New & Cool: Whiskeytown Shaking Case Of Alterna-Country Blues

Despite country sound on latest LP, singer Ryan Adams says he's no stranger to its deep roots.

Of all the musical acts lumped into the alterna-country movement, Ryan

Adams and his band Whiskeytown may be the most confusing.

In a song like

HREF="">"16 Days"

(RealAudio excerpt), the single off their latest album,

Strangers Almanac, lead singer Adams and violinist Caitlin

Cary harmonize like a latter-day Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris. But the

next track, the horn-section punctuated "Everything I Do," sounds straight

off a Stax-era Otis Redding record.

Four songs later, on "Waiting to Derail," Whiskeytown could pass for '80s

indie-rock legends the Replacements. They're just hard to figure.

The confusion begins to make sense, however, when Adams explains by phone

from a tour stop in Charleston, S.C., that the Rolling Stones' 1972 Exile On


Street is the seminal album for him, the one he returns to again and

again. Not only is Exile laced with '60s soul-horn arrangements, but

legendary country-rock songwriter Parsons was present for many of the


Adams and his band even went so far as to allude to Exile with their

first full-length release, Faithless Street (Mood Food Records).

Which isn't to say that Adams, who hails from Jacksonville, N.C., is a


to the deeper musical traditions of country. "I respect country music

enough not to want to blend it with alternative or rock," remarks the

23-year-old singer. "I think it's kind-of cheesy, and easy to do. I like a

lot of it when other people do it, but not when I do it."

Adams first got his start in a Raleigh, N.C. punk band, Patty Duke

Syndrome. But, in 1994, when drummer Skillet Gilmore and Adams talked


forming a

country band at the bar where Gilmore worked, Adams took his memories of

Loretta Lynn and George Jones on his grandparents' hi-fi and his

blossoming songwriting skills, and set off in a new direction. Or, more

accurately, in an old new direction.

Gilmore's roommate at the time, guitarist Phil Wandscher, brought a

rock sound to the band (Wandscher has since left the group),

and Cary introduced the traditional fiddle sound, which she

learned to play on the fly. Whiskeytown's current lineup features Adams,

Gilmore and Cary, as well as ex-fIREHOSE singer/guitarist Ed Crawford, Grand

National bassist Jenni Snyder, and Amy Rigby's and Edith Frost's

keyboardist/lap-steel player/guitarist Mike Daly.

The band first garnered attention at the 1996 South by Southwest music

conference in Austin, Texas, with their reckless, no-holds-barred live

show. "The aesthetic to this band is that it's a pretty fucked-up unit,"

Adams said. "We don't hold back any opinions. Basically, we come

as we are. We get pretty loaded, get into fights, have a good time,


But beneath the mayhem are songs -- really well-crafted songs. So, for

their second album, Whiskeytown teamed-up with producer Jim Scott (Tom

Petty, Johnny Cash, Danzig) to make a more polished album. "It's an

underwear album," Adams says of Strangers Almanac. "Strangers

is one of those records you listen to alone, when you're freaked out.

"At the time I made it, I felt so sad. I don't think I'll ever let

myself be that vulnerable again," Adams said matter-of-factly. "Mind you,

Strangers is a good album. But it barely explained the band. It's

almost an experimental album for us."

The songs on the record come nowhere close to new country-style

overproduction. But unlike the band's previous efforts, Strangers'

songs are

fully realized studio-efforts. From "Excuse Me While I Break My Own

Heart Tonight," Adams' wry, rollicking country-rock duet with Austin's

Alejandro Escovedo, to the tender, intimate "Dancing With the

Women at the Bar," the songs are somehow restrained, even when Adams

belts the words out over Wandscher's screaming guitar.

"I like doing it live a lot better than on the album, because live is a lot

more dangerous," said Adams. "I expected a lot of disasters, but there haven't

been too many."

And what of Whiskeytown's emerging role as one of the flag-bearers of

alterna-country? Adams dismisses the whole concept. "Country-rock is dead.

Long live country-rock," he declared.

Instead of combining sounds into some perfect country-rock fusion, Adams

is more interested in developing the different sides of Whiskeytown by

releasing some of the band's demos, which include lo-fi collaborations with

musicians such as [former db's member] Chris Stamey. At the

same time, Adams said that he is heading into the studio for a week with


Six months on the road have taken their toll on Whiskeytown, and the band,

according to Adams, turned down an offer to open for the Counting Crows

on a tour of England. Whiskeytown released a double 7-inch vinyl record on

Bloodshot Records, and Adams just headed home to finish up songs


Whiskeytown's next album.

"The songs I write on the road probably don't dig as deep as the ones I

write when I'm back at home [in Jacksonville, N.C.],"

Adams said. "That's where I go to

write. There's no indie-bar, or some cool, subtitled movie to go to. It's

just me and a couple of buddies, my mom's cooking, and my grandmother's

porch -- or I guess this time of year, her heater."

Color="#720418">[Tues., Dec. 16, 1997, 9 a.m. PST]