Ryan Adams - Biography
Those fortunate enough to have seen the North Carolina country-rock band Whiskeytown at one of their occasionally brilliant, more often disastrous live shows in the late ’90s would have been unlikely to guess that lead singer Ryan Adams was destined to become perhaps the most prolific songwriter and consistent touring musician of his generation. Surely he must have seemed a much more likely candidate for unheralded self-destruction: in his mid-twenties, at roughly the same age his hero Gram Parsons cashed in, Adams was serving up such legendary shows as a 1997 Michigan gig that featured a half-hour drunken rant about how much he hated the venue he was playing, and ended with the audience pelting the sound crew with tomatoes. (Where exactly they procured said tomatoes remains undetermined.) Yet Adams as a solo artist, has carved out an esteemed place for himself among lovers of jam-flavored rootsy rock. His reputation founded in large part on an astonishing songwriting output and a flair for long and wildly-ranging live performances, both of which have made his work as revered in bootleg form as it is on commercially-released record.
Born in Jacksonville, NC on November 5, 1974, Adams grew up in a household he would later claim was awash in country music. Adams showed no predilection for country music at first, cutting his teeth in a Husker Du clone called the Patty Duke Syndrome that found itself trying to get noticed in Raleigh in the very early ’90s. Whether because he yearned to do something a little less screamy — in an early Whiskeytown song, he would claim “I started this damn country band ’cause punk rock was too hard to sing” — or because he sensed that the grunge movement was leaving the punk scene oversaturated, Adams formed Whiskeytown in 1994 with violin player Caitlin Cary and guitarist Phil Wandscher. Whiskeytown’s ups and downs are material for a separate entry — for our purposes, suffice it to say that their records were beloved, their live shows inconsistent, and their lineup constantly subject to change. By 1999 Whiskeytown had become an Adams solo project in all but name: despite Cary’s welcome presence on many of its tunes, Pneumonia is hard to distinguish from later Adams solo records, which is nothing if not a compliment. Record company politics, however, were not kind to it, and Pneumonia wasn’t released until 2001, by which time Whiskeytown was officially no more.
Never one to let a little thing like the dissolution of his band get him down, Adams continued a period of prolific tunesmithing, entering a Nashville studio in 2000 with Pneumonia session player Ethan Johns at the boards. Additional picking and singing by Gillian Welch and David Rawlings certainly helped Adam's solo debut Heartbreaker (2000 Bloodshot Records) become a thing of beauty. But the surprise, especially for those who’d only seen Adams in his snottier onstage persona and who had missed hearing Pneumonia’s mellower material, was the way he had matured as a songwriter. Much as Gram Parsons had seemed to discover his voice on his solo records, Adams suddenly gave the impression of meaning the things he was singing in a way he never had before, and a duet with Parsons’s onetime harmonizer Emmylou Harris on “Oh My Sweet Carolina” only hammered the analogy home. Music writers went wild with the comparisons, readers of No Depression magazine swooned like little girls, and a solo star was born.
For much of the world, however, Adams was nobody until he showed up on TV screens strumming an acoustic guitar across a river from two iconic towers. Heartbreaker’s follow-up Gold (2001 Lost Highway) was an uncanny mix of pop, rock, country and blues. Its cover, depicting Adams standing against an inverted American flag in a kind of snarky nod to 1984 mega-seller Born in the U.S.A., suggests Adams was aiming for a Bruce Springsteen-esque commercial breakthrough. Gold seemed destined to be a hit, but it was the video for lead single “New York, New York,” filmed with a pre-September 11 New York City skyline in the background, that thrust Adams into the public eye. Though the song had nothing to do with the attacks, it became something of a sensation in that strange fall of 2001, eventually earning a Grammy nomination for Best Male Rock Vocal and propelling the album to Adams’s best sales figures ever. Partnered once again with Johns, Adams showed off his versatility as a songwriter and a performer, serving up perfect roots rock on “Answering Bell” and “Firecracker,” Neil Young-ish blues on “Nobody Girl,” and even soulful crooning on the stark “Goodnight Hollywood Blvd.” Even a minor track like the note-perfect country pop of “When the Stars Go Blue” eventually became a massive hit when, in 2006, it was covered by country star Tim McGraw. (One wonders whether Adams was amused or chagrined when, years later, it was identified as a McGraw track during a 2007 performance on American Idol.)
The praise heaped on Adams in the wake of Gold is a pleasing, and rather rare, example of artistic brilliance receiving its due, but it marks the end of the part of Adams’ story that is easy to tell. It’s simple enough to list the albums he released in its wake — 2002’s Demolition (Universal), 2003’s Rock and Roll (Lost Highway) and Love Is Hell (Lost Highway), 2005’s Cold Roses and Jacksonville City Nights, and in January of 2006, 29 (Lost Highway). The impressive volume of this output is nothing compared to the sheer amount of work Adams produced in that time. Demolition, for instance, was composed of tracks recorded for or between earlier releases, including several of the songs that had already surfaced on sprawling bootlegs of outtakes from the Heartbreaker sessions. Love Is Hell emerged from the anguished rock sound Adams claims was inspired by a 2002 tour opening for Alanis Morissette, and was almost lost in the vaults when Adams’s record company proved reluctant to release it. (Its stark cover of Oasis’s “Wonderwall,” however, proved a huge hit and earned Adams his second Grammy nomination) Rock and Roll, with its U2-ish single “So Alive,” was the more audience-friendly version of the sound that Adams came up with when asked to tone Love Is Hell down. And the three 2005/2006 records marked the beginning of Adams’s fruitful collaboration with The Cardinals — the double-disc Cold Roses is particularly fine, full of spectacular pedal-steel-inflected songs and immaculately sequenced, while the relatively slight Jacksonville City Nights, a throwaway that most artists would hold up as a masterpiece, seems almost a response to the classic criticism of Adams as a songwriting machine in need of an editor.
In the midst of all this, Adams popped up in the tabloids as arm-candy for several Hollywood starlets, a booze and drug-hound of epic proportions, and the victim of an occasional wrist-breaking tumble off a stage. He also popped up as a collaborator with The Grateful Dead’s Phil Lesh, the perpetrator of a weird punk project with Jesse Malin whose album was called We Are Fuck You, and the producer of Willie Nelson’s lovely 2006 LP Songbird (Lost Highway), a highlight of which was Adams’s own gorgeous “Blue Hotel.”
With 2007’s Easy Tiger (Lost Highway), ostensibly a solo record but shaped and highlighted by sensitive session work from The Cardinals, Adams announced that he’d put his wild years of substance abuse and inconsistency behind him. But ongoing glimpses into the weird recesses of Adams’s mind — he continues to post oddities like dashed-off hip-hop songs on his website — make it clear that we have no idea what to expect from this guy in the years to come. After all, the merest stroll through the bootleg sections of file-sharing sites reveals that Adams could fill a release schedule for years to come, and continue to amaze listeners with the breadth of his talent, with material he’s already written.