Weekly Wire
The Boston Phoenix Whiskeytown Tales

Ryan Adams and Caitlin Cary carry on

By Allison Stewart

SEPTEMBER 11, 2000:  The way frontman Ryan Adams remembers it, things were never really right with Whiskeytown. This isn't the story of a solid band who suddenly went off the rails: Whiskeytown were always screwed up. It was just a matter of things getting worse, which they always did.

Adams recalls the last days of Whiskeytown's final tour like this: "We finished the last record and the tour fizzled out, and if someone wasn't quitting or being fired, they were fucking going to drug rehab or having nervous breakdowns or throwing shit at you on the bus. Or there'd be times when everything would get good and we're all excited and we all wanna win and we're gonna try really hard now. And then the show would fucking suck, or whatever. It just didn't work. It should have showed us."

Whiskeytown still aren't over. The band, or what's left of them, have taken an indefinite hiatus while the members sift through the wreckage, look for a label to release what will probably be their last record, Pneumonia, and, in the case of Adams and violinist Caitlin Cary, promote solo records. Adams's desolate and gorgeous Heartbreaker (Bloodshot) came out this week, and he'll be playing a pair of solo shows at the Kendall Café in Cambridge at the end of the month (September 29 and 30). Cary recently released the lower-fi, equally pretty Waltzie (Yep-roc). Both discs deserve attention on their merits, but they also feel like placeholders intended to mark time until someone figures out what to do about Whiskeytown.

Whiskeytown never got famous, never made a classic, defining record, never even fell apart in any spectacular, entertaining way. Unlike the Replacements, whose how-to-turn-a-band-into-a-train-wreck playbook Adams seems to have otherwise slavishly followed, Whiskeytown's tale isn't one of greatness thwarted. An amazingly good band on the days when they could manage it, they never aspired to greatness nor had greatness thrust upon them. That they never sold enough records to be solvent was only added insult.

"The goal of the band wasn't to sell a lot of records anyway," says Adams. "What we wanted to do was to be really fucking good, and to be really stable and be there for each other and have a cohesive unit. We wanted it to be the best rock-and-roll band that anybody'd fucking heard. And there were times when we were really close. Then there were times when it seemed we only had one chip left, and we'd win back the pot again."

Whiskeytown began in Raleigh in 1994. Adams was 19 and had been playing in a punk band, the Patty Duke Syndrome. He was looking for a fiddle player. Cary remembers, "I don't know who told him I could play fiddle, but Ryan called and said, 'I heard you play fiddle. Do you wanna be in a band?' I just thought [being in a band meant] I was gonna have something to do on the weekends. I know the boys in the band probably had a rock-and-roll fantasy, but I never did."

Whiskeytown quickly signed a deal with the tiny start-up label Mood Food, which released their 1995 debut EP, Angels. After a much-publicized bidding war (sparked by the then-burgeoning success of groups like Wilco and Son Volt), they signed with Geffen offshoot Outpost, which quickly issued a redone version of the group's full-length debut, Faithless Street (1996). Adams was barely 21 at the time; Whiskeytown had been together about two years.

"Once things kicked in, it went so fast that it was sort of unnatural," says Cary. "It felt like we had the rug pulled out from under us. That's probably at the root of all the Whiskeytown problems. I think Whiskeytown did/does have real magic, but we didn't have time to deal with all our various issues."

A short time later, they put out the career-defining Stranger's Almanac (Outpost, 1997). (Except for Mood Food's almost concurrently released Rural Free Delivery, a collection of demos and assorted outtakes, Whiskeytown have not released anything since.) Stranger's Almanac was twangy and morose and absolutely marvelous. A slick country-rock record, it positioned Adams as the logical heir to both Gram Parsons (thanks to his harmonizing with the Emmylou Harris-like Cary) and Paul Westerberg (whose drunk-but-lovable loser mantle Adams picked up and has yet to put down). But Whiskeytown, who had been breaking up since the day they first got together, were beginning to resemble the Replacements in ways they might not have cared to. Yes, as Adams says, someone was always quitting, or getting fired. His relationship with guitarist Phil Wandscher was perennially strained. ("I always hated Phil," he once told an interviewer, when Wandscher was still in the band. "And I still do.") Three out of the band's five members left at once. Even Cary, the band's backbone and the member to whom Adams seems closest, almost quit at one point.

The members feuded publicly. Almost everybody drank too much and did too many drugs. Adams suffered from massive stagefright. The mood on stage was usually fraught with tension anyway, and gigs were messy or brilliant or both. This sort of Jim Morrison-like self-indulgence usually seems at least a little romantic, but with Whiskeytown, it just seemed sad.

"We would show up at gigs totally fucking drunk because we thought it was funny, not because we had to have a beer," Adams remembers now. "I was like, 'This is ridiculous. You're paying me to do this? Fuck that. I'm gonna get so drunk . . . ' Everybody did. We didn't care at all. So by the time that we ended up maybe caring, it didn't even matter anymore."

Stranger's Almanac was released to rapturous critical reception, but the band weren't trying to capitalize on that momentum as much as they were trying not to fall apart. "I think if anything, I fucked it up on purpose," says Adams. "Like, back when [the single] '16 Days' was doing great on radio, I told the programmer in Seattle who was responsible for three major radio stations in the West to go fuck himself, and I dared him to take our record off the air, which he did. That song had been doing great, and then it was like, 'See ya,' and we were gone, over."

Adams began to crack under the pressure of being the frontman, a job he swears he never wanted in the first place. By his own admission he was both "a nightmare" and a solo career waiting to happen. Whenever he contemplated breaking up Whiskeytown, "there would be other people telling me to give it another shot, you know? And I bent over as far backwards as I could. [One day] I just stopped and said, 'Fuck this. No more. Forget it.' We should have stopped a long fucking time ago. I don't know what we were trying to do. We just bit off more than we could chew. We weren't able to do what we wanted to do, like to win at that rock-and-roll game. It just didn't fly."

After the Stranger's Almanac tour, Whiskeytown went back into the studio to record the as-yet-unreleased Pneumonia, though the shuttering of Outpost a short time afterward has left the disc without a home. Adams would like to release the album through a new major label that's being formed by Outpost executive Mark Williams. A brief tour of major cities would likely follow, perhaps early next year.

That Adams, who released his solo record on the homy indie Bloodshot, is contemplating a return to the big leagues that have seduced and abandoned him, and a reunion with a band who have caused him so much misery, suggests he's either a slow learner or someone who wants stardom more than he lets on. Either way, he swears the upcoming tour will be Whiskeytown's last. Whether he and Cary might continue the band as a duo he isn't saying, but Cary seems to think they might. "Right now, Whiskeytown is me and Ryan. I love to play and sing with Ryan, and I think he feels the same way."

Recorded with sometime Whiskeytown producer Chris Stamey, Waltzie, Cary's five-song solo debut, is a cobbled-together collection of lo-fi living room tapes intended to serve as a practice run for her upcoming full-length. A string-heavy folk offering that features three sometime members of Whiskeytown, including Adams and guitarist Mike Daly, Waltzie is "the culmination of years of knowing I wanted to do my own record. I needed to figure out if I could be the frontgirl, that was the scary part. I was pretty confident, but with a lot to learn."

Adams's solo record, the quavery, raw Heartbreaker (an intentional tip of the hat to the Mariah Carey record of the same name), has precisely the sort of stripped-down intimacy Stranger's Almanac lacked. Recorded in 14 days and written as he went along, it's confessional, reliably depressing, and quite fine (the cameos from Gillian Welch and Emmylou certainly don't hurt), but there is that placeholder feel. Adams is currently living in Nashville and preparing to tour behind Heartbreaker this fall. Recently he's been playing with a genuine rock-and-roll band, and he warns that his next offering might not be what fans have come to expect.

"Playing with this band has been really liberating. It's sexy, and it's cool, and I get to spit ice in the air, even. When I write songs now, it doesn't have to be vague. I can write things that don't leave holes open for pedal steel or something. I don't think everybody's gonna like what I'm doing, but I don't care. I like it."

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