Eleven years ago they
painted their masterpiece, then promptly imploded.
BY FRED MILLS
It starts out innocently enough, courtesy a waltz-time slice
of unassuming country-folk called “Inn
Town.” Things pick up a
bit on the next track, “Excuse Me While I Break My Own Heart Tonight,” a loping
honky-tonker wherein the singer opines (in subtle echoes of his spiritual
godfather Gram Parsons), “This situation just don’t seem so goddamn smart/ This situation is tearing me apart.” Then comes
the album’s first genuine kick in the teeth: the churning powerpop of
“Yesterday’s News,” a buoyant, Westerbergian chronicle of falling down and
The album is Whiskeytown’s Strangers Almanac, an Americana
touchstone and an American classic in
its own right. Just ask anyone who heard it when it first appeared in the
summer of ’97. Or ask one of its architects.
“It’s a special record,” says Whiskeytown guitarist Phil
Wandscher, who for three years stood shoulder-to-shoulder (and sometimes fist-to-jaw)
with singer Ryan Adams in carving out an iconic spot for the band. “Shit just
fell into place, where songs weren’t even work. They just happened.”
By 1997 Whiskeytown’s star was in full ascent. Adams and
Wandscher had only met three years earlier, in Raleigh, N.C.,
but once the original five-piece came together things kicked swiftly into high
gear. 1995 saw the release of both an EP and a full-length, while a triumphant SXSW
showcase in the spring of ’96 sparked a major label bidding war. Adams’
songwriting genius and the volatile Adams-Wandscher chemistry helped make
Whiskeytown one of the purest, most instinctive rock ‘n’ roll groups since the
Replacements a decade and a half earlier.
That ascent was not without incident, however. When several members
quit after a trip to New York, Adams freaked out and disappeared, leaving Wandscher to
track him down and convince him to restart the group. That they did, just in
time to ink a deal with Outpost Recordings and head to Nashville to commence work on Strangers. But according to Wandscher, Adams went out of his way to butt heads with producer Jim
Scott, aggravating the musicians in the process.
“It was just not happening, and Ryan would be in there as
usual, fucking off, getting pissy if Jim didn’t like a vocal take, and the next
thing I know we’re spinning our wheels for a couple of hours because Ryan keeps
changing things. I don’t know if it was passive-aggressive or some form of ADD
Adams also pulled his disappearing stunt a second time,
bolting from the airplane he and Wandscher had just boarded and leaving the
guitarist to make a trip to L.A. (for mixing and overdub sessions) alone. After
he resurfaced the record company put him on a train, but by the time he arrived
in L.A. Wandscher and Scott had already gotten the bulk of the work done by
themselves. “All I knew was that I was in a deal where people had invested a
lot of fucking money in this thing I was doing and I wanted to do it right. [Ryan]
was lost in a sea
of Jack Daniels and mental
weirdness,” says Wandscher.
The Strangers sessions yielded gold, however. For one thing, with Wandscher and singer/fiddle
player Caitlin Cary co-writing half the album’s songs, Whiskeytown was closer
to a working democracy than anything control-freak Adams
would have in his subsequent solo career, and the inherent tension fueled the
collective muse. The addition of several key session players, notably John
Ginty on keyboards and Greg Leisz on pedal and lap steel (Alejandro Escovedo
sang on three tracks as well), smartly fleshed out the tunes’ arrangements. And
producer Scott, who’d previously worked on Tom Petty’s Wildflowers, somehow managed to reign in Adams’
worst tendencies and coaxed riveting, emotional performances from the vocalist.
On the recently issued 2-CD Strangers
Almanac (Deluxe Edition) the inclusion of a whopping 26 bonus tracks brings
into further relief the original record’s sonic muscle; a preproduction demo of
“Excuse Me,” for example, cut with Chris Stamey, simply doesn’t hold a candle
to the album version.
When Wandscher talks about individual songs, a note of pride
creeps into his voice. “I love ‘Inn
Town,’ just the feel of
that song. ‘Yesterday’s News’ – I loved it when we played those kinds of [high
energy] songs. ‘Everything I Do’ is one of the songs that’s gotten used the
most for licensing and stuff, and it’s funny because we were just fucking
around one day at practice and I came up with the guitar thing, he came up with
a couple of chords, and boom – ‘All right, that’s a song!'”
Wandscher also attributes the album’s brilliance to some of
the emotional changes Adams was going through.
“For [Ryan], finally here was this opportunity to have everything he’s dreamed
of, yet it was obviously like a crossroads. He was letting go of a lot of
things that were his past. That’s one reason I really think it’s a special
record, because he had a place he was coming from. He had a home, he had a
life, he had these things he’d worked hard for and had an attachment to. And I
think it shows – that it is personal, that it’s a place he was coming from,
rather than just floating around and living in a hotel and not really having
any attachment to anything.”
It all ended badly, of course. Powered by booze and ego, Whiskeytown
had always been a combustible proposition in concert, and on the Strangers tour things steadily
deteriorated. Explains Wandscher, “I’d made this vow that I will stand behind
this guy, I will stick with it as long as I enjoy playing the music. Then it
just got to the point where it was like… he would play my guitar parts during
shows so I didn’t know what to play! It just got weird, man.” Whiskeytown
imploded one memorable night in Kansas City when
Adams had an onstage meltdown, smashed his guitar and fired the band (with the exception
Adams would front several
more incarnations of Whiskeytown and record a third album, Pneumonia, although label politics conspired to delay its release
until 2001. By that point the group had already broken up for good and Adams was well into his solo career. Just the same, Whiskeytown
had managed to paint the proverbial masterpiece. That’s a feat few bands can
muster, much less lay claim to.
Angels 7″ EP (Mood Food,
Street (Mood Food, 1995) Reissued as expanded
edition by Outpost, 1998.
Theme For A Trucker 2×7″ EP (Bloodshot, 1997)
Rural Free Delivery (Mood Food, 1997) Early demos.
Strangers Almanac (Outpost, 1997) Reissued as 2CD “Deluxe
Edition” by Geffen, 2008. Bonus tracks: 5 songs live 1997 KCRW-FM; 17 songs from
the Baseball Park Sessions and Barn’s On Fire sessions, produced by
Chris Stamey; “Wither, I’m A Flower,” from Hope
Floats soundtrack; “Theme For A Trucker,” from The End of Violence soundtrack; plus acoustic demos “Avenues” and
“I Still Miss Someone.” New liner notes by Peter Blackstock.
In Your Wildest Dreams EP (Outpost, 1997) Promo-only.
Pneumonia (Lost Highway, 2001)