“So I went down to this store, and this part of Nashville was kind of a predominantly black area, and I bought this framed picture of the black Last Supper in this liquor store, and a bottle of Southern Comfort, and commenced to getting trashed as hell walkin’ down the strip, with a bottle of liquor in a brown bag, drinkin’ Southern Comfort. So I got back there, and walked in, and I was the guy.
“Not that drinking pertains to that; I was lost, I had nothing to do, I needed to go walk down the street, I needed to feel something, feel alive. Because I’d been confined in the studio. So I come back, and I had been in the shit. And now I knew where I was.”
You think that you have found a way
To ease your troubled mind
You fill a glass then drink it down
And fill it one more time
Well the wine will flow
And the pain will go
But the spell will never last
You’ll never find the answer
In the bottom of a glass
– “Bottom Of The Glass”, Moon Mullican
One would be remiss not to address the significance of alcohol to the existence of a band that has whiskey in its name. “Down here, when somebody gets really fucked up, they put the word ‘town’ on the end of something,” Adams explains. “You know, like, ‘Goddamn, that guy’s fuckin’ coketown or something. Or you’d go like, ‘God, I was so stoned, man, it was like fuckin’ hallucinationtown.’ And you’d go, ‘God, man, we had so much liquor that night, we were fuckin’ whiskeytown.’
“So, sort of metaphorically speaking, Whiskeytown pretty much means loaded. Means fucked up. I also liked the idea of a fictitional place where everybody was drunk. It’s kind of this fictitional place, you know. Actually, not here, it isn’t [fictitional] at all. Because just about everyone I know is drunk. Pretty much all the time.”
Discussions of alcohol are scattered consistently throughout our interview — which, true to form, was conducted on a bar-hopping tour of “The Strip” in Raleigh. (And, yes, I was drinking right along with Adams, lest anyone think this tangent seeks to be sanctimonious.) At Sadlack’s, Adams talked of how Gilmore would “play me Gram Parsons while I was getting early beers [i.e., before noon]. This is where you’d come if you were that bad. Which isn’t that bad for down here. Because everybody drinks, all the time. This is what we do.”
Of course, that’s not exactly true. You can visit Raleigh, North Carolina, and find plenty of people who don’t spend the majority of their time drinking. On the other hand, if you spend even a couple nights in the company of a certain crowd along The Strip, it’s plain to see how easily alcohol becomes you.
Hang around with the people that I used to be
hang around on a corner waiting to go have a see
Now that I’m in town
I feel fine for now
“Almost all the songs on the record are about loss,” Adams is quoted as saying in the press bio for Strangers Almanac, and a close listen to the lyrics verifies that confession. In the past year, Adams endured the loss of his old friend Jere McIlwean; a breakup with his girlfriend of three years; the departure of a couple bandmates; and an intangible loss of innocence as music became a full-time job. “It ultimately changed us — as a band, and as individuals,” Adams admits.
But Raleigh remains a small town, and along The Strip, most everyone knows everybody else. Adams talks to the lady behind the counter at the bowling alley as if she’s a longtime neighbor. At the Rathskeller, where he once worked, he runs into Brian Walsby, the drummer for his old band, Patty Duke Syndrome. Later, a Rathskeller waitress chides Wandscher and drummer Steve Terry as they scrounge through their wallets to pay the bill: “Shit, you guys oughtta have some money!”
“Half the people that we know hate us now,” Adams says. “But at the end of the night, even the people that are disgusted that Whiskeytown got a great record deal are the guys that sit next to you at the bar and go, ‘Hey, did you see that game,’ or, ‘I heard you went bowling, how’d you do.’ No one cares at the end of the day.”
Well the greatest love could be
At the end of every day
What is left for you and me
At the end of every day
–The Reivers, “End Of The Day”
It’s four in the morning, and my flight back to Seattle leaves at 6:20 a.m., meaning I’ve got only an hour or two more to kill without falling asleep. But those are the hardest hours. Ryan Adams really didn’t have to oblige when I call up to ask if he’s still awake and would it be okay if I stopped by — but he does.
There’s not much to adorn the room of this apartment he recently moved into about a mile farther out west just off of Hillsborough, far enough away from The Strip to perhaps offer a much-needed buffer zone. It’s the first time in months he’s actually had a place to live, after an extended stretch of recording and touring and living in hotels and sleeping on friends’ floors. He still has no bed, apparently content to keep sleeping on the floor; on the walls hang album covers of Fleetwood Mac’s Mirage and Gram Parsons’ Grievous Angel. (Coincidentally or not, Adams was born one year to the day after Parsons died.)
From a small collection of videocassettes, he pulls out a couple tapes of early Whiskeytown gigs, even one of Patty Duke Syndrome, and offers to loan them to me — perhaps a long-delayed substitute for that tape of new songs he’d promised to send me when we met in Austin more than a year ago. (As fate would have it, I end up forgetting to take the tapes with me when I head out the door a little later.)
Sitting on a table is an envelope that just came in the mail the day before, which he proudly shows to me. It’s his first-ever check for publishing royalties from BMI. The amount: Two dollars and seventy-four cents. Welcome to the big time.
Finally, he’s ready to call it a night; there’s still a couple beers in the fridge, but it seems Adams does know how to forgo one more drink after all. Instead, he brews up a pot of coffee to help keep me awake on the road to the airport. In the final, waning moments of darkness before the dawn, it’s a warm gesture, an affirmation of the Southern hospitality and human kindness at the heart of a North Carolina country boy.
You could see it in his eyes.
No Depression co-editor Peter Blackstock once gave Ryan Adams the (Reivers) shirt off his back.