Funny story . . . several months ago, Ryan Adams was in Philadelphia with a couple of friends, meeting up with a few other stragglers for dinner and an Oasis/Foo Fighters/Beck radio festival show. When it came up in conversation that Adams happened to play in a band called Whiskeytown, one member of the group lit up with recognition. "I've heard of them! Isn't your lead singer like, a tyrannical dick or something?"
The kicker being, of course, that Adams, as Whiskeytown's frontman, happened to be the "tyrant" in question. "That was pretty fucked up," groans Adams looking back on the incident. Dave Grohl and Beck, both trying their hardest, would fail to serve up half as much delightful irony that night . . . Guess you had to be there.
Adams, however, is quite happy not being back there in that awkward moment, and twice as happy to be good and done with Whiskeytown, a band he swears he never wanted to be the leader of in the first place. "I kind of got thrown in the position of being the frontman of that band, and the original idea was for more of an Eagles-type thing where there would be shared songwriting and a shared spotlight," he says. "I never liked being the front person of that band -- it made me very uncomfortable -- but somebody had to do it or there would have been no band."
Now, as it happens, there is no band. Adams couldn't be happier, but a great many loyal Whiskeytown fans are no doubt bummed. Whiskeytown were never huge, mind you, but to the No Depression fanzine-buying alt-country community, it wasn't uncommon for the band to be compared to Nirvana->, with Adams pegged as the genre's own Kurt Cobain, if not the second coming of Gram Parsons. But considering he was barely twenty-one when the group recorded its definitive album, 1997's Stranger's Almanac, Adams can't help but flinch a little when he looks back on the band's records.
"They're definitely juvenile," he says, though he allows that "they'll probably mean a lot to me later. But it's hard for me to go back to them now, because I'm so busy trying to get someplace new -- I can't worry about whether or not I left the coffee maker on in my last record and I'm going to burn down the house or not. Fuck it."
At the moment, "someplace new" means Adams' first solo venture, the just released Heartbreaker, and new digs in Nashville. Not the Nashville of conveyor-belt country Music Row fame, but its hipper underground cousin, a tight community of musicians and songwriters whose members include mavericks like Lucinda Williams and Steve Earle. Adams, a North Carolina native who had previously tried his luck in Austin and New York, is quick to call it the best music town he's ever lived in. Among the locals he was able to round up for his album: Gillian Welch, Kim Richey and the inimitable Emmylou Harris.
Heartbreaker was recorded in Nashville, but the seeds were planted in New York, which Adams left following the painful breakup that lies behind virtually every song on the album. "Ethan [Johns, producer] and I were really concerned about making sure that I didn't just end up making a record that was just a collection of the best songs I had written six months before going into the studio," explains Adams. "We wanted it to be thematic. So we only used things that I knew I was vibing on hard, and most of them dealt with leaving New York and my relationship. We knew we were going to be back in the studio at the end of the year, so there was no reason to blow that chance of being really honest and really real."
The result may well be the most obsessively mournful collection of songs since Chris Isaak's ache-fest Forever Blue, but it's not, Adams points out, without its moments of levity.
"What most people perceive of me now because of the last two [Whiskeytown] albums is that I'm a miserable fuck . . . which I can be, a lot," he admits. "But I'm actually a pretty upbeat person outside of playing music. When I made Strangers Almanac, I feel like I was kind of a nanve person in the midst of lots of adult feelings, and I was in a space where I was feeling pretty crushed and a little lost. I think on this record I'm definitely talking about things that are miserable, but very real, that most people probably think about and consider, but the difference on this record is I think there's a little bit of humor in there -- you've just got to look for it."
Considerably closer to the surface of Heartbreaker are his influences, which he makes no apologies for. He admits a little surprise that people tend to peg Heartbreaker's raggle-taggle opener, "To Be Young (Is to Be Sad, Is to Be High)," as more of a Dylan thing than the intended Exile on Main St. homage, but he's not about to complain. At least it proves he's got more crayons in his box than Gram Parsons and the Replacements, and the more influences, the better.
"I totally don't feel like not being influenced just for the sake of like, beating my guitar with a hacksaw and playing the Knitting Factory [a New York City club that showcases experimental music] once every two weeks," he says. "That's not important to me. I feel like those people handed me a map of what's the best music you could ever possibly make, and I just refuse to tear up the map just to go get lost in the woods for who knows how long. I'm really interested in trying to get to that same place, and maybe go down a different street."
For the near future, that map leads him back into the studio this fall to record his second solo album, which he says will be more of a band affair. Around the same time he expects to see a final Whiskeytown album (surprise!) released on a yet-to-be-determined label. That album, titled Pneumonia, was finished just before the group broke up, and Adams can't help but admit he's damn proud of it.
"It's actually not a miserable record at all," he says proudly. "I'd say it's kind of mystical, if that word doesn't come off as trite . . . It's going to be like my little dumb art-rock freak-out band's Third/Sister Lovers. It's perfect. Two pretty crappy records, and one really fucking good one. Who knew?"