I fell in love with Ryan Adams the moment I first heard his voice. It was in the early fall of '97 and I was driving down Highway 61, 50 miles south of Memphis.
I popped in a mix tape someone had mailed me, and Adams' voice suddenly filled my car: "I try not to think/'Cause if I sit and drink/Then I'll go crazy." I cranked up the volume, wanting more: "In the daytime I'm lonesome/In the nighttime I'm sad."
Pulling off the highway, I scanned the homemade tape cover -- the song was called "Desperate Ain't Lonely," and the name of the band was Whiskeytown. I listened, rewound the tape, listened again. And when I quit crying enough that I could see the road through my windshield, I headed to the nearest liquor store.
Two musician friends of mine had died that summer, and I was alone, drifting from my many friends who couldn't possibly -- in my mind -- comprehend what I had lost. This band, and the boy who led it, Ryan Adams, a man-child really -- he was 20 when he cut Whiskeytown's Faithless Street, which included "Desperate Ain't Lonely" -- knew what I felt. They knew it and he sang it, for me and for all the brokenhearted souls.
When I sobered up, I did some research on Whiskeytown. They had two albums out, Faithless Street and the brooding Stranger's Almanac, both refreshing additions to the then-burgeoning alt-country scene. Ryan Adams -- who alleged that Whiskeytown was his second choice for a band name; he preferred Sin City -- was the frontman and the group's centrifugal force. World-weary beyond his years, Adams' lyrics, sung in an achingly tender drawl, brought admirers by the truckload. Meanwhile, his offstage antics -- many of which included a whiskey bottle and provided fodder for new material -- drove his bandmates away.
I have a soft spot for self-medicated, despairing guitar players. My record collection boasts albums by the best of them -- Townes Van Zandt, Alex Chilton, Gram Parsons. But I'd never heard someone so young who could reach me so easily. Adams' voice was a lifesaver tossed from a raft just as I thought I was going under. He rescued me.
So I stayed in Memphis and wrote and drank and listened to music, and Adams eventually quit Whiskeytown (the band's final album, Pneumonia, was recorded in 1999 but wasn't released until this year) and embarked on a very successful solo career. He left his native North Carolina for Nashville, then New York, then Los Angeles, a series of travails beautifully documented on Heartbreaker, his 2000 solo debut. "I miss my family," he sings on "Oh My Sweet Carolina," "All the sweetest winds/They blow across the South." Pop songs and power ballads have replaced the alt-country twang as Adams has matured, yet he remembers what it's like to be young and alone -- songs like "To Be Young (Is to Be Sad, Is to Be High)" and "To Be the One" make it painstakingly clear.
Despite being recorded in Nashville with a bevy of special guests -- Gillian Welch and Emmylou Harris among them -- Heartbreaker is known as "the New York album" because it deals with a love lost on the streets of that city.
Gold, Adams' latest release, is called "the Los Angeles album," the title a reference to "what the buildings and streets look like in L.A. when the sun goes down."Lyrically, most things haven't changed. Adams is still putting his heart on the line -- and oftentimes getting it busted in the process. The eloquent "La Cienega Just Smiled" conjures up a lovelorn boy who awakens when the sun goes down, only to spend his nights in a bar nursing his broken heart. "Feels so good but damn it makes me hurt," a familiar refrain in a foreign landscape: Musically, Adams has gone Hollywood.
Heartbreaker laid the path for Gold, so it's hardly a surprise when the first notes of '70s-inspired pop come blasting through the speakers. Adams' ebullience is infectious, particularly on tunes like "Firecracker," where he moans, "I just wanna burn up hard and bright/I just wanna be your firecracker/And maybe be your baby tonight." But his style changes as often as the fashions on Rodeo Drive -- and his influences are a little too obvious.
On "Answering Bell," Adams is, well, a dead ringer for Van Morrison, while shades of Elton John, the Rolling Stones, and Neil Young shine through on Gold as well. With Gold, he's gotten complete freedom, including a major-label deal where he calls the shots. It's like giving a child a key to the candy store -- Adams is so busy tasting everything that he can't focus on any one variety. Nevertheless, he has the talent -- and tenacity -- to pull it off, and he will probably even gain fans. There is something for everyone on Gold.
All that aside, Gold is an ambitious and passionate record. And with the album's closer, "Goodnight Hollywood Blvd.," Adams ultimately redeems himself. On paper, the lyrics don't add up to much. But his contemptuous delivery, sparsely backed with piano and strings, evokes a cynicism that belies his fascination with the City of Angels.
According to Adams, the 16 tracks that eventually became Gold display his newfound self-acceptance. "The songs aren't self-loathing or self-destructive. This record is about making amends with things and really facing them. And it's more upbeat because I think I'm giving myself some air to breathe," he revealed in a New York Times interview. "I do think the process of forgiving myself is really evident on this one."
Adams and I have each traveled a lot of physical -- and spiritual -- miles since 1997. We've both become more comfortable in our respective skins, and our hangovers are fewer and less desperate. Life is good. Oh, I still listen to Townes and Gram -- and Whiskeytown, too. But I've made amends as well -- and like Ryan Adams, I plan to stay Gold.