Strangers Almanac and listening to the Whiskeytown that might have been
By NICK TAVARES
STATIC and FEEDBACK Editor
Excuse me, while I lie back and fantasize about a band that may have never been.
This is the ritual. It’s a warm Sunday afternoon without too many clouds in the sky, but I’m inside. I take Whiskeytown’s Strangers Almanac off the shelf, put it on the turntable, lie down across the couch and listen while I alternate hold the sleeve over my head reading and putting it back down on the coffee table, rolling through breaking my own heart and 16 days and remembering the rose.
When I listen to this soundtrack of a defunct band, eventually broken up when the aspirations of their leader and the politics of major label distribution and the geography of its principle members collided and left the band now just a collection of musicians who used to work together, I try to hear the aspirations of what came before all that, when they were simply a rock and roll band trying to make it.
Whiskeytown is understandably remembered as Ryan Adams first big break before stepping out on his own insanely prolific career, but listening to this album, I only hear the band, completely separate from their singer’s later work. It’s where the romantic side of myself manifests. When I pull this off the shelf and start walking through the four sides, I picture the band on a small stage somewhere in the south working over a crowd to turn enough heads to sell more CDs at the front of the room.
That was as much of a job as anything. By the late 1990s, the alternative country label was starting to gain steam and the band was expected to live up to the blueprint created by the late Uncle Tupelo. Wilco, who had formed from the splinters of that group, fought the same battle against expectations. While the band maintained the twang of Caitlin Carey’s violin and Adams’ still-present North Carolina accent, they were clearly reaching for more at this point. One listen to the urgency of “Waiting to Derail,” building and breaking in volume, shows as much.
While the songs play and the myths start running through my head, the dreams of being in a band and playing shows and trying to pull together the pieces of a catalog that could stand on its own for years to come. Within that vision, there are photos, lyrics, setlists and guitar picks scattered across the floor, the remnants of creation that are inevitably and warmly captured inside of albums, another piece of the snapshot of the band at work.
By this point, the cracks were already beginning to form and split the band. Cycling through drummers and bass players, Whiskeytown was down to the core of Adams, Carey and Phil Wandscher as they pulled in for their second album. But even within that space, there are little bits of interplay that are still obvious. Carey and Adams answering each other on the chorus of “16 Days” is the easiest signpost to this, where the ghosts have got them running away from you and away from you. But there’s the quiet trading of riffs on “Not Home Anymore,” the song that closed the original album and, for a time, book on Whiskeytown as a band. While the track slowly builds, with the words beginning to layer upon each other and guitar atmospherics trickling from the shadows back through the speakers, it rolls into completion with Adams repeating that, “it doesn’t mean, it doesn’t mean a thing.”
It’s the sound of a band reaching for something beyond their initial genre, trying so hard to break through expectations while remaining rooted to where they began. That push-and-pull is audible when listening to the collective of the four sides 18 years later, and sometimes from track-to-track and within each song.
Adams went on to break through those walls on his own, and he did it several times over. He tried to bring the band along, and even if it didn’t last much longer, in the short term they were a source of support. Maybe it’s revisionist to go back and try to assign this sense of camaraderie that may or may not have existed. But when the record plays, I hear the sound of a band, separate from the struggles and inevitable divisions and aspirations that sent them on their way. I hear it because, on some level, that’s what I’m trying to hear.
Aug. 30, 2015
Email Nick Tavares at firstname.lastname@example.org