It’s Ryan Adams’ day off and the last thing he wants to talk about is his “similarity” to the singer-songwriter, formerly of Uncle Tupelo and currently with Wilco. Or his “similarity” to Bob Dylan. Or any of the other “sounds too close” comparisons critics have surmised about his twang-tinged folk rock with Whiskeytown and now his first solo outing, Heartbreaker.
“Is it because I have knowledge of great country-rock records that I get compared to them?” Ryan ponders. “I don’t know. It doesn’t bother me because I know that the record will speak for itself.” He sniffs the beginnings of a cold and his voice gets soft over the receiver. Perhaps he’s pushing the hair out of eyes. Perhaps he couldn’t sleep last night and just wants to curl up in his own bed and make the thoughts go away. He shouldn’t have to analyze his own record. He made it.
And it is a great album. You can almost hear a collective sigh of relief among the handful of music fans who still care about quality while it spins. It’s like an engaging film that draws you in so intensely that your limbs fall asleep and when the credits roll, you’re thrown back to reality and you can’t move. And the reason it perks up your ears is because it does beg comparison to such songwriting heroes. A cathartic introspection, it’s an album to listen to just before bed at the end of a long day. You’ll cry yourself a late-spring rain, but you’ll wake up to dewy sunshine. And then the leaves will fall and crunch and burn, and the snowflakes will tumble. You’re not necessarily happy, but with a half-smile, you’re confident the pain will eventually subside and renew itself once again.
Heartbreaker doesn’t sound like a Whiskeytown album, which lends to the comparison whirlwind, leaving critics with hands in the air or pouring another cup of coffee dumbfounded, unable to nail down what the guy’s doing. Wading from classic folksinger minimalism to raucous blues energy to grandiose, almost uncomfortably personal piano narratives, Adams makes it into an atmospherically solid and securely threaded collection of cozy and pillow-drenching songs.
“What’s weird is that everybody seems to want to staple me down. ‘He went from punk rock to country and now he went from country to big rock and from big rock to folk.’ I didn’t go from anything to anything. I just write songs. They can be whatever they want. I find it unimportant to have to have one type of style that you do and have that be the only thing. I think that it’s other people that want that to be there because it’s safe. I play Ryan Adams music.”
All of these differences are inherent, however, with the move from a six-person, big-sound band to just his one voice and two hands on this latest tour. There also have been changes outside of the music. Ending romantic relationships (and the band itself), moving from New York to Nashville and leaving Antoine, his black cat, behind because Adams didn’t want to separate him from his ex-girlfriend’s cat. “They were best friends,” he says, trailing off.
Adams isn’t stopping, though. He’s starting another album in December. There’s still a finished Whiskeytown album waiting for release after the band’s label fell victim to the Interscope-Geffen merger. (He says once it’s released, there won’t be a Whiskeytown tour: “That whole thing is just sort of over.”) And in the meantime, he’s working with a rock band in Nashville.
“There’s some stuff we’ve started putting together,” he says. “We’re all pretty happy, so we’ll probably record something next year. I’ll have myself a little rock band.”
Just perfect. Just in time for the music world to get over the fact that “country” isn’t necessarily a bad word and doesn’t always mean glittery Nashville and gag-me Garth Brooks, Ryan Adams moves to the country capital and starts a rock band.
Hopefully, the native North Carolinian won’t ever fully lose his accent. He’s not just a troubadour jumping on the country-rock bandwagon. Any music style that becomes a movement is asking for people to eventually get “over it.” Thus, the “alt-country” No Depression-toting followers are terrified of each other. The sound fears grunging out so much that it avoids the title itself at all costs. And that’s what’s most desirable. It’s about the music. Not all the bands lumped in sound the same and it hasn’t been completely exploited yet. There’s no Seattle. And nobody’s going to urban cowboy bars and riding the mechanical bull to Wilco on the jukebox.
While mainstream punk turns to silly pop songs and unintelligible rap-rock, many in that set are drawn to country. Similarities exist in songwriting. It’s just softer, slower, acoustic, maybe up a note. It’s actually easier to link bands associated with Whiskeytown to the Replacements rather than to any of the Hank Williamses. Adams says he isn’t punk possibly because he hates labels, possibly because he hates the critics who create them. But Sonic Youth, Dead Kennedys and the Smiths share his record collection space along with metal and classic country-western singers. He does admit that “maybe my lifestyle” could be considered punk. Eventually, the lifestyle wears you down a bit. Maybe his music is a Southern shade of emo. Now that’ll really piss him off.
“I miss Kentucky and I miss my family. All the sweetest winds, they blow across the South,” Adams laments in “Oh My Sweet Carolina.”
You know he’s for real. Especially when hearing one of his recurring nightmares: “There’s one where I have to go to this hotel on the 189th floor or something. Lots of windows. And by the time I get to the top, I’m so scared. I’m crawling around on the floor and I feel like I’m going to get sick.”
Sometimes the air just gets too thin up there. And crawling back home is the only viable option.
Ryan tells me it’s been nice talking to me, but he should probably go because he has another interview scheduled in two minutes. Hopefully, it’s the last one and he has a chance to rest. And maybe when he wakes up and packs his books and clothes for the next leg of the tour, the sun will be shining. Melissa Giannini writes about music for Metro Times. E-mail her at [email protected]