All Figured Out
Ryan Adams says he drinks all the time and does drugs -- can rock sainthood be far off?
By Brendan Doherty
FEBRUARY 2, 1998: RYAN ADAMS BOXED up his life in Raleigh, N.C., and moved it to Austin, Texas, earlier this year. His boxes are still there, but he's gone back to take care of some things--firing most of the band, looking after the road manager's cat, and drinking a lot of bourbon. As singer/songwriter for Whiskeytown, Adams seems cool right when everything is most at stake: a record on the charts, a new band on the road, a new hometown and no girlfriend. Nothing like a clean slate to scare the hell out of a guy.
Adams is the odds-on favorite to emerge out of the latest crop of Americana artists venerating Graham Parsons and Uncle Tupelo. If Nirvana had a twang and a pedal steel, they'd probably sound like this kid from North Carolina. His sorrowful, tuneful life is scattered wide across the southeast. And like most good and dangerous country singers, it wasn't a life too well put together to begin with. Whiskeytown's unpredictable live shows have often ended up in short, bad sets and smashed guitars, belying at the very least a bratty dissatisfaction. The remaining shows have filled in the other half of the legend as wholly transcendent experiences--sorrow, misery, longing, freedom, attachment--all channeled through six strings and a pale kid with thick glasses and a big black mop of hair.
"I had a rough night," Adams says. "I went to a friend's and got ran off. That's happening a lot. I guess that I know too much about people here, or not enough, really. The going joke is that I fired them all, but I really didn't want to play with Phil Wandscher anymore. Did you ever hear of a death cocktail? We were like that, mixing liquors until something died. Either one of us alone was just fine. Get us together, and whoa! We'd had a lot of fistfights in the van between me and him.
I was sick of it. I was about to have a nervous breakdown, and I don't know what he was going to do."
Late this year, Adams hired Ed Crawford, former guitarist for fIREHOSE, moved his manager Skillet Gilmore back to drums, and grabbed a bassist. Adams couldn't be happier despite the tumult, rumor-mongering, and trash-talking.
"The funny thing is that the band is way better than it ever was," Adams says. "Crawford is a born player. I could sit here and tell you a bunch of lies, but that's how it is. We're more consistent, and he loves those Keith Richards guitar things that fit so well with what we do."
At the moment, the band is bigger than ever, bigger than fIREHOSE ever was. A writer from GQ just spent six days with the band--the photo shoot alone took three days. Everywhere, writers are summoning comparisons with venerated artists like Kurt Cobain and Graham Parsons. There they are, featured in Raygun and Rolling Stone. Hail the band triumphant. There is very little else that Adams is cut out for but to play guitar and write songs, and get people to watch him do it. He ends up doing all kinds of things to make listeners hear his music.
"I drink all of the time and do drugs," Adams says with the clink of the glass in the background, and the haze of channel surfing while he talks. "I don't pay attention to the press' version of who Ryan Adams is. It's not even like looking into a mirror, it's a thousand mirrors. I just get fucked up and write songs."
So much of the band's myth has been defined by Adams' outbursts. Fistfights, guitar-smashing shows, and a recent verbal bout with another band, the Old 97s, has done more than stir up dust. It seems unreal that the same guy is capable of soft-hearted sadness and longing in his songwriting.
"I got it all figured out," says Adams. "All I have to do is write hit songs. It doesn't matter what else I do. Trust me on this--there is more water in this well than I would care to think about. I'm doing all I can to try and get it out."
Between Faithless Street, and Strangers' Almanac, the band's second and third albums, respectively, Adams penned 60 songs. The crop was whittled down to the 13 on Strangers. While the band live was raw as the Replacements, they made a slick album that had some claiming they were the second coming of Fleetwood Mac in boots. Strangers emerged as a passionate and sorrowful record that chronicled the demise of his three-year relationship with his former girlfriend.
Everywhere on Strangers is Adams' longing, his desire to stay in love, as is the pull of the strip, the road and the drink. On "Turn Around," he nearly apologizes, but it's clear that she keeps walking away. "Not Home Anymore" is a gripping good-bye. "Losering," "16 Days," and "Waiting to Derail" show Adams' staggering and faltering faith in himself and his music. "Dancing with the Women at the Bar" offers solace. Strangers is a gripping musical diary that details the demise of a relationship in a way that's almost impossible not to empathize with. Hearts are pulled in by the high whine of steel guitars and near-religious sounding organs.
"I'm exorcising those demons every night," Adams says, then quickly covers up: "We don't fucking care. We love playing guitars. Play and pretend and be in a rock and roll band."
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