Nashville's Music Row has, indisputably, seen better days. The Hank Williams Jr. Museum is permanently shuttered, and the main drag of anonymous record labels looks like a particularly sterile suburban office park. Deep inside a brown brick building soul-free enough to be an awning factory, there's a cavernous recording studio where Elvis and Chet Atkins once laid down sessions for RCA. The first thing you hear upon entering the studio this summer afternoon is the voice of Ryan Adams, who has yet to be called the voice of his generation, but who has been called the Kurt Cobain of alt-country, the new (well, newest) Dylan, hyperprolific, too prolific, a drunk, a mess, a shambles, a control freak, a genius.
"Gimme an answer," the voice sings, raspy and pleading. "Gimme an answer. Gimme an answer."
The question is not immediately clear. But soon, Adams, 26, has abandoned the studio's vocal booth – which looks sort of like a five-sided hunting blind – and burst into the control room. The moment he enters, he lights a cigarette. He has a short, messy haircut that's styled to look as if he just rolled out of bed. He's wearing jeans, new black Chucks and a plaid long-sleeve shirt, with the sleeves rolled tight to his elbows. There's a tear under his right arm.
"Oh, my God," he says, grinning. "This is gonna be so fucking cool."
Adams is referring to the new track, which is just about finished. He's been in Nashville for two weeks now, working on the debut album by the Pinkhearts, his big, stupid rock band.(That's Adams' description.) Before that, he was in Los Angeles, recording Gold, his second solo album, which has just been released. It's a rapturous collection of songs about love, songs about places and more songs about love that strives to recapture a moment when full-bore, unironic, heart-on-your-sleeve rock records actually mattered. It begins with a punchy, plaintive song about New York, ends with a swooning, hopelessly romantic song about Los Angeles and covers all the bases in between, from blues to balladry to country, from classic-soul choruses to Iggy Pop tributes. "Nobody Girl," one of the most bitter breakup songs this side of Limp Bizkit's "Nookie," is followed by a song called "Sylvia Plath." It's a record that manages to sound both timeless and effortless, and it should finally vault Adams – who has been a critics' darling for years, first as singer and guitarist of the North Carolina alt-country band Whiskeytown, then even more so after the release last year of his solo debut, Heartbreaker – into the national consciousness. There is already talk of a Gap ad.
At the moment, though, there are more songs to write. Did we mention he's prolific? In between recording Gold in the spring and the Pinkhearts sessions, Adams had some time on his hands, so he started working on a play. Then he freaked out because he had some more time on his hands, so he spent two days and $1,200 of his own money to record another album, 48 Hours, which he hopes his label will release sometime after the Pinkhearts project in early 2002. This morning, Adams had some more time on his hands, so he and Billy Mercer, the bassist for the Pinkhearts (and Lucinda Williams' boyfriend), went to Opryland. They bought beer helmets (Adams got a red one, Mercer a blue one), went to the Alabama Bar & Grill (a theme bar dedicated to the band, not the state) and did a couple of shots, then ducked into a record-your-own-CD booth and cut a two-track CD for twenty bucks. Adams did that Creed "hunger" song, changing the lyrics to include lines about deli trays and the McDonald's drive-through.
Now he's writing the lyrics to a new Pinkhearts song, in longhand, on a yellow notepad. Adams was out the other night with Brad Pemberton, the Pinkhearts' drummer, and the two of them saw Pemberton's ex with another guy, so they went out and got drunk. "Not that we need an excuse," Adams says. So he's writing a song loosely inspired by the evening. Not that he needs an excuse. "It's going to be about losing a chick's number when you're on the street," Adams says. "Very deep. Fucking deep, man." He chuckles, sighs and begins jotting in his notepad again. "I'm so tired of deep," he says, chuckling again, but not looking up from his notes. "I'm drowning in myself."
Frank Callari, Adams' manager, a bald, hulking New Yorker, stops by the studio with two potential covers for Gold: in one, Adams is standing, Boss-style, in front of an upside-down American flag; in the other, he's slouching next to an old record player. "Do I have a gut?" Adams asks. "No," Callari says.
"Look at me, I'm a dreamy bitch," Adams adds, sarcastically. Then he hurls the photos to the floor. "I can't look at myself anymore!"
"Calm down," Callari says. "Success is good."
"Why did I call it Gold?" Adams asks. "I can hear it already: 'Adams goes for Gold, ends up with pennies.'"
The day's sessions end at midnight, with two songs in the can and a third ("Game Over") struggled with, but ultimately set aside. The recording always, mandatorily, ends at midnight, because the bars in Nashville close at two and there is drinking to be done. The talk of the amount of drinking to be done is vaguely threatening. One of the Pinkhearts tracks is called "Fuck It, I Broke Your Cat." There is talk of sending Rolling Stone a new version of the song called "Fuck It, I Broke Your Journalist."
At the first bar of the evening, a grungy music venue called 12th and Porter, Adams sits several stools away from the rest of us. He borrows a pen from the bartender and hunches over in a Bukowski pose, scribbling on a napkin. When Adams sits, he is all angles: back bent, legs origamied, elbows set to jab. He has light blue eyes and a slightly puffy face. His speech is quick and earnest and tends to the monologue, with the faintest trace of a Southern accent. His constant creativity spills over into the way he talks. He's always spouting off jokes, one-liners, riffing on something, excitedly detailing his latest song idea or the one he's going to write after that.
"Did you just write a hit song?" the bartender asks before we leave.
"Two," Adams says. "Not hits, though."
"Remember the guy who gave you the pen and the napkin," the bartender says.
The next bar is swankier and upstairs, a one-time music-industry hangout that has been left behind and subsequently taken over by Adams' crowd. Adams sits at the bar and orders a round of French whores. He gets the bartender to pop in a demo CD of the Pinkhearts tracks. The songs are of the loud-fast-rules variety, with titles to match: "Tennessee Sucks"; "Song for Keith," dedicated to Keith Richards; "Blowin' the Coug." "Which Coug?" someone asks. "The Coug," Adams says.
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