Everything Ryan Adams Writes Turns to 'Gold'

The former frontman for Whiskeytown just can't stop writing great songs, as evidenced by his new album, 'Gold'

Ryan Adams
J. Shearer/WireImage J. Shearer/WireImage
Ryan Adams
By |

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."

Fall Out Boy Teams With Ryan Adams: Inside Their Surprise Recording Sessions

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.

"How's it going?" the new bar's bartender asks.

Adams smiles. "I'd be better if I had some pot."

The bartender does a stealth reach into his pocket and slides a compact wooden box across the bar to Adams, who quickly pockets it and makes his way to the men's room. He passes a cop in the hall. Inside the bathroom, he packs and lights a cigarette-shaped one-hitter.

"I started writing as soon as I could type," Adams says. "My grandmother, Geemaw Dedmond, had this old typewriter. I started writing short stories when I was eight. I was really into Edgar Allan Poe. Then later, when I was a teenager, I got really hard into cult fiction: Hubert Selby Jr. Henry Miller. Jack Kerouac, big-time. Celine. In Jacksonville" – the small town in coastal North Carolina where Adams grew up – "there wasn't much to do. There was skateboarding. Vandalism. Then you go inner. At least I did."

The door of the bathroom swings open. Adams jumps. It's only Pemberton. Adams locks the door, hands him the pipe and takes a leak.

Adams' parents split up when he was nine, so he spent a lot of time at Geemaw Dedmond's. They would stay up late, watch reruns of Burns and Allen, play hearts, talk philosophy. He got into music through skateboarding, buying his first records based on whatever band T-shirts his favorite skaters were sporting. He remembers sending away for his first Black Flag album, My War, and listening to it with Geemaw Dedmond, who had the habit of clucking along to the beat of her favorite country songs. "By the third Black Flag song, she said, 'They sure like to hit those cymbals, don't they?' " Adams says. "I was like, 'Fuck! She's trying to cluck to Black Flag and she can't keep up! I am from North Carolina.'"

In high school, a teacher once kicked him out of class for wearing a T-shirt with a melting ice cube and the slogan CHRISTIANITY IS STUPID . . . . GIVE UP. He dropped out the first week of the tenth grade. Soon after, he moved into a little "punk-rock commune" – a friend's grandmother's old plantation house, just outside of town. He was reading, listening to records, skateboarding. "I got into art about as heavily as my friends were getting into chicks," Adams says. Eventually he formed his first band, Patty Duke Syndrome. They played some shows in the barn and did some recording in the old slave quarters, which they'd gutted and wall-carpeted. Then, in his late teens, he moved to Raleigh – the working-class neighbor to the vaunted Chapel Hill music scene, which had spawned indie-rock faves including Superchunk. The Patty Duke Syndrome broke up. He'd also just broken up with a girlfriend. ("Melanie," he says, sighing. "She had red hair for days.") He began writing new songs. "Somehow," he says, "I started listening to the kind of music I'd heard growing up: the Stanley Brothers, Hank Williams, Willie Nelson. And then I started playing my version of that kind of music."

He was eventually approached by Skillet Gilmore, a local drummer who was thinking of starting "an arty country band." "We all sort of sucked," says Adams of early Whiskeytown, "but we were trying." Adams' strength as a songwriter pushed him –reluctantly, he insists – to the front of the stage. They'd only been together six months when they were featured in the first issue of No Depression, the zine that became bible of everything alt-country. Soon after the article appeared, they were signed to the indie Outpost label, which was later bought by Geffen.

Whiskeytown toured non-stop, fighting onstage, drinking and self-medicating. "Every career move we made was bad," Adams admits now. He once told a commercial-radio DJ who had put a Whiskeytown song into rotation: "I can do what you do, put a CD in the player, press a button. Oooh, my finger's tired!" The station dropped the song, as did most other stations on the West Coast. Adams started having panic attacks. After one show, he woke up in the back of an ambulance, wearing an oxygen mask. On a tour opening for John Fogerty, the band started playing full-on punk sets. Adams wore a towel over his head and sang songs backward. He said from the stage, "Yeah, John Fogerty was born on the bayou . . . of Southern California." The Fogerty sound guy eventually started turning their sound off.

In 1999, Whiskeytown was dropped by Geffen in the wake of the record-label mergers. (The band's last studio album, the feverish, blissed-out Pneumonia, was finally released earlier this year on Lost Highway.) Adams moved to New York to be closer to his girlfriend, a record-label publicist. "I moved there to follow my heart," he says ruefully. He hung out at MoMA and at the Met, he took their cats to the vet and, tentatively, played his first solo shows. Then they broke up. Adams obsessed, listened to only one record (he won't say which one), lost twenty pounds. He fled to Jacksonville, then to Nashville, where he rented an empty house.

One friend lent him a pillow, another lent him a blanket. He had his own ashtray and AM radio, as well as a single lamp that he'd leave plugged in near the door so he could see when he came home. Eventually, with the help of some higher-profile friends – Emmylou Harris, Gillian Welch, David Rawlings and Steve Earle – he recorded Heartbreaker. It is one of the great breakup records of recent memory. On the rollicking opening track, "To Be Young (Is to Be Sad, Is to Be High)," he sounds like Don't Look Back-era Dylan playing in a road-house. "Come Pick Me Up" shows off his gift for wordplay, its chorus segueing from the title line into "Take me out, fuck me up, steal my records, screw all my friends . . . . "

His mom won't listen to the record because she says he sounds seconds away from falling apart. But musicians including Elton John contacted Adams to praise it. After touring solo, he returned to Nashville last December to begin work on the Pinkhearts record. He ended up postponing it to move to Los Angeles. There was another girl. Another breakup. More songs were inspired. They eventually became Gold. He says the original demos of the songs were "thirty times sadder than Heartbreaker."

"I tend to be an easy heart," Adams says, "and I snapped just like that. I mean, I love my friends that hard, so obviously I'm going to love someone I'm involved with that hard." His voice hitches slightly. "I just don't always pick the right people." He admits some of the songs are "a revenge . . . a really passive revenge." (Though later, in the studio, while playing "Nobody Girl," he grins and tells a friend, "I hopped her up pretty good on that one, huh?")

"I guess I try to respect and honor what happened in the first place enough to go like, 'OK, it's worthy of writing about,'" Adams continues. "I know when something becomes too self-indulgent. Although sometimes, a song is so self-indulgent it belongs out there." He pauses, then continues, "You know, I always thought if Barry Manilow was kind of a drunk, and got a little roughed-up, and came out all scraggly, and had to play a little slower, some of those songs, like" – Adams begins to sing in a narcotized, Tom Waits rasp – "'I write the songs that make the whole world sing.' . . . If it was self-effacing? Could be the best song in the world." Adams smiles. "Right now it sucks."

The next afternoon, in the studio, Adams is taking another shot at "Game Over," the previous day's failed track. Only now it's been entirely rewritten as a power-pop song with lyrics that recall Bowie at his spaciest. New title: "Interstellar Collider." "I had a space dream last night," Adams says, cracking up he's so excited. "It's so not macho. It's floating in space, above everything. I call a chick an interstellar collider! That's fucking heavy, man. That's Skynyrd heavy. It's cool. It's the dumbest shit ever, but it's cool."

Adams is sporting a Heartbreakers L.A.M.F. T-shirt with the sleeves cut off and a hat that reads, MY WIFE SAYS I NEVER LISTEN TO HER . . . . AT LEAST THAT'S WHAT I THINK SHE SAID. He clamps on his headset and takes a shot at the chorus.

"The pitch sounds a little funny," notes producer Dave Dominick from the control room.

"Oh, fuck pitch!" Adams squawks through the intercom. "I'm not playing baseball in here!"

"You're in a fucking bad mood today," Dominick says, grinning, but not sounding entirely pleased.

"And what are you smirkin' about, Brad? Fucking can it! I'm dangerous!" Adams redoes the vocal, then enters the control room.

"Was that sterile enough for you, Mr. Corporate Rock?" he asks Dominick. It's all teasing, but delivered with an edge. Adams sighs. "I don't know why I'm doing it. Just get that guy Rob Thomas in here. We look enough alike. It's a stupid fucking song anyway. It doesn't matter."

He begins adjusting the sound levels on the mixing board but becomes irritated by the overhead lights and asks if they can be dimmed. "Am I being a diva?" he asks. "I feel like I'm being treated for colon cancer."

All of Adams' rants are delivered with tongue firmly in cheek. He makes it clear that he's tweaking his own image as the It Boy, the Moody Artiste. But at the same time, however much he tries to downplay it, everyone in the room is an extra in the Ryan Adams Show. And however mock-rant his rants are, they have the same effect as a real rant: He gets his way.

"I didn't want to be a star," he insists. "I still don't. I'm happy right here. I hope it doesn't get offered to me, because I'll just say no. There's no glory in this for me. Usually, I just want the person I wrote the song for to hear it.

"I mean, I love rock & roll, I love playing it," he continues. "But I have a really freaky idea about, someday, calling up a friend in New York and going, 'Hey, I'll meet you at Alt-Coffee on Avenue A. And then we'll head off to some theater and see my play.' And I'm just a dude. Nobody knows me. Like Larry Brown or Eudora Welty" (two Mississippi writers). "They could walk into a store and nobody knew who they were. They could just go get a beer, listen to Coltrane. That's cool."

Adams stares off wistfully and grins. "Putting your left foot on a monitor speaker, in leather pants and a muscle shirt, singing, 'Can you take me higher' to 100,000 people? That's not cool. That's boring. You're obviously doing something wrong."

This story is from the November 8th, 2001 issue of Rolling Stone.

From The Archives Issue 881: November 8, 2001