Greasy Hair And Heartbreak
How Ryan Adams Might Just Save Country Music
You know the joke about what happens when you play a country music backward: You get your wife back, your house back, your truck back, your dog back.
Getting country music back-now, that's another story. The thing is, artists don't really shake up Nashville anymore. People like the Dixie Chicks' hairstylists do. Even Garth Brooks making a rock record as a pretend Australian didn't cause anyone to blink, because there are plenty of other cowboy-hatted shlubs to fill up that silo of cornpone that is Music City, USA.
Which could be why Ryan Adams, a 26-year-old punk with a soft Carolina twang and an ear for how love and loss can sound the same, left Nashville for L.A. to record that would save country music if only it would listen.
Adams is a star, a brilliant fuck adept at loving the wrong women (or, just as often, the right women wrongly) and then writing wrenching songs about them. He’s all romantic dissolution, broken guitar strings, and chain-smoked cigarettes. He's alarmingly prolific, an end-of-the-bar wiseass with lumpy hair and a torn western shirt.
Right now, he's in a tiny upscale hotel room in a downtown New York to talk about his new album, which he does with an adolescent, postcoital, 'I can't believe someone just let me do that' glow. He talks of the influence of punk groups like Hüsker Dü. He hops off the bed to play songs he's "not supposed to be playing for people" because he can't stand just talking about them anymore. He mouths "Elton John!" when he answers the cell phone ringing on his hip. (Elton was concerned that some girl might have been trifling with his affections.) He makes a rock face worthy of Joe Cocker as he pushes the limits of the small stereo's speakers. During a quiet moment, he says, "All the songs had to work completely and honestly by themselves on acoustic guitar or on piano. If they didn't, they weren't worth putting on the record."
Adams was born in North Carolina, where he grew up writing songs, drinking, failing at menial jobs, and chasing girls who blew him off because he loved punk rock. His ascent began last year, with the quickly recorded Heartbreaker, which induced uncommonly widespread critical orgasms. This summer saw the release of Pneumonia, a recovered jewel from his former alt-country band, Whiskeytown. But now he's got a new label and the best record of his young life.
Adams describes Gold as "me not buying my own bullshit for two seconds". The record is nakedly personal without all that unseemly therapist-couch business, so a song like the plaintive "Harder Now That It's Over" can lodge a corkscrew in your heart and turn it by degrees as you listen to a relationship dissect itself. Sucking on the last ice cube still tasting of bourbon, you might even think that it’s written for you, because Adams knows, man. But it's not, and he doesn’t. Gold is a collection of songs for women.
"Most of my songs," he says, "are directed at one girl: 'This is what I had to say to you today'." Whomever the hell it's meant for, Gold kisses awake those tawdry sentiments you thought you were over when you were a younger man. And not many records get that back for you.