Town Without Pity
At 22, Ryan Adams, frontman for the Raleigh, North Carolina-based band Whiskeytown, has already penned more songs than most tunesmiths do in a lifetime. And even he's not sure how he's done it. "Songs just come to me," he insists. "I don't really try to write them."
Maybe not, but when it came time to create material for Stranger's Almanac, Whiskeytown's latest effort for the Outpost/Geffen imprint, Adams went into creative overdrive. "For our current CD, we recorded 36 songs but only used 13," he acknowledges. "We had enough material to record two or maybe three albums, but they just made us stop after we'd done 36 songs; Jim Scott, the producer, finally just said, 'No more.' But I could probably still be going on right now."
If the music of Whiskeytown--which also includes guitarist/singer Phil Wandscher, violinist/singer Caitlin Cary, drummer Steve Terry and bassist Chris Laney (who replaced recently departed bassist Jeff Rice)--were lousy, Adams's prolific nature would be the cruelest of gifts. But that's not a problem for Adams, a man whose often downbeat but always deeply felt compositions have made him one of the most promising figures on the alt-country landscape.
Country has not always been Adams's passion. He traded in his skateboard for a guitar in 1989, when he was fifteen, and he describes the band he formed, the Patty Duke Syndrome, as specializing in "loud punk music." The combo dissolved in 1994 because, Adams notes, "We weren't getting along anymore. I just had a lot of intense things in my personal life that sort of took their toll."
His subsequent shift from punk to country rock might seem unusual to some, but Adams doesn't see it that way. Quite a few alt-country players got their start listening to and playing punk, he points out. "Besides," he goes on, "every band I've been in has been different, as a rule. If I'm going to play guitar and sing in another band than Whiskeytown, then that band isn't going to play the same type of stuff. Music is about growing, learning; it's about experiment and change. You can never really change who you are, but you can change your musical outlook. That's always what I've been about."
As it turns out, Adams's approach to songwriting lends itself quite well to the field he's currently plowing. Faithless Street, Whiskeytown's 1995 debut long-player, is a provocative blend of punkish twang, beer-soaked ballads and nods to earlier roots-rock practitioners that earned the group widespread acclaim, as well as the inevitable comparisons to Uncle Tupelo, the band against which virtually all alt-country acts are measured. Adams appreciates the praise, but he views being likened to Tupelo as a decidedly mixed blessing. "I was pretty into [Uncle Tupelo's] records when I got them," he concedes. "But I'm not, like, a fan. I mean, I could give a fuck about them. They're pretty good, but they're kind of boring. People like Billboard magazine [who recently profiled Whiskeytown, to Adams's apparent displeasure] have trouble believing that this band has probably the same influences as that band, if not more, because we do more artistically and musically than they did. They have trouble listening to the fact that if I go into a record store and see a Gram Parsons CD, I'm going to pick it up. I'm not going to go looking for a damn Uncle Tupelo fucking CD. I don't want to listen to contrived music. I want to get to the root of it."
It's no coincidence that Adams points to Parsons as an influence. After all, the late founder of the Flying Burrito Brothers is credited with bridging the gap between rock and country, first as a member of the Byrds during the making of 1968's Sweetheart of the Rodeo, and later on a series of brilliant solo albums. In addition, Parsons specialized in glorifying rural America in song, as does Adams, and had a taste for the liquor that is memorialized in Whiskeytown's moniker. Given these similarities, it's apt that Adams was born a year to the day after Parsons's death in 1973, at the age of 26.
By the same token, Stranger's Almanac is more than mimicry; its stand-out tracks, including "Inn Town" and "Excuse Me While I Break My Own Heart Tonight," blend catchy melodies and woeful romantic despair in a style that belongs to Adams alone. The success of the disc can be traced in part to a willingness to slow down the sometimes-speedy tempos found on its predecessor. "This was actually a very different record for us," he says. "Faithless Street was more geared toward a different kind of recording style and different kinds of compositions. Really, Strangers, to me, is kind of a Byrdsy-type album. But we're all about change and about bringing things back around."
Adams has just started touring behind the album--but as you might expect, he's eager to get back into the studio again. "We're all ready to go and make our next record," he testifies excitedly. "I don't know when we'll get back in the studio, but I'm ready."
Whiskeytown. 9 p.m. Sunday, September 21, Fox Theatre, 1135 13th Street, Boulder, $5.25, 443-3399 or 830-TIXS; 9:30 p.m. Monday, September 22, Mercury Cafe, 2199 California Street, 294-9258.
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