November 2001

After The Bourbon Rush:
Meet Ryan Adams, A Grievous Angel with Dirty Jeans

"You could be a Rush cover band in Dayton, Ohio, and you're just as legitimate as Lou Reed," says Ryan Adams. "You picked up an instrument to create some art, and the minute you've done that, you've said something beautiful."

Music-all kinds of music-just pours out of Adams. He's released three remarkable albums in less than a year and seems poised to become the first beat poet/guitar hero/punk crooner/hillbilly metal god. He wants to get an old-school Nashville Nudie suit, but only if he can somehow be "punk as shit," maybe with the black flag logo switched on. In between composing a steady flow of new songs (drinking equally steady flow of red wine), he’s also writing a book and play.

His prodigious work ethic would get pretty annoying, actually, if the songs weren't so good and getting better everyday. Ryan Adams, formerly the lead singer of alt-country standard-bearers Whiskeytown, is quite possibly the single musician most worth keeping your eyes on right now. His new album, Gold, is a powerhouse that sounds like pure 1973 FM rock radio-Harvest-era Neil Young meets Leon Russell swap gospel crossed with classic Stones-style slashing guitars. Gold chronicles Adams’ move from New York City to Los Angeles by way of Nashville (and also by way of tumultuous relationship with Winona Ryder). It follows last year’s stunning solo debut Heartbreaker; in between came the release of Phenomena, Whiskeytown’s long-delayed swan song, which finally delivered on their seldom-fulfilled promise.

None of which, of course songs like the music, which Adams is making right now. Today he's in a Nashville studio, teaching his rock band the Pinkhearts a whole new set of songs for an album set to come out next year. Classic LP's by Sonic Youth, Nirvana, and the Stooges stand propped up on the studio’s mixing board for inspiration. Adams leads his musicians through Replacements-style garage punk at an insane clip; the 18 songs they learned two days before are now augmented with eight more he just finished writing. "Man, we sound like the Pixies one minute and the Allman Brothers the next!" Adams says gleefully before launching into a dead-on imitation of Scott Stapp belting the would-be Creed smash "Your Fly's Wide Open."

It's a long way from anything you'd call alt-country. "When you're writing country rock, a lot of those songs come out in the end of night," Adams says the next day over lunch at Nashville’s premier faux-New York Deli. "Toward the end of Whiskeytown, I started writing in the afternoon, and that’s when the real song stuff started happening."

In its earliest, acoustic, more late-night-sounding version, the working title for Gold was The Suicide Handbook; as it grew to a sprawling double disk size, Adams took to calling it Commercial Suicide. But one luxury Adams enjoys is that rarest of beasts-a patient and supportive record company. Lost highway is the new, progressive label set up by Mercury Nashville that's also home to country based category busters Lucinda Williams, Kim Richey, and Robert Earl Keen. "Ryan is just three minutes and 30 seconds away," says Frank Callari, the label's head of A&R. "If he can just write that one hit, that song everyone knows, it will do him what it did for Neil Young and Richie Lee Jones. And he's learning not to scared of anything that might sounds a little more pop."

I'm always walking this tightrope of what's cheesy or not," Adams says before running back to his hotel to finish lyrics for three songs he'll debut on-stage with the Pinkhearts that night, "Like Barry Manilow had a couple of drinks and didn’t wear a tux-those are cool songs! Sometimes I wonder if I'm actually writing the cheesiest shit, but I get away with it 'cause I've got dirty jeans on."