Whisky & Culture

A troubled troubadour

Ryan Adams has produced a huge volume of great music. Lew Guthrie III casts his eye over it, particularly last year's Jacksonville City Nights
By Lew Guthrie
When Ryan Adams came crashing out of the American South he did so with the swagger of a guitar slinger and the talent of a troubled troubadour. Fearless, unpredictable and highly prolific, he’s never made it easy for himself and we’re all the better off as a result.Take the name. He wasn’t christened Ryan and he must have known using it publicly would have caused some confusion; and yet he’s been known to evict leary hecklers for asking him to play Everything I Do (I Do It For You).Rock music doesn’t produce true left field rebels very often any more, which is why those of us who like our rock and roll dirty and unkempt cling to Shane MacGown and stand up for Pete Docherty.But anyone can be a waster. To carry this stuff off you have to have charisma and a bucketful of talent. And boy, Ryan Adams has both – and then some.He set out his agenda years back when he named his band Whiskeytown, and started producing country-tinged rock songs that have their roots in the music of Gram Parsons and Johnny Cash and have been distilled through bands such as Green On Red, the Long Ryders, Rain Parade and more recently Son Volt.Adams is the nearest thing we’ve got to a new Neil Young, and his output swings from unaccompanied gentle acoustic sets to hard hitting rock-outs. In the harrowing two part collection Love Is Hell he even gave us a modern answer to Young’s Tonight’s the Night.Unlike Young, though, Adams has had the fast forward button pressed down firmly ever since he left his band and embarked on a solo career.His output is immense, but in three years he has worn his heart on his sleeve, and through his huge body of work fans have experienced the anguish, sorrow and anger of what has clearly been an emotional time for the young singer. If ever there was a case of Cherchez La Femme, this was it. And whiskey has been there throughout.Adams won a European fan base in one amazing 18 month period when he went from solo artist in small theatres to rock band leader selling out the bigger London venues.On one memorable London theatre show he was all but incoherent between songs but every time he caressed the piano keys the audience fell in to mesmerised silence. It was one of the most maudlin and magnificent shows I have ever witnessed.But at other shows there was anger, too, rowdy, bratty, rock and roll behaviour. By last year he had split fans not least because of his unpredictable work.In 2005 he released no less than three albums, one of them a double, and all of them – Cold Roses, 29, and Jacksonville City Nights – worth investing in. But his whiskey album is Jacksonville City Nights, and it’s the most restless and traditionally countryish of the three.The themes are simple: the loss of a woman, either through separation or death; the bars of Jacksonville, where our hero drinks to forget; and with nothing left to stay for, the opportunity to get on the road and move on.Opening track, for instance, is AKiss Before I Go: “The engine turns on a dime, but I ain’t going nowhere tonight, I ain’t been going nowhere for quite a while One shot, one beer and a kiss before I go…” On next track The End Adams reflects on what’s holding him back, why he can’t leave. And on Hard Way To Fall we find there’s a woman involved: “See all the rain on the street, and the way the cars shine And the Scotch that she drinks with her lips so fine As the shoulders go weak and she closes her eyes Oh my God, when she was mine...” And so the album progresses as Adams sits on his bar stool, tries to draw a line over the past and manages to stumble out the bar door and in to his car. You sense, though, he’s always had one drink too many, so he’ll try to leave again tomorrow… It’s a loose concept album rounded off on the European version with a wonderful country-tinged version of Elvis’ Always On My Mind. In this context it feels like closure, a sober acceptance that she’s in the past and his future lies down the highway.Perhaps, perhaps not. But it rounds off a remarkable album by a remarkable artist.