Good Lord! Can it really be twenty whole years since Ryan Adams arrived on the scene with his magnificent band Whiskeytown? Even allowing for nostalgic hindsight it only seems like yesterday that this gifted singer-songwriter from North Carolina, something of a teenage prodigy, burst on the scene with Faithless Street, Strangers Almanac and the much-delayed Pneumonia, wherein he wowed alternative country rock fans with his take on a long strand of classic Americana that had its roots in Gram Parsons and his gilded ilk.
As a solo artist, and also with his band The Cardinals, Ryan began unleashing high class discs on a delighted world in 2000, exhibiting the lyricist’s trait for adapting great American fiction into short, sharp and pungent songs with tunes to match. Also a gifted guitarist and a noted mover and shaker whose reputation belies his years (he’s still only 40), Adams has produced albums for Willie Nelson, Jesse Malin and Fall Out Boy and collaborated with artists the caliber of Norah Jones, Counting Crows, America, Toots & the Maytals, our own Beth Orton and the veteran alt-country gods, Cowboy Junkies – not a bad list of accomplishments for a Nashville old school maverick, let alone someone as relatively youthful as Ryan is. It isn’t then a surprise to learn that Ryan has also published books of short stories and poetry, and won himself a reputation as an outspoken spirit who refuses to kiss ass. We like the sound of him, more and more.
David Ryan Adams was born in Jacksonville, North Carolina in late 1974 and endured what he called a dysfunctional upbringing that has left its mark on his singular style. A lover of cult fiction who began learning the electric guitar in earnest as a 14-year old Ryan was a member of the legendary Patty Duke Syndrome who went on to form Whiskeytown where a combination of punk rock and country leanings shaped his attitude. His solo debut is Heartbreaker, produced by Ethan Johns and here Ryan lays down a marker by working with Gillian Welch and David Rawlings as well as Emmylou Harris. Critically well received – most of his output has wowed the scribbling brigade – that was followed by Gold for Lost Highway, a label within our compass. Grammy nominations ensued thanks to the startling inclusion of tracks like “New York, New York” and “Answering Bell,” the latter featuring Crows’ man Adam Duritz. The artist responsible wasn’t too pleased with the 2002 disc Demolition but we like it fine. Songs as good as “Nuclear” and “Desire” shadow a vein of romanticism and massively uplifting tunesmanship that has always stood him in good stead.
No problems either with Rock n Roll (2003) where he benefits from a sojourn in Manhattan and a producer in James Barber who draws out great performances. Hooks, lyrical smarts and Ryan’s lived-in vocals drag “This Is It” and the epic “So Alive” into an urban sunshine and there are notable assists from Parker Posey and Melissa Auf der Maur to add light and shade.
Love Is Hell (2004) teams Ryan with British producer John Porter and stamps a solid country vibe on “English Girls Approximately” (featuring his friend Marianna Faithfull) and the majority of cuts where guitarist Greg Leisz adds his distinctive mark. Always apt to cast an eye to Britpop, in whatever guise you choose to interpret that phrase, this is also where he tackles Noel Gallagher’s “Wonderwall” and does that familiar tune full justice.
His first album with The Cardinals is the delicious Cold Roses where the boy wonder strides out like a good ‘un. This is a double-disc delight that is wholeheartedly recommended as an entry-level choice for those who may not be familiar with Ryan’s work. Consistent and listenable, it remains a classic today. So does the second part of a trilogy spanning seven months in which Ryan and The Cardinals go for broke, namely Jacksonville City Nights, swiftly followed by 29. Bergen White’s Nashville String Machine augments pedal-steel guitar, violin and upfront use of piano and Mr Adams parlays his reputation into chart gold.
Back with Johns for 29 the sales start to match the word of mouth fan base. Ever elusive and recalcitrant Ryan outfoxes the general trend by casting his gaze back to country era Grateful Dead and early Neil Young. What’s not to like on a disc that is his most autobiographical and self-contained to date?
He deserved a break and took two years to come up with Easy Tiger, enlisting the noted bass player Neil Casale and bassist Chris Feinstein on an album that explores his most complex writing and makes good use of Electric Lady Studios – a classic choice for an album with high ambition and a touch of rock tinged outer-coating. We love this album and think you will too; it certainly deserves discovering now. After the expanded Follow the Lights (2007) that includes a fine version of the Alice in Chains song “Down in a Hole” Adams reached the end of his contract with Lost Highway on the aptly-named Cardinology, not however an anthology. A brutally frank and open-hearted disc, the most cutting track is probably “Stop”, a disarmingly sharp examination of substance abuse Adams has seldom bothered to disguise himself from his work in that time-honoured ‘oh my songs are just universal truths” type of way. In any case his status is assured by now with chart slots in major territories and a live reputation that is beyond dispute. Ever contrary he then embarks on the heavy metal flavoured Orion and a return to independent values on his own Pax Americana Recording Company, mixing and matching the styles of his youth with fervent abandon. He re-enters our orbit with Ashes & Fire, produced by Glyn Johns (see how that squares the circle!) and delivering his first top 10 album since Easy Tiger. This is a disc that delivers all the goods, all the time and bang on time. It’s another one of his essentials: check the quality of “Lucky Now” and the lovely title-track and ponder over the back-up where Adams is enhanced to full effect by Leisz, Benmont Tench, Norah Jones (on piano and backing vocals) and old flame Mandy Moore. Suffice to say, Ashes & Fire is an indication that this man has got better with age and with the process of aging up. It’s a gem of a recording.
Hit 2014 and he might as well release a self-titled disc. Ryan Adams is that beast and it’s also self-produced and heavy on atmospherics. Asked why the plain old moniker Adams was as amusing as ever when he remarked that coming up with titles was starting to bug him since everything sounded like an old-fashioned King Crimson prog concept. An overstatement it may be, but it’s a funny way out of a quandary.
Always apt to be lost in the moment when a passion for youthful rock and roll supersedes pretensions to high art Ryan Adams is very much his own man and a one-off. Ornery enough but true to himself. Not many artists would part company with a producer of Glyn Johns reputation because they didn’t want to enter the hallowed ground of Sunset Sound. Johnny Depp pops up on this latter-day disc too, adding some fiery guitar lines to “Kim” and "Feels Like Fire”.
While his live shows have become cult items in their own right, they sell out in minutes, Ryan Adams star remains on the up. He’s had recent Grammy nominations and proven capable of forging an alliance between indie chutzpah and establishment releases with added DIY control. He’s never claimed to be the perfect answer but what was the question? If the answer is great music then Ryan’s your man. Check him out. You’ll be glad you did. And, more likely, surprised that you didn’t do so before.