You could see it in his eyes.
“Hey, hop in the van, let’s have a shot,” Ryan Adams beckoned, and who was I to argue with that Peter Pan gleam and Pied Piper smile. It was Saturday night of the 1996 South by Southwest Music Conference in Austin, and a handful of A&R reps were milling around the van with North Carolina plates parked in front of the Split Rail, just after Whiskeytown had delivered an impassioned 40-minute set to a room so packed that even conference badge-holders were being turned away at the door.
You could tell things were heading in this direction ever since Whiskeytown had released its first album, Faithless Street, the previous fall. Issued on a tiny indie label for whom it was a challenge just to get the disc in stores outside the band’s home region, Faithless Street nevertheless started making waves nationally, simply because it was too good not to be heard. Firing twin barrels of the rawest rock ‘n’ roll and the grittiest country, it was the kind of debut that signals something truly special is on the horizon.
And so, six months later, record label folks who had gathered in Austin were curious to see what all this “alt-country” buzz was about. Industry pressures be damned, Whiskeytown delivered that night — albeit nervously and tenuously at times, but in a way that only served to underscore the emotional intensity rather than detract from it. His microphone slipping from its stand at one point, Adams crouched and staggered awkwardly as the mike dangled ever more precariously, nearly crashing to the floor, struggling to still be heard, somehow holding everything together even as it all seemed to be falling apart before his eyes.
I don’t really recall what we talked about in the van that night we first met, before I headed off to catch another band down the street. Something about he was gonna send me a tape of some new stuff he’d recorded recently (which of course never did happen). Probably a little guffawing at the gaggle of weasels lingering on the sidewalk just outside the windshield. Mostly, though, I just remember the sense of excitement that exuded from this 21-year-old boy wonder — and that irrepressible shine in his eyes.
“Ryan is the perfect frontman, irreverent and passionate both, a great singer and a charismatic little twerp too. I can’t take my eyes off of him.”
–Shawn Barton of Hazeldine (from her web-page diary of Hazeldine’s tour with Whiskeytown)
Several months later, when the dust eventually settled from the major-label jockeying in the wake of that SXSW ’96 show and a showcase three months later at LA’s Spaceland, Whiskeytown had landed on Outpost, a relatively new subsidiary of Geffen. (Quite a bit happened to the band in the interim, including a change in rhythm sections, but we’ll deal with that in more detail further in.) They entered a Nashville studio in February ’97 with producer Jim Scott and emerged a month later with an astounding 36 songs recorded; 13 of those eventually made the final cut for Strangers Almanac, which is due in stores July 29.
The magic is plainly evident right from the heartbreaking strains of the opening track, “Inn Town”, an acoustic tune on which the voices of Adams, guitarist Phil Wandscher and fiddler Caitlin Cary coalesce in richer and fuller harmonies than they’d ever hinted they were capable of before. The pedal steel that kicks off the second track, “Excuse Me While I Break My Own Heart Tonight”, sews the band’s country influences firmly on its sleeve, with Texas songwriter/rocker Alejandro Escovedo chiming in as a duet partner on the last verse to charge the song with an unexpected spark. The fire continues on the rocked-out third track, “Yesterday’s News”, Adams avowing at the top of his lungs, “I can’t stand to be under your wing/I can’t fly or sink or swim.”
Despite Whiskeytown’s clear grounding in no-bullshit rock ‘n’ roll and country, however, Strangers Almanac is perhaps most notable for its pop songs. “16 Days”, the fourth track in and likely the album’s first single, is a mostly midtempo number, opening with Cary’s sweet fiddle drifting over acoustic guitars and gradually building to a sure-fire singalong chorus. “Everything I Do (Miss You)” shimmers with a pop-soul richness that recalls classic Motown and Muscle Shoals recordings. “Turn Around” is spooky, cloaked in sonic layers and recalling nothing so much as mid-late-’70s-era Fleetwood Mac (an influence Whiskeytown readily acknowledge with their cover of the Mac smash “Dreams” at recent shows). “Losering” is a masterful mood piece, nonlinear lyrics wrapped around an initially unassuming melody that slowly reveals itself like a sunlight-shy flower, a few more petals opening up each time it spins back around.
Then there are the ballads, achingly spare and desolate and sad. “Houses On The Hill” tells the story of a woman who has never quite recovered from losing her lover decades ago, “when Eisenhower sent him to war.” On “Avenues”, a beautiful loser wanders the streets alone while “All the sweethearts of the world are out dancing in the places/Where me and all my friends go to hide our faces.” The most haunting cut of all is “Dancing With The Women At The Bar”, a letter-perfect lament of nature’s undertowing pull toward the deeper and darker side of the night, the town, and the soul.
If you see the moon and hear the sound of the strip
Call out my name, and call my friends’ names too
–”Dancing With The Women At The Bar”
It’s a warm spring night along Hillsborough Street in Raleigh — a.k.a. “The Strip” — and, sure enough, a full moon is beaming brightly in the sky above as we head west toward the Comet. It’s a familiar hangout at the far end of the strip situated next door to The Brewery, a longtime fixture on Raleigh’s live-music scene that has played host to no shortage of Whiskeytown gigs in the past couple years.
With North Carolina State University spanning its southern side and a string of bars, coffee shops, restaurants, record stores and the like scattered over several blocks across the street, Hillsborough is like many such avenues across America. “There’s a ‘Strip’ in Jacksonville, too,” Adams says as we walk along, referring to the small North Carolina town (pop. 30,013) about an hour and a half southeast of Raleigh where he grew up. His comment sheds a little light on another line in “Dancing With The Women At The Bar”: “My daddy saw the moon and heard the sound of the strip/It called out his name, and it called his son’s name too.”
Since he moved to Raleigh shortly after quitting high school and getting his GED about five years ago, most of Adams’ life has revolved around this definitively slackerly stretch of Hillsborough. Presently, we pass the Rathskeller, a restaurant where Adams worked as a dishwasher shortly after he moved up from Jacksonville. A block or two down is Mitch’s, a warm, friendly tavern where a few scenes from the movie Bull Durham were filmed; “Phil’s probably up there right now,” Adams guesses of his guitarist, pointing toward the bar’s upstairs window. Just off the main road a block or two is a large grassy triangle flanked by a couple of neighborhood streets lined with low-rent houses, a couple of which Adams used to live in. “That’s Faithless Street, right there,” he says of the desolate block, revealing the source of his songs on Whiskeytown’s first record.