By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
By Scott Reitz
The great major-label mergings and purgings of the last several years have lost hundreds of people their jobs--but another tragic result is that many artists have been trapped in record-release limbo. The rootsy rock band Whiskeytown is one of them, and that's left rock fans unable to hear Pneumonia, arguably one of the best albums of 1999, and now 2000.
Consider it the great Replacements album the Replacements never had the patience to make; in fact, former Replacement/current Guns N' Roses bassist Tommy Stinson co-wrote and plays guitar on some of the tracks. Or simply consider it a great pop record. Far exceeding the expectations set by Whiskeytown's previous two releases, Pneumonia encompasses the many musical sides of frontman Ryan Adams, from Hank Williams-worshiping alt-country icon to rambunctious rock "star" to one of the purest rock tunesmiths since the heydays of Westerberg and Cobain. And it does so even more convincingly than Heartbreaker, his recently released solo debut on the indie label Bloodshot.
Adams and core Whiskeytown members Mike Daly and Caitlin Cary recorded a double CD--variously known as Happy Go Bye Bye and Doing That (a goof on Wilco's Being There)--three years ago in Woodstock, New York. Aside from Stinson, the players included Smashing Pumpkins guitarist James Iha, session bassist Jennifer Condos, and drummer-producer Ethan Johns (who was also behind the boards for Heartbreaker, and whose father, coincidentally, is legendary producer Glyn Johns).
Then came the Universal-Polygram union of early '99. Geffen and A&M were folded into Interscope, and Whiskeytown's label, Outpost, was left in the cold. This "major indie"--a joint venture between Geffen and the trio of A&R exec Mark Williams, producer Scott Litt, and manager Andy Gershon--suddenly had no distributor. Some of their acts, like Crystal Method and Days of the New, found new homes at Interscope, but Williams feared that Whiskeytown's double CD--by now titled Pneumonia--would get lost amid Interscope's high volume of releases. So he began seeking a new deal for himself and the band.
What Williams didn't anticipate was it taking this long to find one. "Ryan certainly has to get on with his career," he notes. "I don't want to hold him back unnecessarily. It's very possible he could find a home before I do. And if that's the case, I want to give him all the support I can."
Most recently, Williams has been discussing projects with former Virgin head Jeff Ayeroff, but the current state of the music business doesn't give him much hope. "Labels won't go after bands that don't fit into some immediate pocket, and there's so much pressure that there's a fear to sign anything without a formula," he says. "That's the vision--or I should say lack of vision--among a lot of the A&R people today."
Adams is less diplomatic about his situation: "Basically the guy who owns Seagram's and a couple of other companies [Edgar Bronfman]--this man, he has a son. He probably asked his son what businesses he wanted to run, and he said he wanted to run the music business. So he bought his son Universal. Disgusting, really. So he bought it, and got rid of anybody that didn't sell a million copies the last couple of records."
Every month, for 14 months, Adams waited for the album he'd recorded in Woodstock to see the light of day. And every month, nothing happened. "It was very hard for me," he says, then adds, "I think that Pneumonia should come out. I mean, Whiskeytown deserves that. It can be sort of like our swan song that nobody really got to hear at the time. It already has a certain amount of mystery to it, because nobody has fucking heard it. When it does finally come out, there's no band to tour because there isn't a Whiskeytown anymore. But we'll all sort of be sitting back in our collective lives with a big grin on our faces."
Adams, of course, has gained as much notoriety for being a rock-and-roll bad boy as he has for his talent. His shenanigans, both onstage and off, were becoming as legendary as the Replacements'. But ask Williams (who admits Adams was "a mess" when Outpost signed him four years ago), manager Frank Callari, Bug Music publishing attorney David Hirshland, or former publicist Kevin Kennedy about Adams' reputation, and they all mention how much he's matured over the last year. In fact, "growing up" is a phrase Adams himself uses frequently these days. Yet he still sounds like a hyperactive kid--albeit a nice and friendly hyperactive kid--as he delivers virtual monologues on everything from punk rock to Mariah Carey (whom he professes to "adore") to Keith Richards, whom he ironically credits with helping him "sober up" by instructing him to switch to vodka.