JULY/AUGUST 2009
JOE HAGAN

THE BALLAD OF BENJI HUGHES

ONE OF THE BEST POP SONGWRITERS IN AMERICA HAS AN ALMOST-PERFECT ALBUM THAT’S NEVER SEEN THE LIGHT OF DAY. HE ALSO WROTE A JINGLE FOR CAPTAIN MORGAN RUM AND ENJOYS TUBIN’ THE GREEN RIVER.

DISCUSSED: Gregg Allman, Randy Newman, Prince, The Carpenters, Pavement, Wachovia, Mdma, Brian Wilson, Casey Kasem, Muscadine, Seymour Stein, “Rico Suave,” Captain Beefheart‒Style Art Rock, Sheryl Crow, Shelby Lynne, Harry Nilsson, Dairy Queen
Photo of Benji Hughes by Mike Carroll

If you were driving south on Interstate 277 past Charlotte, North Carolina, and pulled off at exit 3A for gas, you might see a man with waist-length red hair and a bushy beard pull up in a 1985 Dodge truck. Shirtless, with a big, pale belly and blue jeans barely clinging to his waist. You’d think mountain man, Gregg Allman’s cousin, meth head—redneck. You might even be frightened.

Beyond any highway exit, inside the secluded neighborhoods full of strangers watching TV, among the strip-mall drive-thrus that echo with the foreign tongues of local teens, are secret worlds that can’t easily be deciphered. And so it is with Charlotte: for behind the forest of hair and the imposing physique of your gas-station redneck is one of the best pop songwriters in America, a musical autodidact and a heavy-hearted leonine balladeer whose confessions from the world off 277 will break your heart.

I could be the bachelor in your parlor
You could be the fingers in my hair
I could end up losing all my money playing cards
You could end up winning all my money playing cards
And being in love with me.
(“So Much Better”)

Last year, thirty-three-year-old Benji Hughes came out with his first solo record, A Love Extreme, a double album filled with lavish pop come-ons, crackling dance beats, moody soundscapes, and transcendent piano ballads. You can hear the influences of Randy Newman, Prince, the Carpenters, and Pavement, all filtered through Benji’s deep nasal drawl, a voice of casual vulnerability. In blog-like minutiae his songs tell of one man’s life as a hopeless romantic in a faceless American city known primarily as the headquarters of bailed-out banks like Wachovia and Bank of America.

Singing about his gang of “Charlotte people” going to see the Flaming Lips in nearby Asheville one weekend (in a song called “I Went with Some Friends to See the Flaming Lips”), he turns a garden-variety anecdote you might overhear at a coffee shop into a tender diary entry set to bouncy, eager-to-please pop:

I went with some friends to see the Flaming Lips
It was the greatest show I ever saw
We’d been planning the trip for a couple of months
And I just couldn’t wait to get it on
It was April seventeenth
It was a Thursday night
It was raining just a little but we didn’t mind
We had some drinks in the bar at the Haywood Park
Sent Mark and Jason on a beer run, ’cause it was getting dark
Then we checked into our rooms and started eating mushrooms
Jessica and Elle dropped by

But then the song takes an unexpected exit. The party beat fades out and Hughes grows somber against piano and brushes, letting go a long, aching Brian Wilson shade of a blue note:

Standing in a line we realized
Mark had taken too much,
Taken way too much MDMA

He recalls what happened next:

And later that night while the band played
I held the girl that I love in my arms
And most of my friends
And we all took turns holding Mark
Sometimes I almost forget how great that night really was
Then I talk to Mark and he can’t remember anything at all

It’s funny and sad—and true. Mark? He’s in a band and lives over in the Plaza Midwood district. “That’s a play-by-play,” Benji tells me.


Above: Listen to Benji Hughes’s “I Went with Some Friends to See the Flaming Lips”

If you’re from Charlotte, you know Benji as a local fixture, a guy you might see hanging out at Snug Harbor, the music club on Gordon Street, arms flopped on the bar, opining on the merits of Journey or Joe Walsh, generally cracking people up. Or you might see him floating on an inner tube on the Green River with a beer between his legs, his favorite pastime. At one time, if you were passing by the apartment complex on Florence Avenue, you might see him sitting in his window at a piano and writing songs about whatever’s happening out there.

Another tourist runs through town today
Another florist in some solemn way
Arranges flowers for a funeral bouquet or a wedding
There’s a shop that’s down a block
With sweet ice tea that will never stop
And I just can’t believe how hot it’s getting
(“Jubalee”)

When he sings about a “real sweet girl” in a “tight T-shirt” who used to be a paralegal and “wants to be a doctor or maybe train horses” (“Tight Tee Shirt”)—or how sweet it would be if she would fall in love with him because “every day you don’t gets wasted” (“All You’ve Got to Do Is Fall in Love”)—it’s a real girl. (And the feelings are true: “I actually wrote quite a few songs for this girl.”) His love songs often sound as if one of the tragicomic characters from Randy Newman’s 1974 album Good Old Boys had shoved Newman off the piano bench and made his own heartfelt case directly, the authorial remove blurred but with the same Brill Building–worthy songcraft.

Thing is, Benji Hughes is his own character: the son of a hard-drinking father and a Jehovah’s Witness mother, he spent his formative years shuttling between rural Tennessee (dad) and Charlotte (mom). As a Witness, he lived apart from other kids. He was sent to the library when they celebrated Christmas or birthdays—“outcast sort of scenarios,” he calls them. But on Sundays, en route to church, his mother let Benji listen to Casey Kasem’s American Top 40 on the FM dial. It was there he first heard the pop masters of the 1980s: Dire Straits, Bruce Springsteen, Madonna, Duran Duran.

He got a guitar when he was twelve, and two years later had his first public performance, playing bass for a band called Smash Action at Nobody’s Business, a Tennessee bar where men drank moonshine and carried firearms. He sang “Comfortably Numb” and did Mötley Crüe covers. In Charlotte, Benji debuted his own material at the Milestone Club, which the locals called the “Ghetto Fortress” because it’s in a dicey neighborhood. While working as a housepainter in 1995, he and a friend started the grunge band Muscadine, named for a grapevine species native to the Southeast. Benji was already showing a confessional streak: in the rock dirge “Saltwater Suntan,” he sang of a “hard-fisted drunk man” who “made me what I am,” a reference to his father (although Benji says he was never physically abused).

Seymour Stein, the legendary record executive who signed the Ramones and Madonna, brought Muscadine to Sire Records in 1996, advancing Hughes and his partner, Jonathan Wilson, nearly three hundred thousand dollars. “It was an old-school rock-and-roll experience,” says Benji. Their album was called The Ballad of Hope Nicholls, after the lead singer of a popular Charlotte band Sugarsmack, who played Captain Beefheart–style art rock. “We were just big fans of Sugarsmack and thought Hope was rad,” Benji says.

In the 1990s, Charlotte was the ugly stepsister to Chapel Hill, the de facto hipster stronghold of North Carolina. “People were somewhat embarrassed to be from here,” says Chris Chandek Peace, the guitarist for Sugarsmack. “He stood up for Charlotte. He’s not afraid.”

The album didn’t resonate beyond the indie-rock underground, but Benji became a local celebrity. When he casually made up slang expressions—he called something he considered lame “rico,” after the song “Rico Suave” by one-hit wonder Gerardo—people copied him. His own version of saying “whatever” was the non sequitur “ashkanah,” which circulated for a time in mixed conversation in Charlotte.

When Muscadine broke up, Benji got himself a Fender Rhodes and made a demo tape that caught the attention of Windswept Holdings, a song company in Los Angeles. They hired him to write commercial jingles, and Benji eventually penned “Got a Little Captain in You?” for Captain Morgan rum.

By that time, Benji’s father was in jail for a drug-related arrest, as described in a heartbreaking piano ballad called “Dad.” Like many of his songs, it takes the form of a letter:

It’s been a long time since you dropped me a line
I just had a birthday and Mom’s doing fine
The last time I heard you were still doing time
I heard about the sentence, never got the details of the crime
It’s humid where I’m living now, you know I never liked the heat
I play my songs in clubs sometimes
I’ve got enough to eat
I lost a few pounds, I grew a few feet
I used to want to kick your ass but the bottle’s already got you beat

The chorus lands like a left hook:

Dad, I need you here fast
I think I’m breaking down again
I’m losing bad
And I probably should
And I know you would be here if you could

“Dad” is from an album of eleven piano ballads that Benji made in 2003 for Los Angeles–based New West Records. (It includes a devastating cover of Leon Russell’s “Superstar,” immortalized by the Carpenters.) Unfortunately, the record was rejected as not commercial enough; it’s presently shelved as Benji tries to regain ownership and release it. Bill Bottrell, the producer who worked on Sheryl Crow’s first album and the 2000 classic I Am Shelby Lynne, produced and arranged Benji’s album. “It’s a bit of a sore subject with me,” he writes in an email. “For something so sincere, authentic, gorgeous, and pure to emerge during those desperate times was miraculous, and one of my most perfect works as a longtime record producer has never seen the light of day.”

In 2005, Benji moved to the Silver Lake district in Los Angeles to write the songs that would form A Love Extreme, his next attempt for New West, partnering with Keefus Ciancia, a producer he’d met while doing some session work as a song doctor. During this time, Benji befriended actress cum pop singer Jenny Lewis, sang backup vocals on the sound track for Across the Universe, and cowrote a song for the John C. Reilly music biopic parody Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story. His “Let’s Duet” is a bawdy country number in the style of Johnny Cash and June Carter, sung by “Dewey” and “Darlene”:

DEWEY: In my dreams you’re blowin’ me… some kisses
DARLENE: That’s one [of] my favorite things to do

Before the album came out, Benji moved back to Charlotte. His father had fallen ill. While in the hospital with him, Benji’s Captain Morgan jingle came on television. They reconciled before he passed away. (Benji didn’t want to discuss the details of the illness.)

Benji’s record made a minor splash. NPR and New York Times critic Jon Pareles loved it and Jody Rosen of Slate named it one of the best albums of 2008. Chuck Klosterman called it “pure, enthusiastic songwriting from a man who clearly does not care what I think about his work.” Benji appeared on Jimmy Kimmel Live! wearing a cape, surprising the show’s producers by pulling flowers out of his sleeve.

While it received nice notices, A Love Extreme wasn’t the sensation New West had hoped. They’d encouraged him to make a more energetic, party-oriented album than his 2003 effort—something Benji enjoyed doing but which some people, including his manager, felt obscured the subtler singer-songwriter in him. (Bottrell considers the album so much “silliness.”) Benji had to fight to get the label to allow his bearded face—lit from above, darkness behind him, and hair swept back like the hero of a romance novel—on the album cover. An executive from New West complained that Benji refused to tour, characterizing him as having “all the talent and craziness of Harry Nilsson.” They’ve since parted ways. (New West Records refused to make any of Benji’s unreleased album available for sampling, so Benji re-recorded “Dad” exclusively for the Believer.)


Above: Listen to Benji Hughes’s re-recording of “Dad”
Or click here to download the mp3.

As the local teens used to say: ashkanah. Benji is walking the streets of Charlotte again, gazing out the window, floating down the river on an inner tube. (They’ve recently banned alcohol on the Green, but he says he’ll shotgun a few beforehand.) He’s recording some new songs. He still visits his mom regularly. Benji’s old muse, Sugarsmack’s Hope Nicholls, now runs a clothing boutique across from the Dairy Queen described in Benji’s song “You Stood Me Up.”

Our Dairy Queen,” she says when I call her up, “which I can see right now.”

Joe Hagan is a contributing editor at New York magazine. He’s written for the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, Rolling Stone, and GQ. He lives in New York.

Photo of Benji Hughes by Mike Carroll

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