Town Without Pity

The country-rock heroes of Whiskeytown find solace in their instability

Ryan Adams has a bad case of the flu.
The singer/songwriter/guitarist for North Carolina sextet Whiskeytown has spent the better part of this afternoon zonked out in the back of a tour bus in College Station, Texas. His tour manager has twice postponed today's interview, apologetically explaining that Adams is resting and recuperating for tonight's show. Now Adams is worrying because it's his tour manager's birthday, and he needs to get him a present, "or he'll kill me."

On the phone, Adams sounds tired and weak, only a pale shadow of the gutsy vocalist heard on Whiskeytown's two albums, 1996's indie release Faithless Street and last year's acclaimed Outpost Recordings debut, Strangers Almanac. It's tempting to think that life on the road is wearing down this 23-year-old country-rock troubadour, that a little rest and stability would do him some good right about now. The only problem is, Adams is one of those rare birds who actually thrives on instability, who embraces his own rootlessness. Although word had it that a few months ago he moved from the band's longtime headquarters of Raleigh, North Carolina, to Austin, Texas, Adams reveals that, in truth, he has no home at the moment.

"I had moved to Austin a while back, but lately I've just been bumming around, really, in North Carolina," he says. "My stuff is in Austin; my old roommate, who is one of our managers, moved, so she put my stuff up in Austin, and I've been hanging out in North Carolina seeing some old friends. After this tour's done, we're going to Europe, then we're doing South by Southwest, then we're probably in the studio, so I don't really need a place. I'll just be going back to North Carolina to visit my mom and my friends. I'll be in Austin taking care of business anyway, so it's kinda good to have places to stay in both places."

If Adams attaches little permanence to his place of residence, the same goes double for the tortured history of his band's lineup. In 1994, after going through his obligatory teen-punk phase with a band called Patty Duke Syndrome, Adams put together Whiskeytown with drummer Skillet Gilmore and Gilmore's roommate, guitarist Phil Wandscher. Both Gilmore and the band's original bassist, Steve Grothman, left after the release of Faithless Street. Three bassists have since passed through the Whiskeytown revolving door, the latest being former Grand National member Jenni Snyder. Meanwhile, Wandscher, whose Stonesy ax work has been a Whiskeytown trademark from the outset, was recently invited by Adams to pack his bags, in favor of former fIREHOSE guitarist Ed Crawford. Just in case this Kinkslike soap opera wasn't convoluted enough for you, original drummer Skillet Gilmore recently returned to the band after serving as tour manager for a year.

When asked why Gilmore decided to pull a Pete Quaife and rejoin Whiskeytown, Adams literally sets the phone receiver aside and yells out to his drummer, "Hey, Skillet, why'd you come back to the band?" The response comes back swiftly. "He said, 'Because Phil was gone.'"

Gilmore wasn't the only Whiskeytowner who clashed with Wandscher. In fact, the tension between Adams and Wandscher developed into a major part of the Whiskeytown myth. Adams, the precocious visionary tunesmith with a passion for the polar extremes of punk and country, matched against Wandscher, the more conservative Keith Richards fanatic, with little patience for either country or punk. Adams was known for calling Wandscher "a fuckin' jerk," while Wandscher branded Adams in print as "a real brat."

Although a No Depression cover story on the band last year hinted that all the Adams-Wandscher sniping was a phony attempt at punk hostility that couldn't hide "the magic of their musical relationship," Adams sounds like a man whose hatred is the real deal. When Adams speaks of the band's latest lineup changes, he shows no frustration or sadness. Instead, he sounds like a man who's just had a 200-pound barbell lifted from his aching chest.

"It's better, the band's better," he says. "It sounds more like a band. The live shows for the first leg of the Strangers Almanac tour were fucking pitiful, we were a horrible band. We were all these alcoholics. Now there are some people in the band that are sober half the time. Having Skillet around is really calming, because it's good to have your good friend around. Before, I didn't really know anybody in the band except Phil, and he's an asshole. I'm spiritually more into the band.

"We weren't getting along, and Phil was being an asshole. He wasn't happy being in the band, but he wouldn't quit. The only way for him to leave was if somebody made him, so I made him."

During the last couple of years, the hype surrounding the imagined emergence of a roots-music movement, alternately dubbed alt-country, Americana or "No Depression," has grown tiresome and inspired a justifiable backlash. Unfortunately, some alt-country fanatics are so eager to celebrate any mediocre band with a steel guitar, a fiddle and a twangy vocalist that they lose all their critical faculties in the warm glow of self-congratulation.

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