Sign up for our free newsletter
Free D.C. news, delivered to your inbox daily.
Ryan Adams is a drunk. He’s also a loner, a poet, a jerk, a romantic, and one of the most compelling singer-songwriters recording todayif you can believe (or stomach) all the rest. Some people can’t swallow the whole myth, especially because it first surfaced, fully bloomed, in 1994, with a 19-year-old Adams and his country-rock band, Whiskeytown.
Some believe Adams is merely a poseur, to use a word this former leader of the punk-rock Patty Duke Syndrome would understand. How could a guy so young sound so world-weary, so equally defeated and defiant? But only the most skeptical of listeners could experience Whiskeytown’s debut album, 1995’s Faithless Street (especially the Outpost/Geffen version, which appends the original Mood Food indie release with spare, mostly acoustic demos dubbed the “Ballpark Sessions”), and come away unaffected by Adams’ gift for lyrical drama and heartbreaking melodies.
Faithless Street is the record Paul Westerberg could never manage to make after he broke up the Replacements; it’s the album Gram Parsons didn’t get to make before he OD’d. The disc captures the first-take abandon and raw emotion the oft-squabbling, heavy-drinking Whiskeytown presented to live audiences, and Adams’ Faithless Street tales remain some of the most compelling country-punk poetry any 21-year-old high-school dropout has ever committed to tape.
The better-produced, more rockin’ Strangers Almanac followed in 1997 (preceded by Rural Free Delivery, an unauthorized collection of early demos and singles on Mood Food). It’s a fine release, sometimes even bordering on great, but it lacks Faithless Street’s emotional intensity. After Strangers Almanac came out, Outpost fell victim to a label merger, which has kept the band’s third album, Pneumonia, from hitting the streets. So Adams, who left his native North Carolina for New York City in 1998, opted to move again, this time to Nashville, where he recorded a solo record while his band floated in limbo and his Big Apple relationship went on the rocks. It was the right move: The result, Heartbreaker, is a country-folk-rock classic that recaptures the stark honesty of Whiskeytown’s debut.
If Faithless Street was the plea of a man drunk on Gram Parsons, Heartbreaker is the sound of a man wasted on Bob Dylan circa Bringing It All Back Home and Highway 61 Revisited. The remarkable thing about Heartbreaker is that it all sounds as tossed-off as the brief but brilliant on-the-spot composition “Damn, Sam (I Love a Woman That Rains).” The song is a simple confessional, featuring gently strummed acoustic guitar and almost nonsensical but evocative lyrics: “I’m as calm as a fruit stand in New York and maybe as strange.”
The album’s producer/drummer, Ethan Johns, whose father, Glyn Johns, was an engineer for another Adams totem, the Rolling Stones’ Exile on Main Street, told the alt-country magazine No Depression the tale behind “Damn, Sam”: “We were in the middle of cutting something else, and he got that look. Just froze, and starting playing that riff. Five minutes later, he came out of his little reverie and said, ‘Check this out.’ You can hear the take starting up at the beginning of the cut, because he started playing before I could get to the tape machine and whack ‘Record.’…To me, that’s the heart of the record….[I]t was completely dictated by Ryan’s headspace at the time.”
“Damn, Sam,” eight tracks in, may indeed be the heart of the record, but Heartbreaker is loosey-goosey from the git-go. The disc’s first track isn’t a song but an argument between Adams and guitarist David Rawlings, who, along with his partner, modern old-timey country crooner Gillian Welch, graces Heartbreaker with both playing and singing. Adams and Rawlings aren’t arguing about how to begin the album, however, but about which record Morrissey’s “Suedehead” is on. As the debate dies down, Adams tries to count off the first song; he stops when he realizes that Johns has put down his drumsticks and is holding a soda and jamming cookies into his puss. Adams blurts, “Eth’s got a mouth full o’ cookies!” in a Cockney accent. He then quotes a Monty Python line and counts off “To Be Young (Is to Be Sad, Is to Be High)” with a chant of “One, two, a-one weee-oooh!” The song is a rollicking “Maggie’s Farm”-type tune; it kicks off the album in a wonderfully rag-ged style.
The record’s raggedness is enhanced by Adams’ voice, which can switch from a Dylanesque drawl to a Westerbergian whisperas on the acoustic-guitar- and Hammond-colored “My Winding Wheel”or from Parsonian tenderness to Jaggeresque passionas on “Oh My Sweet Carolina,” a marvelous ballad duet with country queen Emmylou Harris. But unlike Westerberg, who learned how to sing a little bit as he went, or Dylan, who never really could carry a tune, Adams has the potential to be a singer on par with Parsons, both in range and emotional impact.
Adams’ musical range is also expanding. Most everything he has done with Whiskeytown has sounded like Faithless Street’s mixture of the Replacements and Parsons. But “AMY,” Adams’ ode to his longtime on-and-off girlfriend, evokes Donovan and the Zombies; it’s unlike anything else Adams has recorded, suggesting that he is far from through investigating the song styles of the ’60s and ’70s. “Call Me on Your Way Back Home” recalls Fleetwood Mac and James Taylor, and “Come Pick Me Up,” a duet with Kim Richey, sounds like Dylan mixed with the Counting Crows. But the acoustic-guitar ballads “In My Time of Need,” “Don’t Ask for the Water,” and “To Be the One” are straight-up Dylanthe last replete with Adams honking away on harmonicaand reminiscent of the stark acoustic textures of Whiskeytown’s “Ballpark Sessions.”
The one track, however, that sounds like Whiskeytown in full-on, reckless rock mode is the chugging “Shakedown on 9th Street,” a raw, rockabilly romp with Welch playing Adams’ drunken moll; she catches a bullet in her chest after the two have had “too many straights/not enough grease” during an afternoon of boozing and brawling.
“Shakedown” is a tall tale in the grand country tradition. Adams is a storyteller; he need not kill to sing compellingly about someone who does. He may drink too much sometimes, but maybe, despite the myth, he’s not an out-of-control drunk at all; maybe he just knows how to tell drunkards’ stories, to re-create their worlds. Poseur, schmoseur: With art, sometimes the illusion is all that matters. CP