Though it will go down in history as the band that spawned the precocious, bed-headed manchild David Ryan Adams, Whiskeytown was actually one the strongest groups to emerge from the alt-country/”no depression” glut of the mid- ’90s. Membership-wise, the North Carolina band suffered from revolving-door syndrome, the only two constants being singer-songwriter Adams and vocalist-fiddler Caitlin Cary (the latter playing patient big sister and foil to Adams’ twerp-from-hell persona). Prior to Whiskeytown, high-school dropout Adams had fronted The Patty Duke Syndrome, a punk band in Raleigh. Cary had come to the Triangle from Ohio in pursuit of a graduate degree in creative writing — a plan that ended after Adams sought her out for her fiddling ability. Whiskeytown weathered the volatility of onstage fights, drunken muckups and Adams’ temperament to release three full-length albums, the last of which came out long after the group’s de facto demise. (Prior to the release of Pneumonia, Adams was proudly touting the fact that he didn’t even know who was in the band anymore.)
The four-song 7-inch Angels contains the song that could stand as Whiskeytown’s opening manifesto, “Angels Are Messengers From God” (“So I started this damn country band / ‘Cause punk rock was too hard to sing”), later re-recorded as “Faithless Street.” Around the same time, the group contributed a daring, Opry-fied version of “Blank Generation” to a local Richard Hell tribute album, Who the Hell. Late in the year, Whiskeytown released its full-length debut, Faithless Street, an album with a rugged rural heart and raw rock principles. Though barely old enough to buy liquor, Adams was already emerging as a remarkable writer of bleary and world-worn tunes. The muddy mix of the original Mood Food edition was rectified by Adams and console wizzes Chris Stamey and Tim Harper for its re-release. That package features nine bonus songs, including earlier versions of tracks that wound up on Strangers Almanac.
Rural Free Delivery, an unimpressive eight-song clutch of ragged demos predating the band’s debut album, was issued in the wake of the buzz over Faithless Street. Among the tracks — most of which should have remained in the canister — is a countrified swing through Black Flag’s classic “Nervous Breakdown.”
Strangers Almanac, the group’s major-label breakout, may lack the raw rock ‘n’ roll charisma of Faithless Street, but it is the band’s finest hour. Adams’ prolific muse has clearly broadened in scope, and the disc has shimmers of soul, ’70s rock and smoothed-out pop amidst its rural detritus. The group surrenders completely to heart-piercing country on “Excuse Me While I Break My Own Heart Tonight,” a duet with Alejandro Escovedo. There’s also an aching maturity, particularly on such desolate ballads as “Houses on the Hill,” “Avenues” and the hauntingly bruised “Dancing With the Women at the Bar.” The push and pull between Adams’ bratty tenderness and Cary’s sensible, rounded vocals (reminiscent of Linda Thompson) would never sound better. Their synergy reached a broader audience with a contribution to the Gram Parsons tribute album, Return of the Grievous Angel, in 1999. The pair’s harmonizing and slow-tempo grooving on Parsons’ “A Song for You” buried much of the better-known competition’s efforts (as did their performance during the accompanying Sessions at West 54th Street taping).
Adams made his solo bow in 2000, prior to the official announcement of Whiskeytown’s demise, while the group’s long-completed album sat in label purgatory. Pneumonia‘s belated arrival, three years after its completion, confirmed that Whiskeytown had petered out in the period after Strangers Almanac amid acrimonious membership shifts and Adams’ loss of interest. The limp, grandiose pop gestures are a pale cry from the group’s rousing roots.
A quietly stirring effort with its heart in its throat, Heartbreaker was made in the brief gap between alt- country-darling and public figurehood. One leaves the sublimely pensive album — which boasts a duet with Emmylou Harris (“Sweet Carolina”), production by Ethan (son of Glyn) Johns and contributions from Gillian Welch and David Rawlings — with the feeling that Adams may never sound this sincere (and good) again.
That fear is amplified by the pat gestures of the follow- up, Gold, a double-CD with five-songs on the so- called “Side 4” disc. (The wildly prolific songwriter had apparently shelved a more ruminative follow-up in the mode of Heartbreaker.) The timely and likable “New York, New York,” with a video shot on the Brooklyn waterfront (with the Twin Towers in the background) and opening dynamics burgled from “Pinball Wizard,” scored a breakout hit for Adams in the fall of 2001. Overall, however, Gold is strangely unfocused and lacks the conviction and precision of its predecessor. Even some of the stronger material — “Rescue Blues” and “Nobody Girl,” for example — is basically warmed-over ’70s Rolling Stones. “When Stars Go Blue” is the prettiest ballad on Gold despite the fact that Adams, always restless for new vocal poses, adopts a confounding Aaron Neville- like warble. (Bono and the Corrs would subsequently retool the number for a hit.)
After Gold, Adams hinted that he might release a box set from his gargantuan unreleased trove, but instead opted to whittle down his discards to the modest 13-track collection, Demolition. While clearly unessential, it isn’t as spotty as one would expect of such a housecleaning venture. In fact, it’s impressive just for the sheer range of Adams’ muse. “Hallelujah” is the kind of euphonious, harmonica-driven roots-rock that Adams can summon at will, but more recently recorded alt-rock tracks like “Nuclear” and “Starting to Hurt” boast a distinct Brit- pop sheen, abetted by Adams’ throaty roar. (“Starting to Hurt” is a dead-ringer for Stereophonics.) 2002 also found Adams appearing on Willie Nelson’s gratuitous live album Stars and Guitars, and the broadcast of the event found the boy wonder looking quite content and comfortable alongside Willie and Keith Richards on a rendition of “Dead Flowers.” In late 2002, Adams offered one of his periodic statements of his punk principles, recording a Black Flag — and Germs — inspired album under the moniker Finger (no relation to the early ’90s Finger led by singer/guitarist Brad Rice) with former D-Generation leader Jesse Malin. A thousand copies of the boozy, four-hour jam session We Are Fuck You were released, 60 on red vinyl. Adams also produced Malin’s “singer-songwriter” debut, the rootsy Fine Art of Self-Destruction, which came out in 2003.
While Adams skittered off down the red-carpet-walking, Winona-Ryder-dating route, Caitlin Cary quietly began making albums of her own back in North Carolina, where she had settled down with Whiskeytown’s first drummer, Skillet Gilmore, waitressing between musical projects. The intimate and folky five-song Waltzie was produced by Stamey and includes a version of Richard Thompson’s “Withered and Died.” Her first full-length, the roots-poppy and melodically potent While You Weren’t Looking (again with Stamey at the helm), featured a hearty batch of originals, co-written with latter-era Whiskeytown guitarist Mike Daly, and such guests as Mitch Easter, Jon Wurster (Superchunk) and Jen Gunderman (Jayhawks). From the sugar- dosed strains of the opening “Shallow Heart, Shallow Water” to the Whiskeytown-like roots pop of the title track, a duet with Adams-soundalike Thad Cockrell, the album is strong enough to shake off the notion of Cary as a satellite in Adams’ universe. (Though he did co-write three tracks and sing a duet on the limited-edition four-song bonus disc.) In fact, as of 2002, it stood — along with Heartbreaker — as the best work to spring from the ruins of Whiskeytown.