ryan adams: low and lonesome

But perhaps Heartbreaker‘s greatest triumph is that even with its vast emotional scope, in a time when Adams would seemingly be best suited relying on the form he knows so well, he ventures into new realms…”


by john richen


There are few musical experiences in my life that could be characterized as “religious”. And that’s probably for the best seeing as too much religion is like too much anything else, dangerous. But a “religious experience” is how will always describe the first time I saw Whiskeytown.

It was a cool autumn evening in 1997. Playing Berbatis Pan in Portland, the band packed the place with a beer swilling mish mash of rowdies. Whiskeytown was late for the show. Really late. Something about their vans breaking down. When they finally showed up they were stewed. Not Replacements level stewed, but stewed nonetheless.

A quick and entertaining set-up ensued which involved: band members and some guy that looked like a mix between The Crow, Tiny Tim and Meatloaf stumbling about with patch cords and microphones; the dispatching of multiple shots of Jägermeister – whiskey for fiddler and vocalist Caitlin Cary; an earnest and successful request from the stage for a donation of some dried herbs by a lanky, green-derbied lead guitarist; and a heated argument about who got the coveted stage placement closest to the bar.

Then they were ready, more or less….

…a few thundering songs into their set front-man Ryan Adams shouts out “How about them Volebeats?” and sends the confused show openers back up onto the stage to play another song while Whiskeytown lines the front of the stage (after ordering more Jägermeister) proceeding to hoot, holler and jump up and down like a bunch of Boston frat boys at a House Of Pain concert. The crowd is confused but also, amused at this spectacle. However, they didn’t lay down their bread to see the VoleBeats, so a cheer erupts as Adams and cohorts scramble back onto the intimate and debris littered Berbatis stage….

Now they were ready. Boy were they ready.

Leaning heavily on material from their first album Faithless Street and some unreleased numbers, Whiskeytown blew away any preset notions the crowd may have entertained of a Gram Parsons love-fest with Adams leaving most of his admittedly skillful ballads off the set list and revving up the more contemplative tunes with a sonic blast reminiscent of the Replacements or the Ramones.  Even a poignant “Angels Are Messengers From God” paled in comparison to the bone splintering version of the Stooges “Now I Wanna Be Your Dog” that saw mortal enemies Adams and original guitarist Phil Wandscher engaged in a guitar dual so intense Adams finished by torturing and mercilessly walloping the drum kit with his unfortunate Gibson axe over and over again.

And Caitlin fiddled on….

I wandered into the night pretty much reeling.  Feeling the impact of this tremendous band who put on one of the most explosive small venue shows I had ever witnessed. Rarified air.  Whiskeytown was a band on that edge.


In the years since then I have seen Whiskeytown in it’s various mutations and they never have been able to duplicate the intensity of that night in October 1997. Maybe it was the room, Berbatis when packed is difficult to beat in Portland for sheer ambiance and energy. Perhaps it was the antagonistic synergy of Adams and Wandscher who parted ways shortly thereafter. (“I always hated that guy” Adams was rumored to later later quip.)  Most probably it was just a harmonic convergence — the stars lined up right and the music just seemed to matter more that night. It happens you know.

But the hard truth of the matter is Ryan Adams really does have something special going on, it was obvious that night in his frenetic and fantastic performance; it is obvious from the purity of his songwriting skill demonstrated on Whiskeytown’s Faithless Street and Strangers Almanac. Songs like “If He Can’t Have You” or Strangers’ “Avenues” have so much depth that I can’t begin to adequately deconstruct them. Both are haunting, powerful indicators of an artist with a deep comprehension and respect for his musical influences. Who draws from them freely all the while forging ahead with his own interpretations. There is heartbreak and despair a plenty in Whiskeytown’s body of work, but there is also a proud southern toughness coursing through it all. Adams’ legendary brashness and defiance indelibly stamped this early work, and Whiskeytown’s critical and underground credibility blossomed as a result.

Fall 1999

The dust has cleared after the final Whiskeytown “tour” and Adams is left with a finished but unreleased Whiskeytown studio album called “Pneumonia”, hamstrung by the annihilation of Outpost Recordings by Seagrams – Universal. The band, what is left of it is in complete disarray. Adams reports the album will eventually be released, but Whiskeytown is done.

He falls into and then out of love…

…and on his latest, a solo record released on Bloodshot Records, that defiant swagger is gone. Adams sounds like he’s had the chair kicked out from underneath him. Although the disc starts out ruggedly enough with with an humorous taped argument about Morrissey moving into the uptempo country rocker “To Be Young (is to be sad, is to be high)”, things wind down significantly after that.

Aptly titled Heartbreaker, it is the musical diary of a painful breakup. Viewed as such, it is an exceptional piece of work, start to finish. Adams has been compared favorably to such musical cornerstones as Hank Williams, Gram Parsons, Paul Westerberg and Steve Earle. On Heartbreaker he shows you why, springing from one reference to another effortlessly and seamlessly. The Parsons influence on Heartbreaker is everywhere, and times uncanny, most obviously when he teams up with Fallen Angel Emmylou Harris in the moving “Oh My Sweet Carolina, ” and Kim Richey “Come Pick Me Up” which may be the album’s most triumphant moment. Richey’s voice compliments Adams much in the same fashion that his old partner Cary’s did/would, and the combination of the boozy harp, slow pickin’ banjo and honky tonk piano place “Come Pick Me Up” among the most compelling tunes in Adams already admired catalogue.

What will no doubt shock long time Whiskeytown fans is the despair tinged “Why Do They Leave” or the unremitting sadness of “Sweet Lil Gal (23rd/1st)” or “Call Me On Your Way Back Home”. While disconsolate songs about heartbreak are integral to music in general and country in particular, that trademark resiliency that marked earlier Whiskytown ballads is glaringly absent here. There is at times an air of hopelessness about these songs, and it won’t process well with fans who viewed the brash young band as heirs apparent to the Replacements booze drenched crown.

While Heartbreaker is by no means a flawless record — the analogy and wordplay of “Damn Sam (I love a woman that rains)” seemed forced and ineffective — it is certainly rounded by the ease in which it incorporates the aforementioned influences. Like Westerberg, Adams is able to bare the demons in his soul in a way that would cause emotional carnage in other artists, and likely ruin their careers in the process. When towards the end of the album in “In My Time Of Need” Adams wistfully wonders “can you take away the pain of hurtful deeds?” you feel it where it counts. If you don’t you’re thoroughly polluted. You’re a heartless bastard. You may as well be comatose.

But perhaps Heartbreaker’s greatest triumph is that even with its vast emotional scope, in a time when Adams would seemingly be best suited relying on the form he knows so well, he ventures into new realms. “Amy” is a bordeline psychedelic throwback, with touches of John Lennon, Syd Barret and contemporary Elliott Smith all blended together. “Bartering Lines” sounds as much like vintage Fleetwood Mac as it does traditional roots oriented country.

In the end though it all sounds like Ryan Adams, albeit an Adams we don’t really know yet — wearing wound on sleeve and letting the tears seep through his fingers and the hurt slip from his heart.



Originally published:
Issue Two
October 2000


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