Waiting to derail; Ryan Adams pays the price for telling the truth

September 5, 1997

By MARK GUARINO | Daily Herald Music Critic

Down Milwaukee Avenue, the streetlights do their burn. And so does Ryan Adams.

It’s almost 8 p.m. Friday and Adams and I walk south.

“I’m tired, I’m drunk, I haven’t had any sleep,” he says.

I suggest coffee, he suggests a liquor store. Inside one, we find Caitlin Cary, fiddler for Whiskeytown, the band Adam fronts, buying bottled water. We grab her and continue down the street.

The whole city is for exploring if you’ve been drinking since 2 and in town since 6. For Adams, that’s six hours until he must get onstage at the Double Door to sing about his damaged life.

Adams picks up the pace, and the stage – and songs he has to sing – drift further and further away.

* * *

Whiskeytown originated three years ago after Adams moved from Jacksonville, N.C., to Raleigh. Adams was a young punk, literally. He dropped out of high school (later earning his G.E.D.) and formed the Patty Duke Syndrome, a local headbanging outfit that had an on-and-off history in the college town. After they disbanded, Adams decided to form a country band with some locals he met.

Forming a band is almost like a choosing a family – it’s not always perfect.

“We got lucky,” he says. “We were destined to be friends. We could do things. We could sing.”

The band released “Faithless Street” on the indie label Mood Food. The album was remarkable for its immediacy. Even though they’d been together for less than a year, Whiskeytown was proving to be a band whose combustible mix of pop songs, honky-tonk rockers and overwhelming emotional ballads all sounded, well, believable.

“We’re not lying,” says Adams. “There’s no agenda for youth culture. We just play this music, you know. I like to think we’re one of the best American rock ‘n’ roll bands there are right now. I may be speaking out of my bounds, but I think that we stuck to songs so hard, our goal may not (be) to be the biggest band in the world but write the songs that the biggest bands in the world should write.”

* * *

We finally find a bar. Adams has already spent time with writers from Rolling Stone and the Austin Chronicle this afternoon. Now, he spends time on the street bumping into dog owners and people waiting for buses. He seems a whole lot happier.

On a bus stop bench in front of Nick’s Tavern, a man sits circling help wanted ads. Adams sits and helps him.

“Part-time driver needed for Eddy Clearwater Blues Band for October tour,” Adams reads. ‘ “Drug and alcohol free.’ I guess you don’t qualify,” the man says. Everyone laughs.

“I don’t take it personally,” Adams says. “I had a day off and I had to get loaded. I can’t stop drinkin’ now or I’ll be hung over.”

Inside the bar, he buys a round of beers and Jagermeister shots. Then he’s off to the beer garden; he climbs into the foliage and sits, ironically, on a wagon.

“My mom says you go out in the world the way you are and you end up looking the way you should be. Look at me, I’m … damaged. I’m 22 years old and I look … 40,” he says.

We toast, sip, but later he gobbles our shots whole. Adams may look a ragged 40, but his nerves jump like a teenager.

And he knows what’s coming – talking about those songs on Whiskeytown’s major label debut, “Strangers Almanac” (Outpost/Geffen).

The album is littered with ghosts, heartache, and a looming darkness. The underlying restlessness and urgency of it is so authentic, the entire 13 songs sound like they were written 50 years ago or 50 years from now, it wouldn’t matter.

And Adams is frank about the reason.

“I fell in love really young,” he says. “I was pretty much in a damagingly married relationship with somebody and it didn’t work out. The whole record was about the exorcism of my ex-girlfriend.”

He fumbles for words. Cary explains she has “been watching him write songs for three years now and never heard him hold back a bit of personal information nor have seem him struggle to get it out to sound real.

“That’s his gift,” she says. “It’s immediate. More or less finished songs come out everyday.”

“I hate that you have to write records about what you know,” Adams admits. “But then again I think it’s futile to write records about what you don’t know.”

* * *

It’s obvious the whole band – Adams, Cary, guitarist Phil Wandscher, bassist Jeff Rice and drummer Steve Terry – knows the landscape of loss on “Almanac.”

“You don’t have anyone in this band who had a sheltered life,” Adams says.

Many of the songs rock as ragged as any Replacements or Exile-era Stones albums. And their arrangements help them tell a story dramatically, which lifts them above average three-chord shouters.

“Well I – I can’t stand to be under your wing/I can’t fly or sink or swim/It’s a lot like falling down,” Adams declares loud and clear on “Yesterday’s News,” the guitars blasting alongside him.

The buildup in “Waiting to Derail” musters enough drama to help Adams ask, shouting, “Are you feeling better now/that you’re waiting to derail?”

But it’s the earnestness of the ballads that sound most real. And since most songs handle sadness so tritely, those that don’t curl every nerve.

Describing the scene in the title of “Dancing With The Women At The Bar,” Adams sings, “Man I love the feel when I go out/dancing with the women at the bar/always know my woman’s close somewhere.” The devil is in the details, and in song writing, so is the darkness.

“Close somewhere,” he adds again, trailing off, and we know who his thoughts flew to on the dance floor.

The ambition of the last song, “Not Home Anymore,” is epic. Singing “I left all the lights on in our old room to pretend you and I were home.”

Adams’ vocals are layered on top each other, sounding as if he’s talking to himself. They teeter until the band kicks in with Adams tying together “You – you were gone” with “used to mean a lot/mean a lot to me/now it doesn’t mean/doesn’t mean a thing” over each other, again and again, until they burn.

* * *

He’s off to the bathroom. Before he left he told me Whiskeytown plans a double record next time out, recording in a mobile unit at all the places the band members grew up.

“It’s going to be the biggest record, you watch,” he said.

After watching the show that night, I believe him. The band is loose and rocks full out.

Watching them I’m reminded of what he thinks an “honest band” is.

“We make a point about being who we are where we are, whether or not the crowd is satisfied or we are satisfied, we just play,” he said. “We’re never going to be a country-rock Bush.”

And Adams, still light on his feet, almost derails on stage during “Waiting to Derail,” looking at the pockets of people talking and adding the lines “we’re all monkeys” to see if anyone notices. (It’s a nighttime occurrence his tour manager assures me rarely happens.)

“This is a lot like being a prostitute,” Adams said earlier. “You know why? Because I have to feel the way I felt the day I wrote the song, every night, and to do that I have to go back and think about all the things that were so horrible that made me want to sing it.

* * *

We can’t find him. I check the bathroom, but he’s not there. Cary and I walk outside and the job seeker on the park bench tells us Adams headed back north.

Earlier, Adams told me about the band’s name.

“I think the name lends itself to a fictional place,” he said. “People check into Whiskeytown and they leave, people move into Whiskeytown and get an apartment and they leave. Our band is like a place you come to, and if you’re strong enough, you stay there, and if you’re not, you get the hell out.”

We find him passed out on the sidewalk. In Whiskeytown, the truth hurts.

Share this story on your favorite platform: