The problem with the Golden Age of Country as a topic is what artists to spotlight next. By all common sense, after Steve Earle, I really should spolight Robert Earle Keen Jr. But, I have had Whiskeytown on the mind for the past few weeks. So, this week, one of the most important bands in Alt country history to date: Whiskeytown.
As I have fashioned it, Alt country’s golden age is rooted in three geographical areas: Austin, Tx (Keen, Earle, and countless others)., The midwest (like St. Louis–Uncle Tupelo), and…Raleigh, NC (or the Triangle–Flat Duo Jets, Whiskeytown, Backsliders, Two Dollar Pistols, Tift Merritt, and the like). The lineup of Whiskeytown is formidable: Ryan Adams, violinist Caitlin Cary, drummer Eric “Skillet” Gilmore, bassist Steve Grothman and guitarist Phil Wandscher. The band, was, dynamite. Ryan Adams was the guitarist and lyricist that had so much talent, he could not stop writing. Like most great writers/artists, he will likely have songs surfacing long after his death. A legendary Raleigh story has Adams calling local radio stations early in the mid 90s talking to DJs telling them that Whiskeytown was the next great band. It was, and I say still is, even though they are no longer together. Adams was a tempermental and strong personality. That, in part, led to the split between Adams and Wandscher, who left Raleigh for Seattle, and teamed up with the haunting (and very talented) Jesse Sykes. So, as you might surmise, Whiskeytown was GREAT, and then disappeared with members going into separate projects. Adams went his own way to solo and other band projects. Caitlin Cary (as great violinist) went on to solo and other band acts (Tres Chikas).
Regardless of the break, which like Uncle Tupelo, was a sad day, the band left their mark. And what came after by individual members was worthy.
Rural Free Delivery (1997, but really, earlier than that). Dave Menconi writes about this album:
Rural Free Delivery is somewhat problematic in that the band is none too happy it’s seeing the light of day at all. The right to release these recordings was part of the quid pro quo for Whiskeytown to leave the independent label Mood Food for Geffen-affiliated Outpost Records. That said, it’s still worthwhile for the same reason all Whiskeytown records are worthwhile: Ryan Adams just plain doesn’t make bad music. Sloppy, sure. But anybody who can listen (really listen) to him and not hear what a great singer and brilliant songwriter the guy is — well, they’re to be pitied.
Rural Free Delivery consists of demos predating the band’s 1995 debut Faithless Street, including two songs that later showed up on that album (”Oklahoma” and the statement-of-purpose manifesto “Angels”). The band had only been together a couple of months at the time. But, rough edges and all, Adams’ raw ability was apparent even then.
Rural Free Delivery is cow punk for sure. It reminds me of that 80s band Lone Justice in a way.
Faithless Street (1995)
Pitchfork (that indie internet mag) called this album a “touchstone.” It was recorded in Apex, NC (not too far from my first home in NC). It was, to be perfectly honest, at the time, a breakthrough album that would only be surpassed by their next album.
Revenge (hidden track in the original)
Stranger’s Almanac (1997)
Dancing With The Women At The Bar
From Austin City Limits, “Everything I do”
More Austin: “16 Days”
Waiting to Derail:
Houses on the Hill:
In the 1990s, this:
Song for you:
After Almanac, legal matters prevented their release of an album before 2001. it caused no end of frustration for the band and Adams once quipped the album would never come out. It did, as Pneumonia, but in 2001-so we withhold it from this post. By the end of the 90s, Whiskeytown was, along with Wilco, Mavericks, the Drive by Truckers, Son Volt, and the like, the most influential band of the decade.
In my mind, the band, and Ryan Adams in particular, ranks alongside the Byrds, Parsons, Townes, Jason & the Scorchers, and the rest of the giants of the Alt Country scene. It would be nothing without their contribution.