By Andy Langer
SEPTEMBER 8, 1997: Last week, Ryan Adams shipped all his belongings to Austin. Later this fall, when his band Whiskeytown isn't touring as much, Adams will join his record collection and those few odd boxes, and move here as well. "I just know people too well in Raleigh... or not well enough, actually," says Adams of the motives behind his move from North Carolina. This is probably true, but armchair psychologists might also be right in deducing that Adams is coming to Austin to do battle with some of his demons, and that it's both appropriate and ironic that his actual arrival has been preceded by his baggage.
For the past 18 months, the 22-year-old Adams has been struggling with the personal and professional consequences of a single Austin show, a surprisingly crucial 1996 South by Southwest showcase he calls Whiskeytown's "turning point." Adams isn't known for understatements, but this may well be one, because it was this SXSW gig that nearly broke up his band. The turmoil brought on by that performance can be heard on Whiskeytown's major-label debut, Stranger's Almanac, but the gig's real legacy remains that it necessitated a complete and thorough analysis of why, and for whom, Adams and Whiskeytown perform.
At the time, Adams was performing mostly because he had written some country songs and enjoyed playing them. To that end, he'd formed Whiskeytown two years earlier, in 1994, after drummer Skillet Gilmore, fiddler Caitlin Cary, and guitarist Phil Wandscher signed on for what promised to be a low-frills, low-expectation Americana outfit. By all accounts, large Raleigh crowds and a couple of critically acclaimed indie singles didn't change the band's ambitions or focus; country music and drinking go hand in hand, and Whiskeytown drank as well as it played. In fact, for what should have been several of Whiskeytown's biggest showcase and festival appearances, Adams canceled in favor of nursing a hangover. In retrospect, Adams says the band's first real mistake may have been showing up for its SXSW showcase.
In what's become something of an infamous SXSW tale, a pack of competing major-label A&R representatives literally surrounded Whiskeytown's van just moments after the band had finished its showcase at the Split Rail. Adams, who remembers being hung over and playing a sloppy gig, says he'd seen the suits in the crowd and retreated to the van precisely to avoid such a scene. Nevertheless, industry weasels swarmed the van, pressing their business cards against the windshield. By all accounts, Faithless Street and that gig had made Whiskeytown the conference's hottest act and alternative country's great white hope. Last March, reflecting on that night, Adams told the Chronicle, "After all was said and done, the labels wanting to sign us was probably more detrimental than it was positive."
Although the band continued to tour after their SXSW experience, a different A&R rep met them at almost every gig along the way, sparking a bidding war ultimately won by Outpost, a Geffen offshoot that promised the band almost total autonomy and the chance to record and release albums almost as often as they're capable. By that time, however, the damage done by that Austin appearance had surfaced, with Gilmore and bassist Steve Grothman opting out of the bidding war and out of the band. "I think they felt like it had gone to a place where they weren't comfortable," says Adams. "I know that at the time, Skillet didn't like the idea that it had turned into a lot of phone calls, managers, and lawyers. I can see how he felt that way, because we were hardly ever playing."
In retrospect, Adams says Whiskeytown's post-SXSW period of internal disarray clearly strengthened the bond between himself, Cary, and Wandscher. Better yet, it was an obvious test of each member's loyalties to each other and the band. Yet even after recruiting a new rhythm section (bassist Jeff Rice and drummer Steve Terry), the task of quickly turning around and recording their Outpost debut with producer Jim Scott (Samples, Tom Petty, Johnny Cash) seemed daunting.
"We were a pretty big mess at the time, and I think [Scott] pretty much felt that we sucked," says Adams. "I think he loved the demos and the stuff we had going on before we went in to make the record. But by the time we got in to make it, so much of what we'd been had fallen apart that I think he felt he was literally working with nothing."
Out of that pile of nothing - 36 completed songs - came Stranger's Almanac, a 13-song set released last month. Not only does the new album convey cohesion in spite of the upheaval the band had recently been through, it also reveals itself to be Adams' stab at making a "singer-songwriter" album, one where every song sports a different approach and feel but also a common vision. Still, cohesion and vision are subtle concepts, and at first even Adams wasn't convinced Stranger's Almanac was a releasable album.
"Now, I'm pretty happy, but I wasn't at first," says Adams. "I didn't like it at all. It was to the point where I told the label I wanted to make another one. But with time, I realized what kind of record it is. A lot of people have talked about how at first it was appealing, then how they didn't like it, and then how different ideas on it started creeping up on them - hidden lyrics or melodies that present themselves better later. That's happened to me as a listener.
"I put it on and buzz check it every couple of weeks. I'll get a pretty good buzz, listen to Beggar's Banquet or some Tom Waits and say, `Alright, let me check out what my record sounds like.' Sometimes, I love it. Sometimes I like it alright. Usually, now, I love it. But I don't know how much pot other people have to smoke to get into it. For me, I have to pretty much get away from myself to get how cool it is. I've listened stoned and really enjoyed it. And that doesn't always happen, because I've listened to [the Rolling Stones'] Dirty Work stoned and it still doesn't sound good to me."
"In the past, we have been an unsuccessful live band, a disaster, and for the most part, we didn't care, because we were just doing things our way," Adams says. "But lately, our live shows are much more precise. We've developed live, so to speak. We finally have the perfect lineup and have learned how to play to audiences - plus, I don't have to get nearly as fucked-up to do it."
On this latest tour, Adams claims he's lost much of the chronic stagefright that used to require two Long Island ice teas and 12 beers to quell. Could it be that he's gained confidence from finally accepting his role as the band's frontman? Apparently not, as Adams still denies he's Whiskeytown's leader.
"I don't really lead this band," stresses Adams, "that's not my mission with Whiskeytown. This record has all my songs on it, but it's just that nobody in the band had written any in that period. This next record, Caitlin will probably have a couple, and Phil will probably contribute three or four. But I think those guys are reluctant to step into the spotlight because they're realizing how extremely tough it is on somebody.
"It's not easy to be up there and be looked at like that - especially because we had different ideas when we started the band. When we started, we assumed a shared limelight. Now, it falls mostly on me. It just makes me more scared and apprehensive about what I'm doing and how to do it. A lot of times you just have to step up there and say, `Alright, if the spotlight is going to fall on me, I'm going to take the ball and run with it, fuck it.' It's better than standing there and saying, `I don't want to play this game.'
"I didn't ask for it, it just kind of happened. It's a weird thing, but there's no jealousy in the band from it, because they don't want it and know I don't either. They've got it a little easier, though. Not much, because they have to deal with my shit dealing with it, which is probably worse."
Adams is quick to point out that just because he's moving to Austin, the rest of Whiskeytown won't be free of his bullshit. Currently, he's planning on spending no more than three weeks at a time away from the band, reuniting mostly for roadwork and recording stints. Whiskeytown's long-term plan, says Adams, is to tour quickly and release records often.
"My idea of how this should be is that you hit every city and if somebody wants you back bad enough, you go hit it again. And that's it: `Thanks, see ya later. Glad you liked the songs, and if you missed them, tough shit. Here comes the next record.' Then it's time to play those songs. Then maybe, eventually, you figure out all the songs you really love, play those live, and throw in a few off the next record."
By Adam's current estimation, that "Greatest Hits" period of touring shouldn't come for Whiskeytown until they're at least six albums into their career. For the time being, though, Adams and Whiskeytown seem to be right on schedule; currently touring for the new album, the band has tracks in the can for Big Star and Tom T. Hall tributes, and is ready to begin recording a new album, a process to which Adams says he's already given a great deal of thought.
"I think people will really freak out how different the next one will be from this one," says Adams. "We want to make a different record every time. We never want to make the same-sounding record. That's why I appreciate bands like NRBQ or American Music Club, because it seems like they have no agenda... Like, with us, I honestly do not think we are alternative country. I think we are an American rock & roll band that plays country songs. We play country music when we want to. We play rock & roll when we want to...
"And there's complete artistic freedom amongst ourselves in the band to explore any avenue. We could even try raga, dub. I don't really think we could actually play that stuff, but if somebody wanted to try it, we'd give it a shot. We're mostly about really good songs, regardless of style, which gives us freedom. There's not any gimmick to our band, which probably means we'll be around at least a little while, until not having a gimmick isn't cool any more." mum
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