The great major-label mergings and purgings of the last several years have cost hundreds of people their jobs -- but another tragic result is that many artists have been trapped in record-release limbo. The rootsy rock band Whiskeytown is one of them, and that's left rock fans unable to hear Pneumonia, arguably one of the best albums of 1999, and now 2000.
Consider it the great Replacements album the Replacements never had the patience to make; in fact, former Replacement/current Guns N' Roses bassist Tommy Stinson co-wrote and plays guitar on some of the tracks. Or simply consider it a great pop record. Far exceeding the expectations set by Whiskeytown's previous two releases, Pneumonia encompasses the many musical sides of front man Ryan Adams, from Hank Williams-worshiping alt-country icon to rambunctious rock "star" to one of the purest rock tunesmiths since the heydays of Westerberg and Cobain. And it does so even more convincingly than Heartbreaker, Adams' recently released solo debut on the indie label Bloodshot.
Adams and core Whiskeytown members Mike Daly and Caitlin Cary recorded a double CD -- variously known as Happy Go Bye Bye and Doing That (a goof on Wilco's Being There) -- three years ago in Woodstock, New York. Aside from Stinson, the players included Smashing Pumpkins guitarist James Iha, session bassist Jennifer Condos and drummer-producer Ethan Johns (who was also behind the boards for Heartbreaker, and whose father, coincidentally, is legendary producer Glyn Johns).
Then came the Universal-Polygram union of early '99. Geffen and A&M were folded into Interscope, and Whiskeytown's label, Outpost, was left in the cold. This "major indie" -- a joint venture between Geffen and the trio of A&R exec Mark Williams, producer Scott Litt and manager Andy Gershon -- suddenly had no distributor. Some of the label's acts, like Crystal Method and Days of the New, found new homes at Interscope, but Williams feared that Whiskeytown's double CD -- by now titled Pneumonia -- would get lost amid Interscope's high volume of releases. So he began seeking a new deal for himself and the band.
What Williams didn't anticipate was it taking this long to find one. "Ryan certainly has to get on with his career," he notes. "I don't want to hold him back unnecessarily. It's very possible he could find a home before I do. And if that's the case, I want to give him all the support I can."
Most recently, Williams has been discussing projects with former Virgin head Jeff Ayeroff, but the current state of the music business doesn't give him much hope. "Labels won't go after bands that don't fit into some immediate pocket, and there's so much pressure that there's a fear to sign anything without a formula," he says. "That's the vision -- or I should say lack of vision -- among a lot of the A&R people today."
Adams is less diplomatic about his situation: "Basically the guy [Edgar Bronfman] who owns Seagram's and a couple of other companies -- this man, he has a son. He probably asked his son what businesses he wanted to run, and he said he wanted to run the music business. So he bought his son Universal. Disgusting, really. So he bought it, and got rid of anybody that didn't sell a million copies the last couple of records."
Every month, for 14 months, Adams waited for the album he'd recorded in Woodstock to see the light of day. And every month, nothing happened. "It was very hard for me," he says, then adds, "I think that Pneumonia should come out. I mean, Whiskeytown deserves that. It can be sort of like our swan song that nobody really got to hear at the time. It already has a certain amount of mystery to it, because nobody has fucking heard it. When it does finally come out, there's no band to tour because there isn't a Whiskeytown anymore. But we'll all sort of be sitting back in our collective lives with a big grin on our faces."
The 25-year-old musician is talking from his Nashville home during a break in his solo acoustic tour. Born in North Carolina, Adams relocated to Tennessee after two years in Manhattan, where he'd moved for a relationship -- the dissolution of which generated Heartbreaker. "It's about being really sad and missing somebody," he says of his solo debut. "She changed my whole life. I was like one piece of pizza. She taught me how to be the whole pie."
Adams, of course, has gained as much notoriety for being a rock 'n' roll bad boy as he has for his talent. His shenanigans, both onstage and off, were becoming as legendary as the Replacements'. But ask Williams (who admits Adams was "a mess" when Outpost signed him four years ago), manager Frank Callari, Bug Music publishing attorney David Hirshland or former publicist Kevin Kennedy about Adams' reputation, and they all mention how much he's matured over the last year. In fact, "growing up" is a phrase Adams himself uses frequently these days. Yet he still sounds like a hyperactive kid -- albeit a nice and friendly hyperactive kid -- as he delivers virtual monologues on everything from punk rock to Mariah Carey (whom he professes to "adore") to Keith Richards, whom he ironically credits with helping him "sober up" by instructing him to switch to vodka.
"Brown liquors used to really weigh down on my soul," he says. "I would become so bluesy, you know? And man, I must have had a hangover for two fucking years. But you have to go out of your way to get hammered on vodka. You don't start slurring, and playing with handguns doesn't become a good idea at one in the morning. Go shoot the pumpkin, you know? I never liked that feeling. . . . I mean, there have been times in everybody's life where they sit down and have a stiff shot of bourbon. But I haven't had that time in quite some time. It's like trying to ease off the heaviness of things. I'm now trying to enjoy stuff. I just think I've reached a point where I kind of know how to take care of myself and how to keep those sorts of situations or those feelings at bay, you know? Like not to trust them over trusting putting myself in a better place."
With all of Adams' growing pains, it's no wonder that relationships among Whiskeytown's members were frequently strained. The day before the band went to New York to sign with Outpost (which had heard about the band from former dB Chris Stamey), the drummer and bass player quit. Then came the blowup between Adams and original guitarist-vocalist Phil Wandscher. "The rumor is, I fired him," Adams says. "Actually, we had to quit playing together. We were going to kill each other. It was a total Noel and Liam kind of thing."
In Adams' mind, Pneumonia's nonrelease was the final nail in Whiskeytown's coffin. "The decision was made for us, really, just by time and circumstance, and I respect things that happen like that," he says. "By the time we went to make Pneumonia, there were only three surviving members. Everybody kind of pooled thoughts together for that album, and when it didn't come out, it was kind of like we reached an end that's inevitable, and we all knew it in the back of our minds."
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Still, Adams remains excited about finishing up Whiskeytown's last recording. "Ethan and I are actually remixing it, and it's going to be really challenging. It's probably going to sound a lot like a Rolling Stones record from the '70s or a Beatles album in the way that it's mixed. We don't fool around with a lot of compression, and I'd much rather it be something that you put on your headphones and you have a really hard time not freaking out -- stereophonic mixes and stuff that sounds really cool in a car, like the way all those old Beatles records sound."
Manager Callari says he's negotiating with a label to sign Adams as a solo artist, with the release of Pneumonia as part of the contract. But a deal is far from finalized. "It will come out," he says. "When? I couldn't tell you."
For his part, Adams says that he wouldn't dare enter into a "regular" major-label situation again. "I just don't trust it anymore," he declares. "I also don't really want somebody telling me that I'm going to be a star when I know for a fucking fact that I'm not going to be -- and I don't care to be. I mean, it's not in my agenda to be a star. It's in my agenda to make really great records that I'm completely proud of."
Adams wants a label that will allow him to release two albums a year -- something of a pipe dream given the current state of the music business, though everyone agrees he has more than enough material. "I know him well enough to know the only constant is he'll change," says Williams with a laugh. "And when Pneumonia comes out and gets the reaction it should get, I think that'll motivate him to do a Whiskeytown record again. We'll just have to wait and see."