Ryan Adams was one of the most popular artists to emerge from the Nineties alternative-country scene, having led in the North Carolina band Whiskeytown before going solo in 1999. Notorious for his hard-drinking and mercurial temper, Adams nonetheless managed to turn out a prodigious catalog of acclaimed music, which ranged from gentle folk to soulful rock to hardcore punk.
David Ryan Adams was born in the military town of Jacksonville, North Carolina. When he was nine, his father left and he was raised by his mother, an English teacher. Adams was a reader and has said Edgar Allen Poe's work inspired him to write short stories by the time he was eight-years -old. As a teen, he discovered maverick writers like Jack Kerouac and Henry Miller and learned to play guitar. Adams dropped out of high school in the tenth grade and played with a series of punk bands in before moving to Raleigh, NC, and forming Whiskeytown with singer and violinist Caitlin Cary. The band's 1996 debut album, Faithless Street, produced by former dB's front man Chris Stamey, was well received by critics who likened Whiskeytown's sound to that of Uncle Tupelo, with a heavy debt to Sixties country-rock pioneer Gram Parsons. Whiskeytown signed with Outpost Records, a subsidiary of Geffen, and released Stranger's Almanac in 1997. By the time Whiskeytown went into the studio in 1999 to record its third album, Pneumonia Adams and Cary were the only original members left. The album was shelved during the merger of Universal and PolyGram and Outpost closed its doors.
Adams, meanwhile, went into a Nashville studio with Gillian Welch and David Rawlings to record his first solo album Heartbreaker which came out on the independent alternative-country label Bloodshot Records in 2000. The album was hailed for its songwriting and balance of country, folk and classic-sounding rock. Comparisons to Gram Parsons continued further after Emmylou Harris, Parson's music partner, harmonized with Adams on the song "Oh My Sweet Carolina." When Pneumonia surfaced the following year on Lost Highway Records it was seen more as an Adams solo album than a Whiskeytown release.
During the 2000s, Adams turned out roughly an album a year, with even more songs surfacing on his Website. In 2001, he released Gold (Number 59, 2001), which sold more than 360,000 copies in the U.S. and produced the minor hit "New York, New York," which was played regularly on MTV after the September 11, 2001 terror attacks. Artists ranging from country superstar Tim McGraw to Bono coveredGold's "When the Stars Go Blue." The album received two Grammy nominations: Best Rock Album and Best Male Rock Vocal for the single; and Adams was nominated for Best Male Country Vocal for a version of Hank Williams' "Lovesick Blues" that appeared on a tribute album.
He followed with Demolition (Number 28, 2002), which was culled from two shelved albums, 48 Hours and The Suicide Handbook, both of which have been heavily bootlegged. That year he appeared with Elton John, who cited Adams as an inspiration on his recent music, on CMT's Crossroads. In 2003, Adams recorded Rock N Roll (Number 33, 2003) and Love is Hell Part 1 (Number 78, 2003) and Part 2. The latter two records seemed to being influenced by the mopey pop of the Smiths; Adams' New Wave tendencies seemed so unappealing to Lost Highway that the label released Love as Hell as a pair of EPs as opposed to a proper album. The acoustic cover version of the Oasis hit "Wonderwall" that featured on Love is Hell Part 2 earned Adams another Grammy nomination, and the surprise success of the album made Lost Highway rethink their decision by ultimately releasing the two Love is Hell EPs as one album in May of 2004.
When Adams released three albums in 2005 — the Grateful Dead-inspired double-disc Cold Roses (Number 26, 2005) and Nashville-fueled Jacksonville City Nights (Number 33, 2005), both backed by his new band the Cardinals, and the somber solo piano album 29 — some suggested the singer-songwriter needed an editor. But Adams was still critically lauded for his expert songwriting, some even calling Cold Roses his Exile on Main Street. That year, Adams also befriended Grateful Dead bassist Phil Lesh, who performed with Adams on some of his Phil Lesh and Friends concert dates and also began including several songs from Cold Roses as part of his own repertoire.
Adams didn't officially release a new album in 2006 but posted eleven albums worth of material under various pseudonyms on his Website, including hip-hop songs under the name DJ Reggie. He also produced Willie Nelson's Songbird that year, and he and the Cardinals backed Nelson in concert.
In June 2007, with the Cardinals back by his side, Adams released his highest charting album to date, Easy Tiger (Number Seven, 2007), perhaps his most focused and accessible album to date. Sheryl Crow duetted with Adams on Easy Tiger's first single "Two." Four months later, Adams and the Cardinals released the Follow the Lights EP, featuring a trio of new tracks, some re-recorded versions of older tracks from his extensive catalog and a cover of Alice in Chains' "Down in a Hole."
Cardinology, another new album with the Cardinals, came in October 2008, and it seemed like the return of the overactive Adams had returned. However, with his Lost Highway record contract completed, Adams revealed plans to part way with the Cardinals in March 2009. Adams also promised to take a hiatus from recording, citing his desire to be an author — his book of poetry Infinity Blues came out in April 2009 — and that he was suffering from hearing loss. Other than a handful of odd black metal demos that popped up on his official website after his final concerts with the Cardinals, Adams has largely stuck with oath to take a break from his music career.
Over the course of his career, Adams also developed a reputation for being just as prolific with starlets as he was with music, at times being linked to stars like Winona Ryder, Alanis Morissette and Parker Posey. However, in March 2009, Adams married pop singer and actress Mandi Moore in a ceremony in Savannah, Georgia. While plagued by substance abuse problems early in his career, in 2006 Adams revealed he had kicked drugs and alcohol.
Daniel Kreps contributed to this story.