Born in Jacksonville exactly a year after Gram Parsons died, Ryan Adams has trodden a singular path from alt-country to mainstream.
Along the way he has hooked up with a range of musicians – and romantic interests Winona Ryder and Beth Orton.
With The Cardinals he has released Jacksonville City Nights – the follow-up to Cold Roses and the second of his three albums in 2005. But let’s rewind a little…
Faithless Street was a drunken riot, and Whiskeytown no more than a garage band. This was a supreme collection of boozy country shuffles and low-fi ballads that stands as one of the most inadvertently perfect debuts of recent times. Hell, it even had its own signature soundbite: the title track on the album contains the line “I started this damn country band/’cause punk rock was too hard too sing” – Adams’s very own “hope I die before I get old” or “its better to burn out than to fade away”.
Whiskeytown were capable of sublime music and explosive internal strife – generally instigated by the fact Adams had, and perhaps still has, a propensity to act like a spoilt child. He’s not called the enfant terrible of alt-country for nothing.
Fast-forward to September 2005, and Adams, a solo artist for some five years, releases Jacksonville City Nights. A work painted from the same palette as Whiskeytown’s great debut, the record contains more slow, dusty painful elegies with the trusty pedal steel to the fore. Tracks such as the hallow Games and the soaring Peaceful Valley see an artist truly returning to his roots. There’s even a re-recorded track left over from Faithless Street, for God’s sake.
So Ryan Adams has come full circle to be where he is today, and another album, 29, is due for release before the year is out. But his journey has been a bumpy one in those intervening years between Faithless Street and its natural sequel.
Born in Jacksonville, Florida in 1974, his childhood culminated in one day when as a teenager he remarked to anyone who cared that he was quitting school to become a ‘rock and roll personality’. This Morrissey-like proclamation was not entirely unreasonable. He had the looks, was fast becoming a useful guitarist, read a lot of beat literature and devoured records in an absurdly eclectic way – consuming everything from the likes of The Clash to Roy Orbison.
One idol of American music particularly engrossed a young Adams. Gram Parsons of The Byrds, The Flying Burrito Brothers and a frustratingly unfulfilled solo career created a sound in his tragically short life that deeply influenced the style and attitude of Faithless Street. Adams formed Whiskeytown with the gifted, angel-voiced Caitlin Cary and guitarist Phil Wandscher, along with a rhythm section that regularly altered its personnel.
Two more Whiskeytown albums ensued, the underwhelming Strangers Almanac and the breathtaking, more ethereal Pneumonia, release in 2001 after the band’s demise.
The split was down to constant feuding between Adams and Wandscher and Cary’s patience with the bickering finally reaching its limit. Whiskeytown are long dead, though occasional rumours of a reformation and their unique ramshackle style have ensured they have left a special legacy.
Adams’s solo debut, Heartbreaker, was released in 2000 and met with a critical reception that hailed Adams as an incendiary talent and the saviour of alt-country. Bob Harris called its centrepiece, Oh My Sweet Carolina, the finest example of the genre while Uncut, enthusiastic champions of Adams at the time, ranked the album alongside Bob Dylan‘s Blood On The Tracks as best break-up album of all time.
This is an inspiring record. On one hand Adams re-interprets his influences (Parsons, Neil Young, Jackson Browne, Johnny Cash) on tracks such as To Be Young, Winding Wheel and In My Time Of Need. On the other, he exhibits a beautiful grasp of melody with Amy and Don’t Ask For The Water. The album included collaborations with the likes of Gillian Welch and, so poignantly, soul mate and former singing partner of Gram Parsons, the great Emmylou Harris.
Where to next? The commercial mainstream. Gold was released in 2001, with a more polished sound and packed with radio-friendly tunes. The consistency of his songwriting remained – this album gave us the lovely Goodnight Hollywood Boulevard. New York, New York was released as a single in the wake of 9/11 and became an uneasy totem of patriotism for America’s mourning masses.
This must have confused the poor kid. In fact, around this time, it seems a lot of things might have clouded his brain. A lot of drugs no doubt played their part, but Adams also ploughed through relationships with Winona Ryder and Beth Orton, before taking up with actress Parker Posey – a relationship that survives to this day.
Aside from Demolition, a largely forgettable collection of outtakes, Adams’s next effort came in 2003. Rock N Roll was a bizarre collection of cranky, sub-standard punk efforts. Rock and indeed roll, but his heart clearly wasn’t in it.
It was no more than a piss-take, aimed at those record label executives who rejected what he initially gave them as his follow up to Gold – on the grounds it was too miserable.
This material was subsequently released as Love Is Hell, a sprawling project with some utter loveliness punctuated by occasional dross, and the woefully misguided cover of Oasis‘s Wonderwall. Only a few tracks from Love Is Hell may enter the elite squadron of Adams’s songs, they include I See Monsters, My Blue Manhattan and This House Is Not For Sale. Somewhere amid this two-year melee, he managed to record a hardcore punk album with pal Jesse Malin, under the banner of The Finger.
A little boy lost, it seemed, who had only time for ‘reading books and taking drugs’. Surely no one expected this year’s explosion of his genius. Cold Roses, released in May contained some of the most majestic work of his cluttered career. A double album is rarely a good idea unless the artist is very special indeed. Cold Roses illustrates Adams is just that.
Magnolia Mountain feels like the whole story of American in five minutes. Adams addresses the life-giving necessity that is love on Mockingbird and evokes wide prairies and big mid-western skies on Easy Plateau. Cold Roses is country-fused but takes its lead from introspective songwriters of the 1970s like Jackson Browne, Stephen Stills and Roy Orbison along with The Eagles.
And then back to square one, journey complete. Jacksonville City Nights revisits the spirit of Faithless Street, and the reunion is as emotional as the ageing Nebraskan farmer greeting his only son home safe from the civil war – bloodied but with a heart intact.
The question must be whether Adams is home to roost. Taking into account his restlessness, I cannot see him sticking with the twang forever, so it seems likely another odyssey is likely to begin. Given who we are dealing with, it’s going to be a long, hard road, but it’s a journey I will be tailing him on.