All Heart and Guitar
It’s well into the midnight hour as singer-songwriter Ryan Adams sits at the bar in a crowded music club, a cigarette in one hand and a pen in the other. A couple of fans wander over to say how much they enjoy his music, but he’s not using the pen to sign autographs. Unperturbed by the activity around him, Adams is writing a song.
On one side of the page of the yellow legal pad he has scribbled nine potential titles. On the other, he’s got the opening six or seven lines.
For Adams, his fans like to say, writing is as easy as breathing, and he’s breathing easy these days. He bought the legal pad in New York earlier in the day for the plane ride here, and he’s already written all or parts of five songs. That includes two during the two-hour flight, two more during a six-hour recording session with his band, the Pinkhearts, and now this one. It’s anybody’s guess how many more he’ll write in the 30-some hours before catching a plane to Australia, where he’ll do a few shows. This prolific output is legendary among Adams’ admirers. Besides the five albums he has made since 1995, either with his old band Whiskeytown or on his own, Adams has recorded enough material for four more albums, which he hopes to release via the Internet or sell at shows within the year.
The danger in this pace is getting caught up in the thrill of turning out songs and losing the distinction between good ones and bad ones.
In Adams’ case, I haven’t heard a bad song yet, and a half dozen of them are so hauntingly personal that they’ll stick with you forever. He can be as eloquent about his own pain--which has ranged from romantic heartache to fast-lane excess--as he is in helping you sort through yours. In one melancholy song from his 2000 album, “Heartbreaker,” he asks, “Why is it they always leave on the days that you need them most?”
Adams, who goes into this month’s Grammy Awards with three nominations, including best rock album, is a throwback to the ‘60s and ‘70s when writers such as Bob Dylan, Neil Young and Joni Mitchell gave us songs as illuminating and artful as the best novels and movies.
For anyone raised on those artists, Adams’ tuneful, sometimes edgy, sometimes achingly beautiful music is a reminder of that tradition. It helps explain why he has a legion of famous boosters, from Elton John and Bono to Bonnie Raitt and Emmylou Harris.
You get the feeling these artists and the admiring record executives aren’t just being fans but are also pulling for him. In this age of mostly anonymous pop, they’re hungry for music with the sensitivity and heart of the singer-songwriter tradition. Of the many bright young hopes who have emerged in recent years, including Rufus Wainwright and Ron Sexsmith, Adams has generated the most momentum.
Lost Highway Records President Luke Lewis, who went to high school with one of Adams’ influences, the late Gram Parsons, was an Adams fan before he signed him to a solo contract last year.
“I knew my generation would like this music,” says Lewis, 55. “But what really sold me was when my kids, who are 20 and 22 and are into rap, responded to it. I felt a generational connection. Ryan is a bit of a rebel ... a new breed. He was raised on punk, but he has a sense of the songwriting tradition. Plus, he’s got more energy than anyone I’ve ever seen. It’s like he is this shark and he knows if he ever stops he’ll drown.”
Most people probably haven’t heard Adams’ music unless they caught him recently on “Saturday Night Live, where he sang “New York, New York,” a new song from his latest album. Singer-songwriters have a hard time these days getting radio exposure in an era of gimmicky hits, and that exposure is still the key to record sales. Adams’ two solo albums have sold only about 250,000 together.
Yet you’d think Adams has been on the cover of Rolling Stone for years the way he sweeps into his manager’s office at Lost Highway Records here, with an intensity and flair that remind you of the young Dylan in “Don’t Look Back.”
Besides talent, Adams has charisma to burn. When he walks through the Nashville airport with his dark glasses and stylish black leather jacket, every head turns.
He even brings that electricity to the record company offices, where everyone is used to stars.
Since it opened last year, Lost Highway, part of media giant Vivendi’s Universal Music Group, has built a distinguished roster that includes Adams, Lucinda Williams and Willie Nelson. The label picked up 16 Grammy nominations last month, including five for the “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” soundtrack and five more for “Timeless,” a Hank Williams tribute album that features Adams, Dylan, Beck, Keith Richards and others singing songs by the greatest of all country songwriters.
Like many industry veterans, Adams’ burly manager, Frank Callari, who is also senior vice president of A&R; for the label, fills his office with all sorts of pop culture artifacts, from a “Sopranos” stand-up to vintage Richards photos.
Adams quickly spots the latest addition to Callari’s wall: a French poster advertising the singer’s latest album, “Gold.” The U.S. version of the poster shows Adams holding a wine bottle as he jumps in the air, but in this one the bottle has been airbrushed out.
“What’s with that poster?” Adams asks.
“They had to take out the wine bottle,” Callari explains. “And in France of all places.”
Adams smiles. He takes off the dark glasses, drops into a chair and asks Callari about some upcoming dates in Australia. But he doesn’t ever quite settle down. It’s as if there’s no “off” button. He always seems to be absorbing material for songs. Most of the music, he says, is autobiographical, but the seasoning often comes from watching people or hearing their stories.
This restlessness may be an outgrowth of a singer-songwriter’s lifestyle. Adams spends so much time touring--as much as nine months a year, mostly in the U.S. and Europe--that it’s fitting that his home base is an apartment in a New York building that once was a hotel.
Dylan once said that things were happening so fast around him in the ‘60s, when he was turning out two albums a year, that he didn’t want to go to sleep at night because he was afraid he would miss something. Adams is so hyperactive that he rarely gets more than three or four hours of sleep.
“Everybody wants to go forever/I just want to burn up hard and bright,” he declares in “Firecracker,” a song from the “Gold” album.
The encouraging thing about Adams is that he enjoys all the attention and success. He wants to sell more records and he complains sometimes about all the media chores, including interviews, but his life is good and he knows it. He’s not another tortured rock star.
“Joyful” and “joyous” are the words two people close to him use when asked separately to describe Adams. To make things even better these days, the man who is known for heartbreak songs--the “Heartbreaker” album focused on the painful breakup of a lengthy relationship--is even in love again.
Things weren’t always so easy.
Callari, a veteran manager who has worked with such varied artists as the British techno-pop outfit New Order, country group the Mavericks and shock rocker Marilyn Manson, was a fan of Adams’ music with Whiskeytown, so he was interested when he heard the singer was looking for a manager in 1999.
He was wary, however, having heard horror stories about Adams’ rebellious behavior, including kicking monitor speakers on stage, singing songs backward during shows, or sitting in a bar down the street when he was supposed to be performing.
“I think he was just overwhelmed by all the attention he started getting at 21 and was just doing what he thought a rock ‘n’ roll rebel was supposed to do,” Callari says, sitting at his desk. “He was also probably drinking too much and probably druggin’ too much.
“On one hand, he was just having fun. But it was counterproductive and it might ruin his career. So I told him I thought he was brilliant and that I would like to work with him, but only if he wanted to straighten out and get focused about his career. If he was ready to get serious, I said I was in. He took a few days to think about it. We got together a week later again and he said, ‘I’m ready.’”
The rehearsal studio, just a few blocks from Nashville’s famed Music Row, is bigger than most of the clubs Adams played for years with Whiskeytown, and it looks even larger when a photographer and I arrive because the only people in the room, besides the band onstage, are a sound engineer and an aide of the band.
It’s 5 p.m. and the musicians are warming up with an instrumental jam. Adams is wearing a black leather jacket over his long-sleeve shirt and flared jeans from the ‘70s--specifically from 1974, the year of his birth. He finds them at specialty shops in L.A. and New York. As part of his fascination with that year, he also has a 1974 guitar.
After a half-hour, Adams steps to the microphone and begins singing. I don’t recognize the first couple of songs, but I don’t want to ask anyone the titles because musicians tend to be more forthcoming in interviews if they think you are as obsessed with their music as they are. If you don’t instantly recognize a song--even an obscure one--you can shatter the bond you are trying to establish.
When none of the next three songs is familiar, either, I turn discreetly to the sound engineer, the person in the room I think is least likely to relay my confusion to Adams. “No idea,” he says with a shrug. “You know how Ryan is.... They must be new.”
It’s almost 6 p.m. before I recognize a song, and that’s only because Adams is leading a spirited rendition of “Ooh Las Vegas,” a Parsons tune. Adams is probably associated with Parsons, who died of a drug overdose in 1973 at age 26, more than any other of his many influences. That’s partly because Whiskeytown was identified in the ‘90s with the No Depression country-rock movement that included such young bands as Son Volt, the Old 97’s and Wilco.
Although different in many respects, the groups all mixed the sentimental strains of country music and the independence of rock in ways that were largely pioneered by Parsons.
Adams’ “Oh My Sweet Carolina,” from “Heartbreaker,” echoes the melancholy innocence of Parsons’ “Hickory Wind.” The fact that Adams and Parsons share the same birthday (Nov. 5) only adds to the comparisons.
Adams’ influences, however, also range from punk (he has tattoos of two great L.A. punk bands, Black Flag and X, on his left arm) to classic rock (Dylan and Young) to moody, confessional artists such as Steve Earle and the late Jeff Buckley.
After two mostly gentle solo albums, he’s planning to record a bluesy, Rolling Stones-type collection, somewhat along the lines of “Sticky Fingers” or “Exile on Main Street.” He hopes to have it in stores by this fall.
“I want to have two huge acoustic songs, like ‘Wild Horses’ or ‘You Can’t Always Get What You Want,’” Adams says with his typical enthusiasm. “Then I want to write a couple of really fun songs about these fictitious characters ... so that the songs are not about me all the time.”
Despite his frequent derivativeness, there is a strong, convincing sense of personal identity in Adams’ music. Whether it’s the suicidal despair of “To Be the One” or the wistful optimism of “La Cienega Just Smiled,” Adams writes about such basic themes as loneliness and yearning with the complexity of poetry and the bull’s-eye directness of pure pop music.
“When Stars Go Blue” is a portrait of despair with the gently unsettling feel of Roy Orbison’s tales of emotional cul-de-sacs, with imagery that is typically understated. Because of the “stars” reference, it’s easy to think Adams is simply employing the usual pop vocabulary, filled with “stars” and “moons” and “Junes.”
But you miss much of the power of Adams’ music if you don’t look for deeper meaning. “Think of the ‘star’ as someone hiding away in her Beverly Hills mansion and not saying an awful lot,” he says about the song (from “Gold”). “Listen to the song again with that in mind and see what you think.”
About 90 minutes into the rehearsal, Adams suddenly sets down the guitar, takes a pen from his pocket and picks up the yellow pad. Sitting on the stage, he’s in his writing mode. After a few minutes, he moves to a sofa across the room. The band members know this may take some time and they disperse around the room.
By 7 p.m., Adams is back onstage with the band, trying to put together an instrumental frame for his words. One line is so striking--something about being “strung out on Christmas lights/Out there in the Chelsea nights” that I jot it down in my notebook.
Adams may have the dynamics of a star, but not the grating attitude of some of them. He’s unassuming around the band, which he assembled from a group of his friends. Rather than go out to a trendy restaurant to be seen, he has food brought into the rehearsal studio for the dinner break and sits cross-legged in a corner as he digs into a chicken salad with a plastic fork.
Born in Jacksonville, N.C., Adams had what he describes as a comfortable childhood. His dad is a contractor, his mother a teacher. He loved skateboarding and punk rock as a youngster, dropped out of high school at 15 and later moved to Raleigh to start a band, Patty Duke Syndrome.
Leaving school wasn’t a case of bad grades. Adams simply felt he wasn’t getting anything out of his English classes. His mother had introduced him to Emily Dickinson when he was 9, and he has continued to read religiously. He especially likes Southern authors and playwrights, such as Eudora Welty and Tennessee Williams.
After discovering country music in his late teens, Adams put together Whiskeytown in 1994, and the group released its debut album, “Faithless Street,” a year later on Mood Food Records. The band was soon picked up by Outpost Records, which was affiliated with powerhouse Geffen Records. Sales were minimal, but critics toasted the band, so it was a heady time.
“I had a rough time being a rock personality at 21,” he says during the dinner break. “As you get older, I think your survival muscles get bigger. You are able to fend off more self-deprecating feelings and inadequacies that make you want to go out and get trashed.
“You see enough people letting their addictions get ahead of them or becoming disenchanted with their life because things aren’t going their way that you realize screwing up doesn’t seem to be an answer any longer.”
By 1999, Adams had moved to New York and was well into the relationship whose breakup is chronicled in “Heartbreaker.” In reviewing the album, England’s Q magazine called the collection “an emotional outpouring, by turns tender and raw.” Elton John was so moved by “Heartbreaker” (which he called the most beautiful album of the year) that he dedicated his latest album, “Songs From the West Coast,” to Adams.
When I spoke to Adams in Los Angeles in December, he still carried the emotional bruises of that New York relationship. He dated Winona Ryder after the breakup, but says that they both realized the timing was off--that it was a classic rebound relationship.
“I actually enjoy being by myself,” he said. “I’m sometimes bad around people because I just don’t have a lot to say. I’m inward. I love to people watch ... on a plane, in a restaurant.”
Things have changed a month later in Nashville.
He started seeing someone in New York, he says, and he’s clearly excited. Just the night before, he says, he was planning to go out to a club, but the two decided to stay in and watch a movie on television.
“Leona and I are even going to be playing music together on the road, which takes care of one problem of being a musician ...” he says, then suddenly stops himself.
“Maybe we shouldn’t mention her name,” he says.
Adams was distressed when the identity of the woman in the “Heartbreaker” relationship--a record industry publicist--was identified by a music publication, so he’s wary of naming names.
But he can’t help himself--she’s singer-songwriter Leona Naess, who has released two albums on MCA.
“Oh, go ahead and use her name,” he says, shrugging. “As soon as we start doing shows together, I’m sure everyone will realize what’s going on.” (Adams and Naess will be at the El Rey Theatre in Los Angeles on Feb. 25.)
A few minutes later, Adams is absorbed in talking about his unreleased albums when he suddenly hears a melody being played across the room by his guitarist, Bucky Baxter, who has toured with Dylan and Earle.
“Hey Bucky, play that again,” Adams shouts. “That’s beautiful.”
Adams tries to refocus on the conversation, but he can’t resist picking up a guitar and joining Baxter in the song. Soon, they are back onstage and Adams is putting words to the music. Not all the new lyrics are spontaneous, he later says. They sometimes float around in his head for weeks before he calls on them.
“I’ve never seen anything like him” Baxter says later. “It reminds you of these chess matches where people have to play against a timer. It’s like Ryan always has this timer in his head, and he’s racing to get another song.”
After the rehearsal, the band reassembles at the 12th and Porter, a club not far from the original Grand Ole Opry building. Adams moved to Nashville after the breakup of the “Heartbreaker” relationship and frequents the 12th and Porter because he likes the atmosphere and the bartender’s vodka specialties.
As soon as he arrives, he checks out the band in the music room but leaves after one number. The group’s country-rock sound is as anonymous as most of the stuff you hear on the radio, which is one reason record company scouts have started coming around.
Thoughtful singer-songwriters tend to have such a difficult time getting radio airplay because stations devote most of their playlists to records with an immediate hook that draw listeners quickly. There’s not much of a market for music with the nuance or character that requires your attention. A few female singer-songwriters, notably Alanis Morissette and Sarah McLachlan, have made breakthroughs in recent years, but male writers have been largely shut out of mainstream playlists.
Adams heads for the bar with bassist Billy Mercer, his best friend in his group. The two look so much alike that they could be brothers. To break the boredom of a series of lip-sync TV performances in Europe last fall, the pair even switched roles during one British show.
“We just changed identities for the day,” Adams says, still enjoying the joke. “We switched wallets and money and caps. I also had this wrapping on my hand because I broke a finger in Los Angeles, and Billy wore the cast. Nobody knew the difference.”
“Well, except for Paul McCartney, who was also on the show,” Mercer injects. “He came up to me afterward and said, ‘You’re not Ryan Adams.’ I’ve got no idea how he knew we had made a switch. I also felt kinda bad because a couple of people asked me for autographs, so they think they have Ryan’s autograph when they have mine. But I did get a chance to meet Paul McCartney, so it was cool.”
Adams stays at the bar, jotting thoughts on the legal pad for nearly an hour, then heads outside, presumably for some fresh air. When I follow a few minutes later, however, he’s leaning against a light post, talking on a cell phone.
“I did the song about us tonight with the band, and it sounded great,” he says excitedly into the receiver. He’s talking to Naess, and he’s so happy that he hands me the phone to say hello.
It’s almost 1:30 a.m., still early by Adams time. The club has to stop serving liquor at 3, but he’s such a regular that it lets him stay around as long as he wants, which is 5 a.m. some nights. Then he heads back over to the hotel, where he has a typewriter waiting in case he feels another song coming on.
What about the future?
“If Ryan had come along in 1973 when singer-songwriters were the rage, he would have hit a home run commercially,” Lost Highway’s Lewis says. “Will it happen now? I don’t know. I’d like to think there is a sea change going on out there--that people are ready for singer-songwriters again.”
For his part, Adams is taking nothing for granted.
“I feel pretty well taken care of. If all this stuff stopped tomorrow, I’d still play guitar and record songs on a four-track machine somewhere, or maybe try to write short stories full time.”
One thing in his favor is that he seems well past the time when he could blow his career by getting caught up in the romantic image of the rock ‘n’ roller or the singer-songwriter.
“Well, I was quite shy as a teenager, so it’s weird that I decided to do this,” he says at the rehearsal hall. “I’ve only recently broken out of my shell. I was really uncomfortable in my own skin during my early 20s so I took refuge in that romantic tradition of a songwriter, especially in this town.
“I’ve taken girls down to the Ryman Auditorium [the original home of the Grand Ole Opry] and leaned them right up against the wall and made out with them, blaring drunk on whiskey. Talk about walking in Hank Williams’ footsteps. That was me. But you eventually get past that.”
Two days, another rehearsal and five more new songs later, Adams and the band are at the Nashville airport for the flight to Australia.
The pace has finally caught up with him.
While the band members sit around waiting for the boarding call, Adams is asleep on the floor, the yellow legal pad and his cell phone tucked in his carry-on bag.
Adams on Disc
Here’s a guide to Ryan Adams’ body of work--three albums with the band Whiskeytown and two collections on his own:
“Faithless Street” (1995, Mood Food Records, re-released with bonus tracks on Outpost Records). This is a delightful debut. The influence of country-rock visionary Gram Parsons overflows, but several tracks--including “Too Drunk to Dream” and “If He Can’t Have You"--have soulful, wistful edges that would have made them right at home on Parsons’ classic albums with the Flying Burrito Brothers. Because the bonus tracks include early versions of some songs that appear on “Perfect Strangers,” the reissue is the Whiskeytown album that should be of most interest to anyone new to Adams’ work.
“Perfect Strangers” (1997, Outpost). The production touches by Jim Scott are more polished than those on the debut, putting the tone closer to the streamlined country-rock sound of the Eagles than the more ragged one of Parsons and the Burritos. Adams is developing swiftly as a writer. In “16 Days,” an edgy song about romantic separation, he talks about being left with “a bottle and a rosary.”
“Pneumonia” (2001, Lost Highway). Although the album was finished by 1999, its release was held up because Outpost went out of business during the industry mergers of the late 1990s. Moving from the shadow of Parsons, Adams continues to assert his independence as a writer and singer. The lyrics are more personal and carefully crafted.
“Heartbreaker” (1999, Bloodshot). Adams makes his solo debut, and there’s no turning back. He brings such swagger to several tracks that he reminds you of the young Bob Dylan--especially on “To Be High (Is to Be Sad, Is to Be High).” The album centers on the breakup of Adams’ first serious relationship.
“Gold” (2001, Lost Highway). If you only get one Adams album, this is the one. The themes are more varied than on “Heartbreaker” and the writing is more eloquent. Influences still abound, from Steve Earle to the Rolling Stones, but Adams weaves them into a style that is convincingly his own.
Robert Hilburn, pop music critic for The Times, can be reached at email@example.com.