. Rather this is the tale of a college kid coming of age, coming out, and finding a way to combine his appreciation for local music with a desire to write about it in a supportive way.

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His timing proved auspicious. Although it may seem like blogs have been around forever -the platform Blogger was launched in 1999- WordPress and liveblogging didn’t come into being until 2003. Cothern began blogging about music a couple of years later, calling his original blog “Circles of Concrete,” a line from a Pete Yorn song, and writing about any music he liked or was sent by promoters. Eventually narrowing his focus to local music, the blog became RVA Playlist in 2010, a phrase that is synonymous with Cothern in the book.

For those who weren’t part of the local music scene during that period, the book offers a glimpse into a time that could be pretty magical. The sonic beauty of the eight-piece Mermaid Skeletons performing in the Poe Museum’s Enchanted Garden on a steamy summer night, as the overflow crowd attempted to scale the garden’s 8-foot brick wall. Or Jonathan Vassar and the Speckled Bird performing “A Slow Song for Swifts” in a parking lot off Grace and Adams Streets while hundreds of chimney swifts appeared in the sky, swooping and chattering as they made patterns while the band sang them to their chimney roosts.

These were the years of the Listening Room, a monthly series with good coffee, homemade baked goods, and a strict no talking rule so that even the quietest acoustic performers could be appreciated to the fullest. And the Ghost of Pop show at Gallery5 in 2009, after which Prabir and the Substitutes were breaking up, but not before setting their instruments on fire to close out the show. Cothern offers up his impressions of these memorable events and many others.

Despite having a musical theme, the book isn’t all reminiscing about shows. He talks about coming out, having his first same sex kiss and relationship, and its ultimate breakup. There’s the story of him taking improv classes at Richmond Comedy Coalition and eventually going onstage as part of the “Richmond Famous” series, a nod to his status as RVA Playlist. There are descriptions of his devotion to the former Globehopper Coffeehouse and Lounge for caffeine, live music and mix CDs left at the locker exchange. Also there’s his introduction to Lorna Pinckney and her Tuesday Verses open mic spoken word evenings, a distinctly sharp turn in his comfort zone.

When he hung up the “closed for business” sign on RVA Playlist in January 2016, Cothern felt that adulting was keeping him from devoting the necessary time and effort to his one-man operation. He also acknowledges that the scene didn’t need him anymore, the way it had when he started out in 2006.

Local music fans who were part of this era - who saw shows at Rumours, Nara Sushi and Ghostprint Gallery - can stroll down a block or two of memory lane reading this book. Any reader newer to the scene may get a sense of a very different Richmond than the one they currently know, and that information can be inspirational.

Cothern is the quintessential nice guy, willing to share his mistakes, regrets, and memories, even those colored by years and alcohol. And regardless of who provides the ignition, turning others on to what one loves about Richmond’s scene should be every music lover’s goal.

“RVA Playlist: Stories from the Richmond, Virginia Music Scene” is available at Chop Suey Books and online at Amazon and Barnes & Noble. Cothern will be selling the book at the Chop Suey’s Brew Ho Ho local author event on Sunday, Dec. 18 from 2 to 5 p.m. at Hardywood Brewery Richmond.

Five questions with Andrew Cothern of RVA Playlist

Compiled by the editor

Style Weekly: What was the hardest part of this to write?

Andrew Cothern: Writing this book was surprisingly not that hard for me. I had saved almost all my old news clippings, videos, and blog posts, which was very helpful in getting these stories fleshed out. If anything, the hardest part was staying focused on writing. While I was doing my research, I made a playlist of all the Richmond bands I enjoyed during this period, and I spent more time listening to the music more than I did writing the book. That playlist is here if you want to link to it.

Did you discover anything about yourself, or the music scene, that was surprising?

As I was writing, a constant theme kept popping up. Throughout the time of my life chronicled in this book, I would usually find myself wanting to do something like writing articles for the RTD or throwing an RVA Playlist anniversary showcase, and despite not knowing how to make it happen, I would just do it and figure out the details along the way. These actions had various degrees of success but I was surprised how often that happened in my life.

Since I wasn’t in a band or running a venue or studio, I never really considered myself as a part of the Richmond music scene. But it wasn’t until I was writing this book that I realized how much I was actually a part of it and how diverse Richmond music really is. It’s so great seeing the city known for having a great punk and metal scene and at the same time, having an incredible jazz community.

When you look back at the entire process, what was most valuable to you about this entire endeavor?

I knew nothing about how to publish a book when I first had this idea. But I told myself just to write it all out first and then figure out how to make the book a reality. I think focusing on the writing first really allowed my creative side to work itself out through these stories. I could freak out over how the publishing world works once I had a draft done.

How do you view things now in the Richmond music scene, where do you see things going, and anything you'd like to see happen?

I definitely see the Richmond music scene in a different place now. There are new artists coming out as well as the veterans still going strong. A lot more venues catering to live music and the community is continuing to show up to events in support. The scene continues to evolve in new and interesting ways.

As for the future, if Richmond is to grow even more as a music city, the city itself needs to invest the money and effort into making it thrive. I've seen this be successful in other cities, but it definitely takes a commitment. I'm excited to see how the new venue coming to Tredgar works out. Bringing big names to Richmond only increases the city's appeal as a music destination.

Sorry this last question will put you on the spot: People may want to know if you have an all-time favorite Richmond band?

I can’t choose an all-time favorite local band. That’s way too difficult! But there are a number of local acts that have stuck with me over the years including Long Arms, Jonathan Vassar, Hot Lava, Those Manic Seas, and Goldrush, just to name a few.

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