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The Long Way Around - Feature from Issue #10 July-Aug 1997

Whiskeytown

Falling down, standing upPoised to crash and burn on the wings of success, Whiskeytown decided to make a great record instead

Wandscher presently invited his friend Steve Grothman, a bass player, to join in the jam sessions he’d been having with Adams and drummer Gilmore. “And the next thing you know, Caitlin Cary walks in with her fiddle, just off the street,” Adams says. “Nobody knew her. She just walked in, she didn’t know anybody.”

Well, it wasn’t quite that fatefully serendipitous. “A mutual friend that was in my department in grad school somehow leaked it to them that I played fiddle,” recalls Cary, who was attending North Carolina State at the time. “He came up to me and said, ‘My friend Ryan wants a fiddle player for his band, are you interested?’ And I said, ‘Oh, sure,’ and gave him my number to give to him, and I never really expected to hear anything. But he called the next day, and said, ‘We’re practicing tomorrow,’ and I went in and started playing.”

The intangible musical magic that ties Adams and Wandscher was immediately apparent with Cary as well — particularly in the way their vocals intertwined. “Oh, definitely, right off the bat,” she affirms. “I’ve never found anybody, outside of my family, who was that easy to sing with. I have a pretty good ear for singing harmony, but I’ve certainly tried to do it with other people since playing with Ryan, and found it to be harder.”

Adams’ new musical companions, meanwhile, were helping to turn him in a different direction from the punk and indie-rock that had dominated his previous endeavors. “Phil introduced me to country blues, like the Rolling Stones,” Adams says, “and Skillet introduced me to a lot of Gram Parsons and George Jones and people like that — I mean, I knew of them, but I really got turned on, I got tapes to listen to. And Caitlin turned me on to bluegrass.”

The spontaneous combustion of Whiskeytown’s earliest days was captured almost instantly: Less than two months after they started playing together, they recorded a four-song, 7-inch EP that was released in the spring of ’95 by Mood Food Records, the same local indie label that also eventually released Faithless Street. This past April, several other outtakes from those first sessions were released by Mood Food under the title Rural Free Delivery — against the band’s wishes, as their relationship with Mood Food appears to have soured irreparably over the past year.

Nevertheless, the worthiness of those early recordings — regardless of their spotty sound quality — hinted that Whiskeytown was capable of greatness in the not-too-distant future. They delivered in spades when they returned to the studio in July 1995 to record Faithless Street, which came out later that year.

I’ll ride with you tonight, I’ll ride forever
There’s no way to predict this kind of weather
–”Midway Park”

From the opening line of the opening song, Faithless Street radiated with a reckless emotional force, tangled up in a beautiful mess of hard-charging honky-tonk rockers, irresistibly catchy pop songs and gorgeously lilting laments. Nevermind that they’d been together less than a year: Whiskeytown had arrived.

“I love it. I think it’s a masterpiece,” Adams says confidently when asked what he thinks about Faithless Street with a couple years of hindsight now in his periphery. Musicians often tend to cringe at recordings they made in the infancy of their bands’ careers, but Adams clearly has no regrets.

“I think it’s a strong youth album. It’s crazy. It loves what it borrows from musically: It tips its hat to Gram Parsons, it tips its hat to the Stones, it’s shaking hands with Uncle Tupelo on some levels. I don’t think of it as an ‘inspired’ record or an ‘inspiring’ record — I think it’s both. That’s what albums should sound like; that’s what a record is, to me. Faithless Street is a proud, proud thing for me. (“I cared about it enough to where I asked Geffen to buy it [from Mood Food],” he adds later; Geffen agreed to do so, and now possesses the rights to reissue it in the future.)

The haphazard circumstances under which the album was recorded simply serve as evidence that one need not spend a lot of time and money in a fancy studio to get artistic results. Faithless Street was recorded at a place called the Funny Farm, which Adams describes as “a big barn out in the country where they make records. We were in there for like a week and a half, and that was it, we were done, we made a record. It was all a big blur. That was Faithless Street.

“My version of recording is, when I get in there, you can’t stop me. I’ll keep people in there till 6 in the morning, going, ‘I got a guitar part, I’m ready, let’s do it,’ and they’re like, ‘Whoa, we gotta set up.’ And I’m like, ‘I don’t care, you ain’t settin a mike.’ I’ll just throw a mike right in front of the amp and go, ‘That’s your sound, fix it.’ And they’ll record it. I mean, I’m a bastard in the studio, just because I go like time is everything.”

Wandscher confirms that. “Oh yeah, it was always, how much can you do in this little time? It’s all basically live recording, and then it’s like, ‘Overdubs? We don’t have time to overdub, man!’ And a lot of times, that worked out better, because you don’t have time to mill around and think about it and then fuck stuff up.”

Though no one is listed as producer in the liner notes, Adams claims that “Phil produced it, pretty much.…At that point, Phil’s ear for recording was genuinely amazing. He made our first album to be recorded the way Exile on Main Street would be recorded.…When we went back to find all the original signals, the drums sounded horrible and things like that, but we got all the levels to be good enough to where we actually got to make a good record with it.”

“To end the night, Ryan tossed his Vox guitar into the middle of the room with the cable jerking tight. I was right at the side of the stage and saw Ryan running my way, but he veered off to the side to skid on the guitar as if it were a skateboard. The Vox didn’t seem terribly damaged until their guitarist, Phil, jumped straight from the stage and landed his boot heels flat on Ryan’s guitar. It was still plugged in and made this sound which could only be described as Eugene Chadbourne’s rake caught in a lawn mower. Ryan was on the patio and had not seen his axe being stomped to splinters. I picked it up and took it to him and he proceeded to finish the job against the back steps.”
–Jeff Hart, recounting the finale of a Whiskeytown gig in at the Berkeley Cafe in Raleigh in October 1995

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Originally Featured in Issue #10 July-Aug 1997

Cover of Issue #10 July-Aug 1997

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