Ryan Adams returns to Austin this week for the first of two Friday evening performances at the Austin City Limits Music Festival, plus a sold-out official ACL Fest late-night show at Stubb’s on Thursday. It’s the first time he’s played here since South by Southwest 2016; a scheduled show at ACL Live during this year’s SXSW was a last-minute scratch.
It’s been more than two decades since Adams first played Austin in 1996 with his then-buzzing alt-country band Whiskeytown during SXSW. Your humble Statesman scribe was at that show, and has a long history with the North Carolina native who went on to indie stardom as a solo act. Here’s a 12-step walk down memory lane, revisiting a dozen highs and lows over the years.
Summer 1995: Fellow Seattle music journalist Grant Alden and I are planning the debut issue of a magazine we’re starting called No Depression. Alden walks in the back door of my house holding a 7-inch single by a band from Raleigh, N.C., called Whiskeytown. “We should write about this,” he says.
I happen to have a close friend, David Menconi, who covers music for the daily paper in Raleigh. Menconi is familiar with Whiskeytown and he signs on to interview Adams for a short feature in our first issue. The band releases a full-length album a few weeks later. My review in the second issue of No Depression concludes, “‘Faithless Street’ is the best debut album of the year.”
Spring 1996: Whiskeytown plays a SXSW showcase at the Red River venue Split Rail (where dance club Elysium now stands) booked by No Depression advertising manager Jenni Sperandeo, who’d soon become Whiskeytown’s manager. My first meeting with Adams takes place just outside the club right after their set.
“‘Hey, hop in the van, let’s have a shot,’ Ryan Adams beckoned, and who was I to argue with that Peter Pan gleam and Pied Piper smile,” I recounted when writing about it later. “Mostly, I just remember the sense of excitement that exuded from this 21-year-old boy wonder, and that irrepressible shine in his eyes.”
Summer 1996: The tour paths of Whiskeytown and Austin singer-songwriter Alejandro Escovedo cross in Chicago, including one show at renowned suburban venue Fitzgerald’s where they share the bill. I arrive in time for Escovedo’s in-town show at Schuba’s the night before and tell him he really needs to see Whiskeytown the following night. He does. Escovedo ends up making a cameo appearance on Whiskeytown’s next album.
Whiskeytown plays at Schuba’s the night after the Fitzgerald’s double bill, and nobody’s ready for the night to end when the show’s over. A bunch of us head to an all-night working-class bar called Sonny’s. Music is played until the sun begins to rise and I head to the airport.
Spring 1997: Whiskeytown is back at SXSW for the start of the No Depression Tour, a monthlong jaunt booked by agent Brad Madison in partnership with our magazine. Old 97’s, the Picketts and Hazeldine join them on the tour. I travel to Houston for the first official show after SXSW, later welcoming them for two nights in Seattle before catching the tour finale in Nashville.
At that last show, I happen to be wearing a T-shirt of 1980s Austin band the Reivers. Adams mentions he loved the group’s records. I literally give him the shirt off my back. Later, he invites me onstage to sing harmony with him on a cover of “The Rain Won’t Help You When It’s Over,” a song by Escovedo’s 1980s Austin band, True Believers.
Summer 1997: Whiskeytown has signed to Geffen/Outpost and is about to release its major-label debut “Strangers Almanac,” so I travel to Raleigh for a night-long interview with Adams. He walks me up and down the N.C. State campus-area drag Hillsborough Street, where he worked odd jobs in restaurants and spent a lot of time in bars. We go bowling (he has a creative scoring system), and we talk about the band.
When the record comes out, Whiskeytown graces the cover of our 10th issue. It’s his first magazine cover. Recalling Adams brewing me a pot of coffee just before I left Raleigh on an early morning flight, I conclude the cover story: “In the final, waning moments of darkness before the dawn, it’s a warm gesture, an affirmation of the Southern hospitality and human kindness at the heart of a North Carolina country boy.”
Spring 1998: Whiskeytown is playing two shows at legendary London nightclub the Borderline, and I fly over for the shows. On a night off in between, Adams and I take the tube to Piccadilly Circus. He’s stopped drinking and thus isn’t interested in going to pubs, but we check out the Tower Records store and hit a video arcade where he’s particularly obsessed with a driving game.
Adams also shows early signs of his interest in associating with big-name celebrities. At one point we go to a hotel where Smashing Pumpkins and Lenny Kravitz, both also in London for shows, are staying. He talks with them in the lobby. (Two years later, when Adams returns to play the Borderline again, an especially prominent name turns up on the guest list: Sir Elton John.)
December 31, 1999: Whiskeytown plays the “Faithless Street” and “Stranger’s Almanac” albums back-to-back, in their entirety, at long-running Chapell Hill, N.C., club Cat’s Cradle to close out the millennium. It’s a memorable night that turns out to be the band’s final formal show together.
An informal reunion happens the following year at the wedding of fiddler Caitlin Cary and drummer Skillet Gilmore. By that time, I’d moved to the North Carolina Triangle, intrigued by the quantity and quality of Americana music the region was producing.
Spring 2000: Adams has moved to Nashville and is spending a lot of time with Gillian Welch and David Rawlings. I’m there on business one weekend and we end up at Rawlings and Welch’s house well past midnight on a Saturday.
A jam session inevitably unfolds and lasts through the wee hours of the morning. During a brief break, Rawlings and Welch turn on that night’s “Saturday Night Live” broadcast, which they’d recorded. It turns out to be the night the iconic “More Cowbell” skit airs for the first time. Their living room is overwhelmed with fits of laughter.
Fall 2000: No Depression is celebrating its fifth anniversary at Seattle’s Tractor Tavern, and Adams comes in to play the show. Bloodshot Records has just released Adams’ first solo album, “Heartbreaker.”
It turns out to be a fabulous album, the label’s biggest seller ever. It includes some of the fruits of those Nashville associations with Welch and Rawlings, most notably the Adams/Rawlings co-write “To Be Young (Is to Be Sad, Is to Be High),” a song still performed often by both artists in their respective shows.
Fall 2001: Our paths diverge when my opinion of Adams’ new album, “Gold,” isn’t favorable, and I voice that opinion in the pages of No Depression. Noted author Charles R. Cross writes our review of the album, but I mention in an editor’s note that we’d considered a one-word review: pyrite. “Though such brevity would be disrespectful of the effort that obviously went into the record, its precision strikes at the heart of the matter: Adams is fooling himself.”
An internet message-board tirade from Adams soon arrives, along with angry voicemail in which he vows, “I’m never going do an interview with you ever again.” To his credit, I suppose, he’s kept his word. (We requested an interview before this ACL Fest appearance; his publicist replied, “Unfortunately he’s not doing interviews right now.”)
Summer 2007: Geffen issues a deluxe reissue of “Stranger’s Almanac” on the 10th anniversary of its release and asks me to write the liner notes. Adams doesn’t make himself available to talk, but Jim Scott, who produced the album, does. He has some insightful thoughts about the album and its legacy.
“People ask me about that record all the time,” Scott tells me. “Ryan is still so visible in the world, and a lot of the artists that I’ve worked with since then have really liked that record, and people bring it up.”
Fall 2014: Adams tapes “Austin City Limits” for the third time; the first was with Whiskeytown in 1998. It’s an impressive two-part performance, first solo acoustic followed by a longer set with his band. He spots me in the crowd early on and makes a couple of cracks, then keeps it going as a running joke throughout the evening.
None of that is unusual, as Adams is well-known for playing off something or someone in the crowd at his shows. I’m somewhat surprised, though, that he still seems hurt by my now 13-year-old comments about “Gold.” He’s also not correct when, after a beautifully emotional performance of “When the Stars Go Blue” that draws tears from one audience member, he points my way and claims, “He hated that song!” Actually I loved that particular song, even if I thought the album as a whole was disappointing.
At the end of the night, Adams suggests we go for a run around Lady Bird Lake the next day. I’m game, as I’ve thought it could be helpful for us to talk ever since he went public about having Meniere’s Disease, which affects someone in my family. I check in with his manager the next morning to see if Adams wants to run. The manager gives a kind reply, but nothing comes of it.
Still up for that run, Ryan, if you want to do it.
More ACL Fest previews
Lineup look: Here’s who you should go see
Fest fashion:a practical guide to staying fresh at Zilker Park
Eat and drink:Vendors at ACL Eats for 2017
Ryan Adams at ACL Fest
Adams plays at 7:15 p.m. Friday and Oct. 13 on the Miller Lite stage.
Also: Official ACL Fest late-night show Thursday, Oct. 5, 6:30 p.m. doors (Middle Kids open) at Stubb’s, 801 Red River St. Technically sold out.