Down on the eastern end of The Strip, shortly before Hillsborough segues from an edge-of-campus boulevard into a commuter thoroughfare leading to downtown Raleigh and the North Carolina state capitol building, is a modest little sandwich shop called Sadlack’s. Regulars idle up to the wide-U-shaped diner-style counter for cheap eats and a beer, or lounge around on the wooden picnic tables populating a patio area that’s more spacious than the limited confines of the indoor room. In the late afternoon and early evening hours on a balmy North Carolina spring day, the patio is an ideal place to sit around and pick a guitar, as a couple of hippie-looking stragglers are doing on this mid-May afternoon. Something’s slightly askew, though: Instead of the requisite classic-rock nugget or trail-mix-folk song you’d usually hear being played in such a situation, these guys are strummin’ and singin’ Robert Earl Keen’s “You Keep A’ Swervin’ In My Lane…”
“I consider us to be more of a rock ‘n’ roll band, but we are country. I’m a country boy from West Virginia. And Ryan’s a country boy, too. The country comes more from ourselves, because we are country.”
–Steve Terry, Whiskeytown drummer
“The whole premise of the band started when I was walking by here one day, and Skillet was leaning over the deck, and he goes, ‘Hey Ryan! I hear you wanna start a country band,’” Adams recalls of a chance encounter at Sadlack’s in the fall of 1994 with Skillet Gilmore, who was the owner of Sadlack’s at the time. “And I said, ‘Yeah, that’s what I wanna do, man.’ And he said, ‘I’ll play drums.’ I said, ‘All right then, meet me here tomorrow at 11:30.’”
For the past couple years, Adams had been playing in a punk band called Patty Duke Syndrome with Jere McIlwean, who had befriended Adams when they both lived in Jacksonville. “I was growing up a freak, this weird music person, and in that town, there was no one like me. Except Jere. He worked at Record Bar, he was already 20-something years old. I was going to the record store and buying, like, Half Japanese albums and Sonic Youth records. And one day he just asked me, ‘Why in the hell are you buying these records?’ I said, ‘Because I like ‘em.’ We hit it off, and next thing I knew he took me out to his place and he had all this musical equipment, and we started that band. Our drummer, Alan, had this big ol’ barn where we played music at all hours of the night.”
Patty Duke Syndrome had a brief run in Jacksonville before Adams moved to Raleigh and was in a couple of bands he describes in hindsight as being along the lines of the Replacements and the Minutemen. McIlwean eventually moved to Raleigh as well, and Patty Duke re-formed, with Brian Walsby on drums. “Its official Raleigh time was about a year and a half; we broke up four times,” Adams recalls of the band’s off-and-on tenure. “But we were the shit in Raleigh for a while. And I was just 18. I couldn’t believe it.…They got mad at me because I started drinking. If I had one beer, Jere would get mad as hell at me. And then I come to find the whole time he’s a closet heroin addict. And he ended up dying.
“The song ‘Theme For A Trucker’ [issued by Bloodshot Records earlier this year on a double single] is actually about Jere. He was in a band called Trucker after Patty Duke Syndrome broke up. They were like an MC5- and Bad Brains-influenced band. Hearing them would give you chills; you could feel something was gonna happen, like they were gonna change the world. And damned if he didn’t go and die on everybody. I wanted to write about it for a long time, and then finally I started writing that song. He’d hate that song so bad; he hated country. Well, he didn’t hate country music, but he didn’t like my version of it, anyway.”
There’s a motel with a vacancy
But there is no possibility
That you could drive yourself to ever be
The man you once were.
–”Theme For A Trucker”
So I started this damn country band
‘Cause punk rock was too hard to sing.
“The band started with me and Skillet and this guy named Rags playing banjo,” Adams says. “And then, his roommate, Brian, became the bass player, and we were a coffee-country band. That’s what Skillet called it. It was a three-piece electric band; it sounded kinda like the Gun Club, a little bit like Uncle Tupelo. We called it coffee-country because we were really wired. We’d get a 12-pack and drink about three cups of coffee, and get stoned and get drunk. And by the time all the chemicals got in us, we were playing pretty fast.
“And then Phil joined the band. I always hated Phil, and I still do. He walked up to me one night in a bar and we were both drunk, and he said, ‘Hey man, I think I wanna play guitar for your band.’ He bought me a beer and we talked about it for a few minutes, and I was like, ‘All right.’ He hated my guts, and I hated his guts. I thought he was a fuckin’ jerk.”
This, understand, is the nature of the relationship between Ryan Adams and Phil Wandscher. For the record, Wandscher makes similar comments about Adams; in the band’s official bio issued by Outpost/Geffen, Wandscher recalls the first time he met Adams by saying, “He was like 16 or 17, a real brat.…He’s still a brat.”
However much they may engage in their punk-rock revelry of pretending to despise each other, the magic of their musical relationship is the spark at the heart of Whiskeytown. Eventually, they both fess up to that.
“It was perfect,” Adams recalls of the first time he and Wandscher got together to jam. “It just worked. His guitar playing and my guitar playing, and his sensibilities and my sensibilities, they were perfect.”
“We came from different angles musically, and we still do, but it just kind of meshes,” Wandscher concurs. “I respect what he does and I try to understand it, and he tries to understand where I come from. Like, it’s kinda funny that he’s so gung-ho into the Rolling Stones now, and he never really was before — because that’s my favorite band. And ultimately he’s grown attached to them as well, partly because of how much they’ve influenced me.”
Unlike Adams, who brought his experiences with Patty Duke and a scattering of side projects to the table, Whiskeytown was Wandscher’s first real band (though he does admit to a six-year tenure with the North Carolina Boys Choir in his grade-school days).
“I kinda used to be in a band, but I didn’t play guitar, I just sang and played harmonica,” he explained. “We had a bass player and a drummer and I was singing, and we just needed a guitar player, and could never ever find one. All these people always came over and tried out, and finally I was like, ‘Fuck it, man, I’m gonna learn how to play guitar. Because I know what I would wanna hear, and this is probably what would work the best, and these guys can’t do it, so I’m gonna do it. So I sat down and started noodling around and started teaching myself how to play.”