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 falling apart.
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 or what!"
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 of Cary).
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.
WHISKEYTOWN SELECTED DISCOGRAPHY
Angels 7" EP (Mood Food, 1995)
Faithless Street (Mood Food, 1995) Reissued as expanded edition by Outpost, 1998.
Theme For A Trucker 2x7" 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)