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Whiskeytown gets major with "Strangers Almanac"

By Brian Steinberg, September 1997

Maybe Robbie Robertson said it best: "This is sure stirring up some ghosts for me."

How else to react to a listening of Whiskeytown's latest, "Strangers Almanac"? The first tune, "Inn Town" conjures up faded memories of The Jayhawks harmonizing on their breakthrough album, "Hollywood Town Hall"; of "After The Gold Rush"-era Neil Young; of anything by Uncle Tupelo. The album is positively haunted by Uncle Tupelo.

You don't want to get Whiskeytown lead singer/songwriter Ryan Adams worked up about that. First of all, the guy doesn't seem able to get worked up, and second, he's adamant that what Whiskeytown does is pure Whiskeytown - nothing else.

And this sentiment comes despite his record label's promotion of the band as a rare of combo of old, new and novel - a thick stew of Lefty Frizzell, Meat Puppets and Big Star.

Ryan is talking on the phone outside the Brewery club in Raleigh, N.C., the band's hometown. Their tour in support of "Strangers Almanac" starts in minutes, and some friend of the band is revving a motor in the club's parking lot, making it hard for him to describe the band's mission/reason for being to a reporter.

"We're just our own band. We just do what we do," he notes. He'll make the same kind of comment several more times in the course of the conversation.

But Whiskeytown is getting noticed. The songs yearn and cut and soar and stumble, and they just keep on coming.

Adams and company - guitarist-singer Phil Wandscher, violinist-singer Caitlin Cary, bassist Jeff Rice (he is on the disc, but has since left the band), and drummer Steve Terry - had 36 songs at the ready for "Strangers Almanac" before whittling the group down to a selection of 13.

And since 1994, the band - which has existed in a number of permutations, thanks to shifts in personnel - has put out several EP's and singles around its first album, "Faithless Street."

The hits can't come quickly enough for Adams: "I want to put out more stuff while I'm here, while I'm doing it, while I'm young. I think the more you put out, the more people will dig it. I don't ever stop writing, so I just think you never stop putting it out. The faster, the better."

Sounds like the mantra of some guy who used to be in a punk band, and - surprise! - Adams's first band was the Husker Du-influenced punk outfit Patty Duke Syndrome, which he played in from 1989 to 1994, starting at the age of 15.

Most of the Whiskeytown members cite The Replacements as their idols, which explains Ryan's idea of just churning out tunes, finished or no. After all, "Waitress in Disguise" and "Kiss Me On The Bus" are fun Mats songs, but you've gotta sift through the light stuff to get to the more durable numbers like "Alex Chilton" and "I'll Be You."What's surprising, however, like forefather Westerberg before them, is the quality of the group's output. If Adams is throwing his ditties out one after the other, maybe they've been percolating in his brain for awhile. Some of them stick to the wall. Songs like "Excuse Me While I Break My Own Heart Tonight" ("After all, it's mine," goes the refrain) certainly rise above the cookie-cutter country tunes cluttering up the airwaves these days.

Not every song is an absolute gem ("Avenues run one way/Streets, they run the same," goes the short tune, "Avenues," which sounds like a late-night afterthought that never got developed enough), no one can question the band's taste in arrangement.

Yeah, Adams' voice has that over-earnest, heart-on-my-sleeve quality to it, and some fans have begun to snark that he sounds like the Eagles's Glen Frey with a good song to sing. But if these songs aren't perfect, they carry a certain rough-hewn beauty that's tough to ignore.

But where do they come from? That's the big question. With so-called "alternative country" on the rise, it's easy to lump the Whiskeytown sound in with new albums by the Old 97's and Bottle Rockets, although the 97's guitars sound like they could gut a man and leave him dead.

Whiskeytown's stuff is more cerebral. It creeps up on you. And few alternative country bands are likely to admit to Fleetwood Mac as an inspiration, as Adams does during the phone conversation.

Adams remains somewhat terse on the subject, saying only "For me, I sort of hook into every different avenue with songwriting. A lot of times, I'll get influenced by something and something comes out of that, and sometimes I'll just be playing the guitar, and a song kind of comes through it. It's a lot of different things."

As for the new record's late-night feel of Gram Parsons conducting the Dead through "Space," the twenty-something bandleader doesn't offer much of an explanation. He admits his admiration for Merle Haggard, his reverence for Loretta Lynn, but he claims these influences have little bearing on the new work.

" I honestly like Merle Haggard, Willie Nelson, Hank Williams, but I've heard that stuff so much, I can't really listen (any more). It's such a staple," he says. "I don't really care for that type of record. I'm more particular, more into what I'm into today. It's not like (our songs are part of) an ongoing tradition."

"I'm really interested in all types of movements," he says. "We're not really al.-country. We're not a country band, and we're not an alternative band. I can't put a label on it, to tell you the truth. We're just Whiskeytown. That's the idea, and we want to listen to all types of music and just be the coolest."

That's a great defense for this new wave of bands with country leanings. Adams can protest and cite the Mats and the Stones all he likes, but when you write lyrics that are meant to be heard, and make fiddle and a crying slide/dobro part of your act, folks are going to ask you about Hank and Willie and Gram.

Most of these bands are loath to admit sounding like those ancient giants. Their livelihood depends on it. Everyone wants to sound like Hank Williams and Jimmie Rodgers, so honest and sad and forthright and true, but no one wants their audience to start digging up the real thing.

Because if you hear Hank and the rest, you might find little reason for artists like Wilco or Whiskeytown, Uncle Tupelo or Richard Buckner. The kids do a lot to bring the tradition into the modern age, which it desperately needs. But let's not pretend that any of them came up with it.

Besides, Adams says his next album is going to be a blues album ("Not like blues blues. Like new blues, but like classic blues," he says. You figure it out.

So put up with the ghosts, like Robbie Robertson says in his wonderful song, "Somewhere Down The Crazy River." Sure, you hear the older voices in Whiskeytown's songs, but that's the idea of this new genre.

Adams doesn't want to think about it too much - "I'm just doing it the way I'm doing it," he says - and he's right. Let Gram Parsons echo at the back of your mind. Listen to Neil Young warble at the edge of your imagination. And let Whiskeytown be Whiskeytown.