Is Ryan Adams one of the greatest singer/songwriters of his generation? Or will he emerge as another in a long line of pretenders to the Dylan throne? If only you could ask him, he’d surely set you straight. By Corey duBrowa
“Time let me play and be/Golden in the mercy of his means.”
—Dylan Thomas, “Fern Hill”
The Legend Of Ryan Adams has taken on the outsized dimensions of urban folklore. The myth has become so preposterous—we’re talking Bob Dylan-sized footprints here; the only thing missing is the invented motorcycle accident—that it’s remotely possible Adams himself is now embarrassed by some of the brushstrokes that have been applied to his impressionist portrait. Sorting out the truth from fiction takes a little doing.
Adams’ former band, the turnstile-spinning collection of lineup changes known as Whiskeytown, ultimately became more recognized for its wildly erratic onstage exploits and a treasure-trove of unreleased material supposedly on par with The Basement Tapes than for its body of actual recorded work (which, in any event, remains some of the finest ever committed to tape in the name of the nebulous alt-country genre). Adams is now aggressively in pursuit of a solo career that’s gaining industry-wide “It Kid” momentum; his second album, the wishfully titled Gold (Lost Highway), can be found prominently spotlighted at a record-store listening post near you. Along with this newfound status comes a breathtaking array of rumors, half-truths and stories that have a Replacements-like haze of manufactured danger about them.
Here’s a representative sampling: Whiskeytown got into a backstage altercation with former Blasters guitarist Dave Alvin. (False.) Adams duked it out with Keith Richards in the studio after the legendary guitarist took offense to what he felt were Whiskeytown’s obvious Stones borrowings. (Half true: It was guitarist Phil Wandscher, and not quite so dramatic.) Adams has verbally or physically threatened countless journalists who’ve penned less-than-flattering articles about him. (The stories are legion; more on this later.) Adams fired the entire membership of Whiskeytown onstage in Kansas City in 1997 and sent them back to North Carolina, only to play the remaining dates as an acoustic duo with violinist/vocalist Caitlin Cary. (True.)
Herein lies the dilemma: saving Ryan from himself. It isn’t exactly news that some of the most brilliant people of our time have possessed all-too-human personality flaws to balance out their superhuman talents; it’s said Einstein could barely tie his shoes, that Vince Lombardi rarely spoke to his children during football season, that Kurt Cobain rewrote his personal history to ensure the legend would obscure the less-appetizing truths of his upbringing. While Adams isn’t nearly as accomplished as any of these figures, his overstuffed knapsack of tall tales certainly fits this description. He possesses as conflicting a set of traits as anyone in pop music today, which makes assessing his work a tad more challenging than simply sitting down with his records and trying to make head or tail of the output.
So which is the “real” Ryan Adams? The man his former tour manager calls a “charming and completely likable guy”? The artist who veteran rock critic David Menconi once described as the writer of “presence of greatness, Hall of Fame-type stuff”? Or the sellout who WXDU DJ and Raleigh/Durham music-scene raconteur Ross Grady pejoratively labels “the Rod Stewart of his generation”? Paradoxically, even after spending time with many of his former business/artistic cohorts (Adams declined to be interviewed for this story; his publicist lamely offered that “Ryan is just an out-there kinda kid” after rescheduling our interview on three different occasions and eventually canceling it altogether), it’s hard to say this picture is any clearer. He’s become all of them, which might just be the way Adams wants it.
Expecting To Fly
For as long as anyone who’s known him can remember, Ryan Adams wanted desperately to be a rock star. He was born November 5, 1974—exactly 28 years after the birth of one of country music’s most fabled characters, Gram Parsons, to whom Adams has been compared on countless occasions. Growing up in the coastal, Marine-base town of Jacksonville, N.C., Adams transported himself beyond the limitations of his particular backwater via visits to the record store, ultimately bonding with one of the clerks, a fellow outcast named Jere McIlwean. Adams and McIlwean formed a ratty punk band called the Patty Duke Syndrome, which consumed enough time to make Adams’ commitment to his education a vanishing memory. He quit high school, got his GED and set off for the “big city” of Raleigh, where he and McIlwean eventually hooked up with future Polvo drummer Brian Walsby.
“I met him when he was 16,” says Walsby. “He was a hyperactive, spazzy, smelly little kid who I thought was full of shit—someone who just couldn’t be as enthusiastic as he appeared. One night at the Cat’s Cradle (a Chapel Hill club), I was talking with Mac (McCaughan of Superchunk), and Ryan came charging up and wanted him to autograph some old single by Wwax (McCaughan’s pre-Superchunk band) he had bought down in Jacksonville. He talked with him like he’d known him forever.”
The Patty Duke Syndrome ultimately dissolved into the folds of faded memory (Adams wrote a song about this tense time period called “Bastards I Used To Know”), and Adams began to put the word out in Raleigh he was thinking about changing gears and forming a country band. McIlwean—“a dangerous closet drug addict,” recalls Walsby, and someone who never had much regard for Adams’ occasional dalliances with country—died from a heroin overdose in 1997. (Adams’ bleak tribute to his friend can be heard on Whiskeytown’s out-of-print 1997 Bloodshot Records single “Theme For A Trucker.”) Meanwhile, some interested/interesting parties began showing up on Adams’ doorstep.
“I first met Ryan when I was in grad school at North Carolina State,” says Caitlin Cary. “I had just moved to Raleigh and was definitely not an ‘insider’; in fact, I’d never even played in a band before. A guy in my English department must’ve talked to Ryan, because Ryan called me literally from out of the blue and told me he was starting a band and heard that I play violin and would I think about it.” When local bar owner Skillet Gilmore agreed to play drums and guitarist Phil Wandscher and bassist Steve Grothmann joined in 1993, Whiskeytown was born.
From the band’s earliest days, it was clear Adams was a prodigious talent, fanatically prolific and hell-bent on capturing as many ideas as possible before they somehow escaped his grasp. Whiskeytown spent a tumultuous 10 days in a converted barn called the Funny Farm and emerged with Faithless Street (released in ‘96 on local indie Mood Food, then sonically resculpted and rereleased in ‘98 on Outpost Records after Whiskeytown had signed its major-label deal). Cary describes the band’s time at the Funny Farm as “kind of a blur; we were all drinking a lot and didn’t really know what the hell we were doing.” Despite such distractions, the album was hailed at the time as one of the treasures of the emerging alt-country movement. David Menconi, pop-music critic for Raleigh’s The News & Observer, was one of the first to take note of Adams’ potential and served as an early booster of the band. Menconi was also a witness to Adams’ penchant for excess.
“Ryan always talked a good game about how ‘Whiskeytown is a band,’ but deep down, I don’t think he ever believed that,” says Menconi. “Caitlin used to call her song ‘Matrimony’ the ‘Ryan Interlude,’ because he didn’t have anything to do while she sang it. So he would sometimes leave the stage. One night, they were playing the Brewery in Raleigh, which is connected to the Comet Lounge (namechecked on the Strangers Almanac song ‘Yesterday’s News’). And during that song, he went next door, bumped into a friend, had a few drinks. Suddenly, he remembered he was supposed to be onstage and ran back to find the band had gone on without him; they’d run out of songs and were playing covers. So he ran to the front of the stage and started heckling them, yelling that they suck. He told me later that there’s ‘nothing more fun than heckling your own band.’ He really understands rock mythology and how to play into it. He’s perfect for the part of a rock star.”
Ryan Adams has said the name Whiskeytown is Southern-colloquial shorthand for “fucked up” (e.g., “After that fifth of Jack the other night, I was totally whiskeytown”); even a cursory listen to his songs reveals a recurring alcohol motif that’s hard to miss. So it didn’t surprise those who knew him that Adams’ transition from “unknown with potential” to “rock-star brat” manifested immediately once his music—and outrageous behavior—began to catch the attention of people beyond the Raleigh/Durham area code.
A major-label shootout ensued after Whiskeytown’s breakout performance at the South By Southwest festival in 1996, with Geffen’s nascent Outpost offshoot emerging as the winner. The band huddled in Nashville with producer Jim Scott and recorded a whopping three dozen songs, the best 13 of which became the basis for its second release, 1997’s Strangers Almanac. It was Whiskeytown’s calling card for greatness: a rock album with overt country references that drew as much from the Fleetwood Mac playbook as from Parsons’, spawning at least two classic songs (“Avenues,” “Houses On The Hill”) and another cut that should’ve been a hit (“16 Days”). But Outpost’s insistence that the band tour to support the album was the beginning of Whiskeytown’s long undoing, an ugly unraveling that helped cement Adams’ bad reputation while sealing his band’s fate.
Recalls former Whiskeytown tour manager (and Adams’ ex-roommate) Thomas O’Keefe, “I did nine different tours with Whiskeytown (from 1995 to 1998), and not one of those tours lasted longer than five weeks. That was our limit. Ryan gets bored easily. He didn’t care one lick for touring and couldn’t do it for five weeks without a complete meltdown—that’s when all the bad shit happened. He’s immensely talented but needs to be busy. I always thought of Whiskeytown as a punk band, so it was never surprising to me when Ryan would be laying on his back onstage, playing one note over and over again for 10 minutes. But if you’re some ‘neck in a Son Volt hat with a Budweiser in your hand, it’s probably not as cute.”
Latter-day Whiskeytown guitarist/co-writer Mike Daly was along for the ride during some of the band’s wildest years. “I met the guys for the first time the month before Strangers came out,” he recounts. “I flew from New York down to North Carolina, but Ryan was down in Austin taking care of some business. So I hooked up with Phil (Wandscher), and he asks, ‘Do you have your (swimming) trunks with you?’ And I had to say that, no, I didn’t. So he got me a pair, and we went out fishing; that’s how I was introduced to my new bandmates. I didn’t actually meet Ryan until a week later, when we opened for Cracker at Tramps (in New York City). It was kind of a handshake: ‘This is Mike, he’s a fuckin’ great player,’ and then I walked onstage and played the show. I had my musical shit way more together than they did at that point, so it wasn’t that hard to learn the songs. I just made up my parts as we went along.”
Among the looming legends in the Whiskeytown pantheon is the story of how Adams decided to pack the whole thing in one September night in Kansas City. “Yeah, Ryan just freaked out,” recalls Daly. “He turned around in the middle of one of the songs we were playing and yelled, ‘I’m quittin’ the band.’ And I wasn’t quite following him, so I asked him if that meant we were still gonna play ‘Waiting To Derail’ or not. Clearly, that wasn’t the answer he was looking for. I guess he was hoping I’d stop to talk him out of it.”
Tour manager O’Keefe also remembers the night vividly. “It was near the end of a tour in 1997,” he says. “They were playing a song that ended up on Pneumonia—’Jacksonville Skyline’—and I could hear Ryan changing the lyrics, cussing to himself. This dissolved into a 10-minute tirade about all the things Ryan hated about the music business. He finally ended the song, smashed up his guitar, grabbed the mic and told a rather stunned audience, ‘Get on the Internet and tell your friends you just saw the last fuckin’ Whiskeytown show.’ He then sent everyone else in the band, except Caitlin, home in the RV that I had rented on my American Express card—the band, the soundman, everyone. Ryan, Caitlin and I then proceeded to hop in the minivan and play the last four dates of the tour as an acoustic set.”
O’Keefe has a host of other Adams stories, including the time he threw the monitors off the stage at the Fillmore in San Francisco (resulting in Whiskeytown’s subsequent performance ban in the city), a Vancouver show where he demolished a $4,000 Gibson Firebird guitar and a tour-ending Houston gig that resulted in every piece of equipment onstage being reduced to splinters. “Yes, it really was that fucked up,” laughs Cary. “More than you know.”
Even after such clichéd rock-star shenanigans, Adams reconvened with a different version of Whiskeytown in upstate New York in 1998 to record the songs that would come to be known as Pneumonia. By this point, nearly 20 people had passed through the band’s ranks, including former members of the Backsliders, fIREHOSE and Superchunk, as well as Replacements bassist Tommy Stinson and Smashing Pumpkins guitarist James Iha, prompting a piece of graffiti to begin appearing on various bathroom walls around Raleigh: “I used to play in Whiskeytown and all I got was this lousy T-shirt.” When Outpost dissolved in the wake of the 1999 Universal/Polygram merger, Pneumonia—widely available as a bootleg on the Internet with a different mix, running order and track listing—went into limbo for nearly three years, at the very peak of the band’s creativity and popularity. It was the last straw.
“Let me put it this way,” declares Daly. “If Pneumonia had come out when it was supposed to back in 1999, there would probably still be a Whiskeytown today.”
For her part, Cary concurs with the notion the delay was instrumental in stopping the band in its tracks. “I suppose it’s possible that we might still be together, but Whiskeytown seemed to have something of a half-life,” she says. “We never really worked very hard. We toured hard, but the way you make it in this industry is, besides being talented and driven, you have to play the game. Kiss a lot of ass along the way. And Ryan was never very good at any of that stuff.”
For all the memories—good, bad, indifferent—the band ever conjured, don’t waste time hoping for a reunion tour. “I wouldn’t set up a tent in front of Ticketmaster any time soon,” Daly says dryly.
After The Goldrush
Two years have come and gone since Whiskeytown’s demise. Ryan Adams has endured a painful breakup from his long-time love, music-industry publicist Amy Lombardi. Their separation is documented for all to hear on his beautifully conceived solo debut, Heartbreaker, issued in 2000. A song on the new Gold, “Harder Now That It’s Over,” even provides his version of a nasty beer-tossing incident that resulted in her brief spell in police custody. Adams moved from New York to Nashville, but he now resides—Led Zeppelin style—in a hotel in Los Angeles. He’s been spotted on Winona Ryder’s arm, though that relationship also tanked.
The starmaker machinery is now fully engaged in taking Gold over the top. The 16-track album began as a 25-song concept piece Adams jokingly titled Career Suicide (this from the man who once told interviewers Pneumonia had been provisionally called Never Gonna Fuckin’ Come Out). Prolific as ever, Adams is purportedly working on a play, a novel and a “Replacements-like” rock project called the Pink Hearts that’s scheduled to release a record in early 2002. New famous friends have namechecked him in interviews and given props on their sleeve credits (Elton John’s latest, Songs From The West Coast, reads, “Special thanks to Ryan Adams, who inspired me to do better”). The glossy features rolled in by the truckload: Vanity Fair, GQ, Interview, New York Times, Rolling Stone, his hair expertly tousled for every photo session, cigarette dangling from his lips. The obligatory Saturday Night Live and Letterman appearances came off without a hitch. It’s a hard-knock life.
Not everyone thinks this is for the best, however. Those who adored Adams’ previous incarnation as a scruffy, punk-ass brat occasionally capable of creating great art are now hearing the excesses of Tinseltown embedded in his work. Says Menconi, “I really think Ryan hanging around in L.A. is a mistake, in terms of the musicians he’s surrounding himself with.” He may have a point; Gold’s short list of contributors includes such lesser lights as the Counting Crows’ Adam Duritz and Stephen Stills’ son Chris. “When he was living in Nashville, playing with people like Gillian Welch and David Rawlings, the music was so much better than what he’s doing today,” says Menconi. “Five years from now, when Ryan is doing his Behind The Music episode, I suspect Ryan will admit he knew deep down that Gold wasn’t very good.”
Although the critical response to Gold has been almost overwhelmingly positive, some of Adams’ former supporters have recently come out in opposition to the album’s overtly pop-flavored direction. No Depression, one of the alt-country scene’s most thoughtful and well-respected journals (and an early Whiskeytown adopter), recently published an editorial by co-editor Peter Blackstock that took Adams to task for “fooling himself. [Adams’] previous releases reveal an artist with a genuine gift for melody and songcraft … Gold doesn’t sound like that artist; it sounds like the guy who does terrible impersonations of his stuff.” Blackstock’s well-reasoned criticism strikes at the heart of the album’s many faults. For all the joy of the occasional gems found lurking within (“‘When The Stars Go Blue’ is a killin’ tune,” Daly says with justified enthusiasm), there are twice as many wrong turns, overindulgent cul-de-sacs and outright bad ideas. The curse of the prolific artist finally rears its head; Adams has apparently lost the ability to self-edit at a time when his career needs this skill the most.
Though he’s said he has a new ground rule in place (“not to read my own press”), Adams is someone who’s never accepted criticism very well. He insisted in one early Whiskeytown interview that the Village Voice’s Robert Christgau was “just asking for a visit to his office” for having the temerity to write a middling review of the band. One wonders how Adams will handle the white-hot glare of the spotlight that comes with “It Kid” territory. From all appearances, it seems Adams is as pissy as ever when not handled with care.
In apparent response to Blackstock’s piece in No Depression, Adams posted the following screed on the GuitarTown newsgroup (www.guitartown.org): “You are a stupid asshole. Fuck you for having the balls to fucking decide what my fucking standards are. Fucking No Depression magazine … whatever. Do you fucking call Emmylou Harris—or maybe Steve Earle—when they’re in the studio to check in and make sure she’s making an ‘acceptable record worthy of her talents’? I’m sure she would kindly hang up the phone. Should I fucking call you at home Peter, and ask you if it’s okay if I wanna try something different next time??? It will be interesting to see how glossy your magazine covers are when Universal and Lost Highway stop giving you the money to buy the ink you use to be a self-righteous asshole with. Fuck you and fuck your magazine.” The implied threats and out-of-body fury are pure Adams—raging at the machine while simultaneously adding fuel to the fire.
Perceived personality flaws aside, it’s worth noting that, to a person, each of the individuals interviewed for this story went out of his or her way to highlight Adams’ considerable talents, nearly to the point of turning the story into a high-school yearbook of last-chance praise.
“I value his attitude that what he’s doing matters and is for real,” says producer Chris Stamey, who’s worked with Whiskeytown in the studio.
“He has the unique ability to paint a really vivid picture with very few words; an economy with images and melodies that is unmatched,” raves O’Keefe.
“Ryan and I had a ‘musical romance’; he’s one of the most incredible, special people I’ve ever made music with, and I miss that,” pines Cary.
“There were some sessions we recorded with Dave Dominic producing called ‘Hoboken One’ that were the most amazing things Whiskeytown ever did,” recalls Daly. “It was a totally magical night. We cut eight songs in 19 hours straight, no breaks, and this experience taught me how amazing music really can be and how pedestrian most music really is.”
Reconciling the two Ryans—the artist who’s recorded several albums’ worth of material still locked away in unknown vaults (the aforementioned Hoboken sessions and solo demos such as “Memories,” “Petal In A Rainstorm,” “Hey There Mrs. Lovely” and “Nighttime Gals” rank as some of the most exquisite songs he’s created) and the one responsible for a track as flaccid as Gold’s “Enemy Fire”—is now a task that falls to record buyers who’ll be exposed to his work for the first time through the release of Gold. One can only hope the “real” Ryan decides to comes out and play soon, before his career drifts away like another of his discarded tunes.