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.

For that reason, it's easy to dismiss Whiskeytown as a media creation, just the latest in a long line of third-hand, Gram Parsons wanna-bes. But as all country fans know, the proof is in the details, and Adams possesses an innate grasp of the details. The man described by Outpost partner Mark Williams as "the closest thing to a pure songwriter I've ever come across" has a plainspoken knack for storytelling, and he comfortably moves from the soul balladry of "Everything I Do" to the pop-rock melodicism of "Turn Around" and the pure honky-tonk of "Inn Town." It's no mystery why he's a critic's dream: He looks a bit like Matthew Sweet, sings a lot like Wilco's Jeff Tweedy, and can ingest liquor like a young George Jones.

It is the drunken, bad-boy reputation which has garnered Whiskeytown the most attention, even earning comparisons with the '80s' most lovable sloppy alcoholics, The Replacements. As The Replacements learned during their career, the role of staggering, drunken buffoon can get old after a few years, particularly when your audience gets attached to such misbehavior. Adams, however, refuses to be swayed by the collective will of his audience.

"I don't care what the audience wants," he insists. "I don't give a fuck about our audience. I just make the doughnuts. They eat 'em. I don't want to sound rude, but I can't be concerned with what they want, because I'm not doing it just for them, I'm doing it for me. So I could give a fuck really what a crowd wants, or what our fans want when we make a record, 'cause if I do that, then I'm fucking up. I make records and play shows that satisfy me, and us, first.

"I don't think popularity necessitates happiness at all. I think quite the opposite. So as long as I stay kind of a brat about it, then I'll be fine."

Even at his worst, Adams is an unusually prolific songwriter, but the heartbreak that enveloped him last year after the end of a three-year relationship resulted in a flood of new material, with the band forced to whittle 36 new tunes down to 13 for Strangers Almanac.

"I grew attached to all the numbers we were doing, all the tunes," he says. "It was really weird for me to have to pick. Actually, I left it up to other people, and then I complained when it wasn't what I wanted. At least I didn't have to be the one involved in the process of elimination. It was just too strange. If I had my way, I'd just have released all of them.

"There's some stuff left over from every record. We have more unreleased material than we do released. We're pretty confident that if we broke up tomorrow, they could be putting out records by us for years."

He and the band have already demoed 13 new songs, with Adams saying that the new lineup is encouraging him to revisit his punk roots and crank up his guitar, "kinda like Black Flag, The Wipers or TSOL." And while he knows that his nonstop devotion to the craft of songwriting can take a toll on his personal relationships, it's a bargain he willingly struck many years ago.

"It's like second nature to me," Adams says of songwriting. "It isn't a big deal. It's something I've grown accustomed to; part of my daily life is writing a song. It's just how I cope or deal with the world.

"It's definitely gotten in the way of relationships, being obsessed with writing songs. It isn't really an obsession anymore, it's second nature, like I said. But other people, they don't understand. It's definitely made it hard to keep a girlfriend, but I don't care. I have enough friends."

Whiskeytown is scheduled to perform on Saturday, January 31, at Nita's Hideaway in Tempe, with 6 String Drag. Showtime is 10 p.m.

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