Published Sep 26, 2011There will probably come a time ― hopefully far in the future ― after Ryan Adams leaves this world, when music scholars will pore over the hundreds of songs he's written, looking for clues as to who he was. There certainly will be plenty of leads for them to follow, but today, 20 years after making an inauspicious recording debut, Adams is still using his work to try to figure out those answers himself. He is one of Americana's central figures, who admittedly dislikes country music. He has also been called an enfant terrible for alleged antics on stage and off, but remains committed to doing whatever is necessary to make as much of his wide-ranging creative output available to his audience. Ashes & Fire is Adams' first collection of new recordings in over two years, an incredibly long gap for him. During that time, he threatened to stop making music altogether, citing a rare inner ear disorder, and an overall frustration with the business. But more importantly, the hopeless romantic finally settled down, and the album's greatest strength lies in its maturity ― a word that the younger Adams would have considered an insult. Times have changed, though. "It isn't difficult for me to do what I do, and I don't think it's that different from writing a column," he says. "I'm sort of writing my life. At the same time, I wouldn't call my songs confessional. They're studies of my life and studies of things around me. From time to time I'll jot down some ideas for songs, and at this point it just is what it is."
1974 to 1990
David Ryan Adams is born November 5, 1974 in Jacksonville, on the southern coast of North Carolina, home to the U.S. Marine Corps' Base Camp Lejeune. His father, Robert, leaves the family when Ryan is nine years old, and his mother Susan, an English teacher, encourages him to read to help cope with the loss. Adams first connects to the work of Edgar Allen Poe, which fuels his already present interest in writing short stories. He soon draws inspiration from books by Jack Kerouac, Henry Miller and other American literary icons. In 1988, a skateboarding buddy, Shane Duhe, lends Adams some So-Cal punk records and he immediately falls in love with Black Flag. Adams' mother and stepfather buy him an electric guitar around this time, but his first experience with a band finds him playing drums for Blank Label, an offshoot of Pumphouse, the band Duhe had formed with Jere McIlwean, the source of Adams' new favourite music through his job at Jacksonville's indie record store. Adams drops out of school at the start of his tenth grade year and moves into the band house that McIlwean rents on the outskirts of Jacksonville where Blank Label put on regular free shows.
1991 to 1994
Blank Label record a three-song seven-inch in October 1991 and press 200 copies on their own Fishbeat label, but the band break up when Duhe enlists in the Marines. Adams begins playing guitar and writing songs in earnest, and forms his own band Kotten while simultaneously playing with McIlwean in the Hüsker Dü-inspired trio the Patty Duke Syndrome. Looking to make a clean break from his family, Adams asks Duhe to drive him to Raleigh, NC where he moves in with a band called Regraped. This connection leads Adams to befriend Raleigh scenester Tom Cushman, with whom he forms the art punk outfit Ass, and its more refined successor, Lazy Stars. (A CD version of an unreleased 11-song Lazy Stars cassette made by Cushman entitled Exile On Daisy Street will turn up on eBay in 2001.) Meanwhile, McIlwean moves to Raleigh and the Patty Duke Syndrome reform long enough to put out their only recording, a split seven-inch with Glamour Puss. All of this is on top of Adams' involvement in many other short-lived bands and one-off projects such as Knife, U.S. Tobacco Company, Space Madness, Spawn and the Skylarks. As well, Adams earns his high school equivalency degree. The Patty Duke Syndrome break up for good over McIlwean's anger at Adams' increased drinking. (Sadly, McIlwean will later die from a heroin overdose, and Adams will write "Theme For A Trucker" in tribute.) By now, Adams' musical tastes are veering toward punk/country hybrid bands like the Gun Club and Uncle Tupelo. Word gets around Raleigh in the fall of 1994 that Adams is looking to form a new band in that style, and he first hooks up with drummer Eric "Skillet" Gilmore, who offers his bar, Sadlack's, as a rehearsal space. The group, christened Whiskeytown, is filled out by guitarist Phil Wandscher, bassist Steve Grothman, and fiddler Caitlin Cary. Adams will explain to No Depression in 1997, "Down here, when somebody gets really fucked up, they put the word 'town' on the end of something. Like, 'Goddamn that guy's fuckin' coketown,' or 'God, I was so stoned, man, it was like fuckin' hallucinationtown.' So, sort of metaphorically speaking, Whiskeytown pretty much means loaded. I also liked the idea of a fictional place where everybody was drunk. Actually, not here, it isn't [fictional] at all, because just about everyone I know is drunk. Pretty much all the time."
1995 to 1996
Whiskeytown record their debut four-song EP, Angels, released on the tiny North Carolina label Mood Food Records. The tracks show how quickly Adams has immersed himself in country music, and his interplay with Caitlin Cary reveals they have been closely studying Gram Parsons' duets with Emmylou Harris. In July 1995, the band record the full-length Faithless Street, which earns glowing reviews. The songs continue to recast Adams as a small-town romantic ― even more so than predecessors like Uncle Tupelo's Jeff Tweedy and Jay Farrar ― and a major-label bidding war for the band heats up after their 1996 South By Southwest showcase. Despite this, Adams briefly indulges in a side project called Freight Whaler, who record a five-song EP that remains unreleased. That band's pedal steel guitarist, Nicholas Petti, contributes to Whiskeytown's next recordings, the five-track Baseball Park Sessions, produced by Chris Stamey, co-founder of pioneering North Carolina indie rockers, the dB's. However, these songs are shelved for several years after Petti, Steve Grothman, and Skillet Gilmore leave the band in quick succession. Gilmore tries to rejoin a few weeks later, but Adams slams the door on him. That wound eventually heals and Gilmore later serves as Whiskeytown's road manager. Caitlin Cary considers quitting as well, as Adams ponders signing to A&M Records as a solo artist. But strong interest from Geffen Records' subsidiary Outpost convinces the three original members to carry on as Whiskeytown with new bassist Jeff Rice and drummer Steven Terry.
In February, the band record their major label debut, Strangers Almanac, in Nashville with producer Jim Scott, who doesn't pull any punches in the studio. It takes about a month of solid work before the band start delivering takes he's happy with. The results are definitely far slicker than anything Whiskeytown have done to that point, but Adams' outpouring of emotion on nearly every track hits a nerve with audiences and critics alike. The album immediately becomes one of the seminal alt-country releases. "Being from eastern North Carolina, country music was just there in the background when I was growing up," Adams says. "But there was also a lot of metal too. Rednecks listened to country and CCR, but the kids listened to Iron Maiden, which is what I did until I got into that mythical southern gothic sound on the early R.E.M. records. There was a time when I really liked country music, but I don't listen to it anymore. To this day, the more aggressive the music, the better it is for me. But what I create has to do with who I am culturally, which is why I've always felt comfortable writing in the country and roots music idiom." Adams states bluntly in the Strangers Almanac press bio that the songs are about loss, and those in the know can trace many of the lyrics to the death of McIlwean, the break-up of Adams' three-year relationship, and his rift with Gilmore. Despite the critical acclaim, Whiskeytown remains in flux, and at the conclusion of the Strangers Almanac tour, Adams dismisses the entire band with the exception of Cary. The pair convene in December at Chris Stamey's Raleigh studio with Gilmore, Ben Folds, ex-fIREHOSE guitarist Ed Crawford, and Whiskeytown's touring keyboardist Mike Daly to record 11 new songs under the title Forever Valentine. The project is kept under wraps though, since it is done outside of the terms of Whiskeytown's Outpost contract. Meanwhile, Mood Food cashes in on the band's notoriety by issuing Rural Free Delivery, a compilation consisting of Angels and other early tracks, against Adams' wishes.
1998 to 1999
Adams moves to Manhattan and plots Whiskeytown's next move, as Outpost releases a remixed version of Faithless Street that also includes the Baseball Park Sessions and several more bonus tracks. He and Daly start laying down tracks for an album Adams intends to call Fucker, bringing in ex-Replacements bassist Tommy Stinson and Smashing Pumpkins guitarist James Iha to collaborate. Plans change drastically by early 1999 after Adams is introduced to producer Ethan Johns, son of legendary British producer Glyn Johns, who arranges sessions at an abandoned church in Woodstock, NY. They envision a double album variously entitled Go Bye Bye Music, Doing That (a response to Wilco's Being There), and ultimately Pneumonia, that will have more sonic diversity to complement the selection of what Ethan Johns later estimates are over 80 songs Adams has written on his own and with Daly and Cary. The first track heard from the sessions is a cover of Gram Parsons' "A Song For You," which is included on the Emmylou Harris-curated tribute album Return Of The Grievous Angel. Outpost co-founder ― and R.E.M. producer ― Scott Litt insists on mixing Pneumonia, much to Adams' chagrin, although everything comes to a grinding halt when the label's parent company, Geffen, is absorbed into Interscope Records after the Universal/Polygram merger, effectively putting Outpost out of business and putting an end to Whiskeytown. Adams gets out some of his frustrations through working with D Generation front-man Jesse Malin on a project called Snow Kobra that remains unreleased. Adams will tell Exclaim! in 2000, "I didn't like being in Whiskeytown. I didn't like struggling to make a band work that just wasn't meant to work. It was just supposed to be fun; things went wrong when we got serious."
Adams moves from New York to Nashville. His first significant sessions there are an album's worth of material laid down with Gillian Welch and David Rawlings entitled Destroyer. Intended to be his first solo release, it is shelved when Interscope claims the rights. Adams eventually strikes a solo deal with Chicago alt-country indie label Bloodshot, and records Heartbreaker over the course of two weeks that summer with Ethan Johns producing. The diverse and often spontaneous tracks at times recall Bob Dylan's mid-'60s work, and the album in many ways marks Adams' official acceptance into the upper echelon of American singer/songwriters. Emmylou Harris's guest vocals on "Oh My Sweet Carolina" add more credence to this claim. Adams continues to record at a furious pace for the rest of the year, cutting another big chunk of songs in Nashville, later bootlegged under the titles Suicide Handbook and Pink Heart. Adams recalls of that period now: "I was living in this abandoned house, and just really sad. I had just split up with someone and had to leave New York. All I could really do was try to get through it."
Adams signs with Universal alt-country subsidiary Lost Highway and records Gold with Ethan Johns in L.A. While the seeds of many of the 20 songs had been planted during the previous year's Nashville sessions, others specifically reference L.A. and Gold overall bears sonic similarities to albums of the 1970s California singer/songwriter era. In fact, upon completing Gold, Adams records a further dozen low-key songs in a two-day session that are bootlegged under the title 48 Hours. As part of Adams' new record deal, Lost Highway agrees to release Whiskeytown's Pneumonia, which is whittled down to 14 tracks and remixed by Johns for its May 22 release. Adams tells Exclaim! prior to that, "If [Pneumonia] had come out when it should have, I think people would have been less shocked by the supposed changes on [Heartbreaker]. There was a lot more thoughtful stuff on Pneumonia and a lot more new influences. I feel like Heartbreaker is a great companion piece to some of the dark and beautiful shit I went through after Whiskeytown was over. I think the next album will be less about love and more about life." With Gold's release set for Tuesday, Sept. 11, Adams shoots a video for the first single "New York, New York" four days before in the shadow of the World Trade Center. The song and video both unintentionally become small beacons of hope in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks, and Adams performs it on Saturday Night Live shortly after the show resumes production. It will go on to earn him a Grammy nomination for Best Male Rock Vocal the following spring and help push worldwide sales of Gold to close to 1 million copies. On Oct. 8, Adams plays Lee's Palace in Toronto and welcomes Elton John as a surprise guest. The pair (along with Ron Sexsmith) performs John's classic "Rocket Man." It's the second time in a week that Sir Elton crashes one of Adams' gigs, and John freely admits later that Adams' recent output was one of his main inspirations to get back to his rustic roots and work with his longtime lyricist Bernie Taupin again. A few weeks later, Adams takes a break from his European tour to record 11 more new songs in Stockholm, among them "For Beth," dedicated to current flame, British singer/songwriter Beth Orton, on whose album Daybreaker he makes notable contributions. Earlier that year, tabloids were reporting Adams was dating Alanis Morrissette and actress Winona Ryder, but he later states adamantly that both are just friends.
Back in New York and recovering from an abscessed tooth, Adams keeps himself occupied by recording his own interpretation of the Strokes' Is This It. The British music press has a field day with the story, prompting Adams to say that it's an inside joke between he and the band and the tapes will never be released. He teams with Jesse Malin again in the hardcore project, the Finger, releasing two limited edition EPs. Adams uses the pseudonym "Warren Peace" while Malin is "Irving Plaza." The Finger's complete recordings are released the following year by One Little Indian Records under the title We Are Fuck You. Malin's debut solo album, The Fine Art Of Self Destruction ― Adams' first outside production credit ― is released in October. Adams also appears on Caitlin Cary's Chris Stamey-produced solo debut, While You Weren't Looking, duetting with her on their co-write "The Battle." Meanwhile, Lost Highway indicates that it's interested in putting out a multi-disc set of Adams' unreleased recordings, but the result is merely the lacklustre single-disc compilation, Demolition, that Adams doesn't hesitate to criticize in the press. Adams also makes headlines for having an audience member at a solo acoustic show Nashville's Ryman Auditorium reportedly ejected for yelling a request for Bryan Adams' "Summer Of '69." Ryan later elaborates on the incident by posting on his website that he left the stage to personally hand the heckler money back for his ticket and asked him to leave, a move he says the rest of the audience unanimously approved. Adams couldn't help taking a few shots at the Canadian rocker though, writing in the same post, "I seriously could give six shits about Bryan Adams or that song. In my opinion he is not a serious artist. His songs have 'implied target market audience' written all over them and in fact he is quite embarrassing in general. Also a piss poor photographer."
In February, Adams completes sessions with Smiths producer John Porter for a proposed album called Love Is Hell. It's his bleakest work to date, characterized by a gut-wrenching cover of Oasis's "Wonderwall." Lost Highway deems it not commercially viable, but eventually agrees to break up the songs into two more easily palatable individual discs. Not missing a beat ― and possibly eager to get back at his label ― Adams enters the studio in the summer to make Rock N Roll, a raucous collection that seems to pay equal tribute to the old guard (the Rolling Stones) as well as the new (the Strokes). The style shift seems to also be attributed to his rejuvenated love life, as the actress Parker Posey is credited on the album as "ExeCUTEive Producer." However, the album receives lukewarm reviews and alienates some of Adams' die-hard alt-country fan base.
Surprisingly strong sales of the Love Is Hell EPs prompts Lost Highway to reissue them as a 16-track single album in May. Following the Rock N Roll tour, Adams returns to more sombre territory, recording a collection called 29 with Ethan Johns, which, for the ever age-conscious Adams, seems a final farewell to his youth. It will not be released until the following year, though, at which point Adams is into his thirties. Immediately following the 29 sessions, Adams talks to his old New York friend J.P. Bowersock about forming a new band. Adams and Bowersock had sometimes performed club dates as a duo called the Cardinals, and, using that name again, they quickly fill out the group with Adams' regular drummer Brad Pemberton, bassist Catherine Popper, and former Asleep At The Wheel steel guitarist Cindy Cashdollar. The Cardinals' sound and image appear to reflect Adams' growing infatuation with the Grateful Dead and finds him returning to rootsier territory, albeit from a much different perspective. The band records the 18-track Cold Roses, that, while under 80 minutes, is released in a two-CD package that replicates a 1970s double gatefold album.
Other commitments prevent Cashdollar from remaining with the Cardinals, and she is replaced by Jon Graboff. This line-up records Jacksonville City Nights, a more country-flavoured effort, released in September, only four months after the appearance of Cold Roses. Following JCN's completion, Bowersock declines to tour with the band, and is replaced by Neal Casal, an acclaimed singer/songwriter in his own right. Over the summer, Adams is approached by director Cameron Crowe to compose music for his film Elizabethtown, and Adams returns with his usual cache of new material. Crowe ultimately opts to use previously released tracks from a wide variety of artists (including Adams), and The Elizabethtown Sessions are added to the ever-expanding archive of unreleased material. Adams tells Exclaim! in 2007, "The idea that I'm prolific, it's a fail-safe thing [for journalists] to ask me about, whereas my opinion is that the work speaks for itself. In my mind I always think, 'I'm prolific compared to what? Is it the modern idea of what a consistent musical flow would be for a person?' I guess for me, music is so often not dangerous, or not bothersome, that I don't understand the negative connotation." Adams' growing Deadhead-like following doesn't go unnoticed by surviving members of the Grateful Dead, and bassist Phil Lesh invites Adams to play with his new band on several occasions, while adding three songs from Cold Roses to his repertoire.
Following his break-up with Parker Posey, Adams is said to be dating Lindsay Lohan. However, he soon forms a relationship with model/writer Jessica Joffe, whom he later credits with helping him deal with a drug addiction that included regularly snorting heroin mixed with cocaine. With country legend Willie Nelson now also signed to Lost Highway, it's suggested that he and Adams work together. Nelson consents to having Adams produce his next album, with the Cardinals serving as the core back-up band. The track list to Songbird suggests Adams has a large hand in picking the tunes, particularly the Dead's "Stella Blue" and Gram Parsons' "$1000 Wedding," yet the album is widely considered a failed experiment. Adams described the experience to Exclaim! at the time by saying, "I learned a lot of life lessons mostly. I mean, [Willie] works very quickly and it was very spare. We didn't see him a lot, because the sessions were over a couple of different months. It was just a different process. I think he's used to coming in with the track already done and just singing over it." The newly sober Adams approaches producer Jamie Candiloro for help with a new batch of songs. Adams and the Cardinals record them in a quick blast at New York's Electric Lady Studios, with the bulk of the rock songs not being heard until 2010 when Adams releases them on his PAX-AM label as the two-disc set, III/IV. On an entirely different note, Adams and Candiloro indulge themselves by writing and recording a sci-fi speed metal concept album, cheekily titled Orion. It remains largely a rumour until 2010 when it is suddenly released as a download and limited edition clear vinyl set, with artwork by Michel Langevin (aka Away) of Quebec metal gods Voivod.
2007 to 2008
Adams releases Easy Tiger, the first album under his own name since forming the Cardinals, even though most of the tracks were also part of the 2006 sessions that produced III/IV. It is easily his most accessible album since Gold, showcasing him as a mature artist able to draw from all of his strengths at will. Part of that has to do with the addition of Neal Casal to the mix, who lends an experienced hand, not only to the music, but in some ways to Adams' personal life as well. Adams tells Exclaim! at the time of Easy Tiger's release, "Whenever I'd be like, 'Ah, this song sucks,' Neal would say, 'Come on, let's just play it a couple times and by then you won't be thinking about it.' He's usually right. I typically like the songs that are more about riffage, or have a more general overview. So I'm so glad that they [came out] in that way. If I had done it myself with just acoustic guitar or piano, it would have been such a different record with such a different approach." Although Easy Tiger yields no hit singles, it is his biggest selling album since Gold, racking up a half-million copies in total sales. It's followed a few months later by the EP Follow The Lights, which features seven darker tracks, including a new take on Rock N Roll's "This Is It" and his version of Alice In Chains' "Down In A Hole." In October, Adams is heard on Trinity Revisited, an all-star recreation of Cowboy Junkies' classic 1987 album, The Trinity Session, recorded at the same Toronto church. He continues touring with the Cardinals into 2008, and they release Cardinology near the end of that year. The album is the last Adams needs to fulfil his contract with Lost Highway.
2009 to 2010
Adams announces at the start of 2009 that he will disband the Cardinals at the conclusion of their current tour, saying that he is suffering from a rare inner ear disorder called Meniere's disease that affects hearing and balance. He also cites disillusionment with the music industry, and the next product to bear his name is a book of free verse entitled Infinity Blues. Adams also appears to have found true love in the form of singer/actress Mandy Moore, whom he marries March 10, 2009, ten days before the final Cardinals show in Atlanta. Yet, with his own record label now at his disposal, Adams begins uploading material on a regular basis, as well as communicating directly with fans online. The year ends on a sad note, though, when Cardinals bassist Chris Feinstein ― who had replaced Catherine Popper in 2006 ― is found dead in his New York apartment. While Adams grieves privately over Feinstein's passing, he does make a statement after attending the public memorial following metal legend Ronnie James Dio's death in May 2010, posting on Facebook that the event inspired him to write 11 new acoustic songs. Adams does not play live again until Oct. 29, 2010 when he performs three songs at a benefit hosted by Judd Apatow, backed by Candiloro and two other musicians. Moore joins him to sing "Oh My Sweet Carolina."
Ashes & Fire, Adams' first full collaboration with Glyn Johns, is released. With only limited outside contributions from guests Norah Jones and Tom Petty keyboardist Benmont Tench, the album is elegantly sparse and bears an unmistakable sonic resemblance to vintage Glyn Johns records from the early 1970s. The songs overall do contain an elegiac quality, and Adams makes a tentative return to the road, embarking on a solo tour of intimate venues in Europe and the U.S. "All the way back to Gold, Ethan had thought it would be a good idea for me to work with his father," Adams says. "I originally did want to work with Ethan again on this one, but he was busy with Laura Marling and the Kaiser Chiefs, so I asked him if now would be a good time for me to ring Glyn, and happily, he was excited to do it too. He had total input throughout every step of the process." Adams adds that fans should not think that the album's acoustic feel is a result of any hearing damage caused by Meniere's disease. "I still like to listen to extremely loud music, but I don't like to play it anymore. I actually didn't dig the volume aesthetic toward the end of the Cardinals; once the other guys started using in-ear monitors, they all tried to be louder than each other on stage, which forced me to get louder. I prefer to keep things chill when I'm writing anyway, and these songs really needed to be treated in that manner."
The Essential Ryan Adams
Whiskeytown Strangers Almanac (Outpost, 1997)
Picking up where the Replacements and Uncle Tupelo left off, Adams unabashedly pinned his heart to his sleeve and brought the concept of high and lonesome to a new generation.
Ryan Adams Heartbreaker (Bloodshot, 2000)
The hurt was even more palpable on this debut solo effort, but having the freedom to leave some rough spots around the musical edges made it all seem like fun somehow.
Ryan Adams Easy Tiger (Lost Highway, 2007)
Those who feared that Adams had lost the power to edit himself had to eat their words on this bright and concise collection that still managed to effortlessly ran the gamut from rock to bluegrass.