It happens more or less without warning or fanfare two minutes into the second track of Whiskeytown’s Strangers Almanac album. An old familiar voice glides in and nudges an already spectacular song to an even higher level. “So if the rain falls down on your Mississippi town, let your eyes drift easy into mine” — and the rain couldn’t possibly be falling any harder than the tears.
The singer is Alejandro Escovedo, who serves as Whiskeytown frontman Ryan Adams’ duet partner on “Excuse Me While I Break My Own Heart Tonight”. Escovedo also sings backup vocals on two other Strangers Almanac tracks, and Adams characterizes his contribution to the entire record’s mood and feel as “heavy.” But it’s on “Excuse Me” that Escovedo makes his biggest impression, evoking just the right combination of defiance, resignation and bluster as he rages, “Is this some kinda joke to you?!”
It’s of a piece with all the brilliant work Escovedo has done over the years, both as leader of the True Believers and as sage-like auteur on three spiritual, hauntingly beautiful solo albums (not to mention his part in ’80s cowpunk pioneers Rank & File, and as leader of the garage band Buick MacKane). For all the depth of his catalog, it’s quite possible that more people will hear Escovedo through Whiskeytown than any of his own projects — in part because Adams is one of his biggest fans. The Believers’ “The Rain Won’t Help You When It’s Over” is a staple of Whiskeytown’s live set, as is a cover of the Stooges’ “I Wanna Be Your Dog” similar to the Alejandro Escovedo Orchestra’s version.
They seem like a strange match — the brash 22-year-old Adams, the more reserved 46-year-old Escovedo — but they’ve had something like a mutual admiration society since meeting in Chicago last year.
“I have a lot of respect for his talent and hope he does, too,” Escovedo says. “We met when [Whiskeytown] opened for us, and I was really taken by the band’s enthusiasm and energy and youth, and Ryan’s enthusiasm about songwriting. I think they’ve got a real special record. They’re very young, too, so I hope they can handle it. But they’re smart boys — and girl.”
The opportunity to record with Whiskeytown came at a fortuitous time for Escovedo, who was at loose ends after parting ways with his label, Rykodisc. In Nashville, he and Adams spent a lot of time hanging out when they weren’t in the studio. One of Adams’ more vivid memories was finding Escovedo reading the Bible in his hotel room.
“Alejandro’s such a fashion hound, he had his suit on,” Adams recalls. “And he had a Bible out to read, too. He’s really interested in the storytelling in it — in exhuming the mysteries of icons. He’s obviously into death and conjures that up in a lot of images. His sense of love is just completely distraught; he seems more sympathetic to it than to regard it as something he actually wants, which is a viewpoint that I can appreciate.”
That particular visit eventually turned into a cutting contest, in which Adams and Escovedo traded songs back and forth.
“He asked me to play something and I did this song called ‘Memphis’, which is one of my saddest songs ever,” Adams says. “Afterward, he just said, ‘Goddamn.’ Then he played ‘She Doesn’t Live Here Anymore’, and I was going, ‘Wow!’ I mean, how do you write something like that? Man, talk about trauma. Then I played something else and we just kept throwing heartbreak songs at each other to the point that we were making each other nervous, trying to blow the other one away.
“I don’t remember who won. I think he probably did. He’s scary good, and I’ve got a lot to learn. But he’s a good one to learn from.”
For anyone who followed the True Believers back in the day, it can be simultaneously thrilling and unnerving to hear somebody young enough to be Escovedo’s son covering “The Rain Won’t Help You When It’s Over”. In fact, Whiskeytown’s demo version of “Rain” nearly made it onto the Bloodshot single the band released earlier this year — which is something Escovedo lobbied for. Oddly enough, Escovedo has never had a song recorded and released by someone else, which is as unjust as it is puzzling.
“I’ve always held that song very dear because it’s the first one I ever wrote and it was such a staple of the Believers’ set and sound,” says Escovedo. “‘Rain’ holds a special place for me, but I always felt the Believers never did a great recording of that tune. So I was happy to hear Whiskeytown did it. I love their version of it. Even though Ryan forgot the second verse.”