When the insurgent roots music movement started to take hold – call it alt-country, No Depression or Y’Alternative music – a flood of bands that tied back to Gram Parsons, Neil Young and classic country artists from Hank Williams to Johnny Cash started to milk a serious buzz. Near the front of the pack was a loosely raucous band from Raleigh, North Carolina called Whiskeytown, and their lead martyr singer and songwriter Ryan Adams.
A skilled and interesting collaborative band (with Caitlin Cary, Phil Wandscher, Eric “Skillet” Gilmore and Mike Daly), Whiskeytown released its debut Faithless Street, which bowled over critics and landed them a major label deal. By the time the second album Stranger’s Almanac was released, the group was known for its self-destructive tendencies as much as its musical brilliance, the lion’s share of that squarely on the head of Adams. Reading interviews at the time I realized that I was watching someone emulating Keith Richards; I just didn’t know how much of it was by accident.
Thankfully, I was wrong about Adams in a multitude of ways. He didn’t drink himself into an early grave, even when the band imploded in 2000. In fact, he was so prolific between 2000 and 2005 (eight releases!) that the plaudits became even more gargantuan. Like some of his heroes and influences, he juggled both popular acclaim and commercial success, and it looked like he was a step away from releasing that album or song that would place his name on everyone’s lips (or perhaps spontaneously combust).
Having juggled the solo image and with his more traditional band The Cardinals, he opted for the latter and released two more albums over the next five years. Like contemporaries and heroes Wilco, he’s prone to experiment with styles and now has left them to form a rock trio. I haven’t even heard Orion, his newest record; I’m not certain I want to hear Ryan Adams doing metal (even if he did get his start in a punk band). But there’s no denying the early classics, and I hope he still has a few tricks like that left in his worn out sachel.
Here’s my short shot review of Strangers Almanac from 1997:
Ryan Adams is a hell of a songwriter for a guy in his early twenties, but I’d get the suicide watch started right now. Desperation set to music works both ways, and Adams mines the vein like the forefathers he so drunkenly pretends he isn’t influenced by (perhaps his own line sums it up best – “I can’t stand to be under your wing”). When he’s more uptempo he wears his Paul Westerberg on his sleeve (“Yesterday’s News”) and other times a Neil Young ghost will rear its head (“Turn Around”).
But he’s also savvy enough to diversify the instrumentation. Fiddle and horns alternately pick a song up (“Sixteen Days”) and take it out at the knees (the pained and haunting “Everything I Do”). One of the most powerful and depressing records of 1997, and I mean those both as compliments.
Listen to clips from Strangers Almanac
Whiskeytown page at Lost Highway Records