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="http://www.addict.com/music/Whiskeytown/16_Days.ram">"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
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'
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]
Color="#720418">[Tues., Dec. 16, 1997, 9 a.m. PST]