Personalities | Whiskeytown | Alt. Country & The Bluegrass Revival
The Research Triangle, a cluster of three major universities (Duke, North Carolina and North Carolina State) in the Appalachian foothills, was a natural breeding ground for an alt.-country scene, thanks to its rural Southern setting and its density of bohemians.
It had been an outpost of the Georgia-centered alternative-rock scene that had produced R.E.M., The Swimming Pool Qs, The B52s, The Connells, Let’s Active and The dBs in the 1980s. But when a younger generation started adding twang to punk, the centre of gravity in south-eastern music shifted to the North Carolina towns of Chapel Hill, Durham and Raleigh.
The lively scene eventually produced such acts as Tift Merritt, The Backsliders, The Two Dollar Pistols, Hazeldine, Chatham County Line, Phil Lee, The Accelerators, 6 String Drag, The Ruins, The Woods and Thad Cockrell. But one band dominated: Whiskeytown – and before long it seemed like half the musicians in the area had served time in the group. Whiskeytown was co-founded in 1994 by punk-rocker Ryan Adams (vocals, guitar, b. 1974) and bar owner/drummer Skillet Gilmore. Before long the line-up included grad-student bluegrass-lover Caitlin Cary (vocals, fiddle, b. 1968), roots-rock guitarist Phil Wandscher and bassist Steve Grothman.
The country leanings of Cary and Wandscher created an Americana frame for Adams’ hot-wire tenor and undeniable rock’n’roll songwriting gifts. The results inevitably recalled Uncle Tupelo and its similar blend of influences, but there was a crucial difference. In contrast to the self-effacing demeanor of Tupelo’s Jay Farrar and Jeff Tweedy, Adams was a charismatic rock star, an impulsive man-child who would do anything to grab the audience’s attention.
Whiskeytown attracted national attention with an EP and the Faithless Street album in 1995 and the band signed with the major label Outpost/Geffen in 1996. By the time of the second full-length album, Strangers Almanac, there was a new drummer and bassist; soon after Mike Daly replaced Wandscher on lead guitar and a series of guitarists, keyboardists, drummers and bassists trooped through the ranks as Adams’ behavior became ever more erratic. But the music remained at a high level, and the band recorded a third album, Pneumonia, although its 1999 release was delayed due to turmoil at Geffen and to turmoil within the band itself.
Pneumonia was finally released in 2001, but by then Whiskeytown was history. Adams was preparing to release his second solo album, Gold, and Cary (now married to Gilmore) was preparing to release her debut album, While You Weren’t Looking, after an earlier solo EP. It was Adams who got the most attention – he seemed to be in Rolling Stone every other issue; he collaborated with everyone from Emmylou Harris to Beth Orton, and he befriended Elton John – but his best music was already behind him.
It was Cary, joining the country heartache of Patsy Cline to the British folk-rock of Sandy Denny, who captured the country-rock magic of Whiskeytown’s best moments. Cary’s solo and...
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