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Roots Seller

Whiskeytown, Williams Roll Down the Lost Highway

By John Duffy | Posted 5/30/2001

It's been nearly 10 years since the big labels in Nashville latched onto Garth Brooks' seemingly unstoppable momentum and coasted to the top of the charts. It's been nearly five years since sales of country albums and singles began a downward spiral that continues to this day. Not much of a story on the surface, really; just another pop-music cycle that could not have been predicted or prevented. So now Music City is looking for the next Next Big Thing, and perhaps finding it on its own side streets.

Beginning May 22 with the release of Whiskeytown's Pneumonia and continuing June 5 with the release of Lucinda Williams' Essence, a major label is putting formidable promotional muscle behind contemporary alternative-country artists. Lost Highway is a new imprint, an ambitious joint venture between Mercury Nashville and the Island/Def Jam Music Group. Headed by veteran Music City insider Luke Lewis (the man who brought you Shania Twain), the label marks the first concerted effort by a major label to give voice to such marginalized country artists since the "outlaw" boom of the 1970s that made crossover stars out of Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings.

Of course, there's no guarantee that mavericks like Whiskeytown and Williams can ever gain a lasting place in the mainstream, even with the blessing of an arm of the country-music establishment. Regardless of how they came into being, these two new albums come at critical points for their authors.

After early-1990s stints at RCA and American Recordings so troubled and fleeting that nothing was ever recorded, Williams' 1998 album Car Wheels on a Gravel Road (Mercury) earned the singer/songwriter a Grammy and healthy sales (by alt-country standards at least). Whiskeytown's third full-length album, the darkly melodic Stranger's Almanac, released by Outpost Recordings in 1997, earned the oft-fluctuating group a place atop the teetering No Depression heap. In early 1999, the group completed a follow-up that has collected dust for two years thanks to the wrangling resulting from the Island/Def Jam merger. In fact, the wait for Pneumonia's release proved to be the effective end of Whiskeytown. At a concert during the 2000 South by Southwest Music Conference in Austin, Texas, frontman Ryan Adams introduced the summery love song "Crazy About You" as the first single from the band's next album--which, he announced with evident disgust, was called It'll Never Fuckin' Come Out. That show was one of Whiskeytown's last performances.

Instead of waiting it out, Adams put together the introspective, folkie Heartbreaker for Chicago indie label Bloodshot and is currently polishing off a second solo disc for release later this summer on Lost Highway. He has said that Whiskeytown may re-form given the right circumstances, and Pneumonia may be just the medicine the band needs. Though more polished than previous Whiskeytown albums, its heart is still in the deep melancholy of Adams' youth and early adulthood.

On Stranger's Almanac, Adams' songs depicted a man constantly inebriated and frustrated, living at times a fragile and even pathetic existence, embroiled in a life of sinnin' and drinkin'--songs that from the outside seemed plainly autobiographical. By the time the lengthy sessions that produced Pneumonia (originally planned as a two-disc affair) rolled around, Adams had matured measurably as a songwriter. He had given up drinking and gained much greater control over his voice, and his songs explored the deeper reasons for the shiftlessness that had infected many of his earlier tunes.

A child of an economically stressed town wanders aimlessly amid "a life of inherited sadness" on Pneumonia's "Jacksonville Skyline." A similar protagonist contemplates the spiraling economic issues that feed his malaise in "My Hometown." While the new album's songs look beyond the mirror for places to put the blame, there is still room for some of Adams' good old-fashioned self-loathing. On the exquisite "Easy Hearts" he asks, "can I be yours tonight/ I've had a pretty hard life/ I'm such an easy heart." Signing alongside Caitlin Carey's swaying fiddle, Adams' seducer tries to earn pity while still maintaining control, not realizing the hopelessness that cripples him is of his own making.

Adams' encouraging words notwithstanding, Pneumonia shapes up at the moment as Whiskeytown's swan song. If so, though, it bodes well for Adams' future solo work, and explains why Heartbreaker sounded like such a giant leap forward from Stranger's Almanac. Heartbreaker found Adams stripping away the pedal-steel guitar and horns and replacing them with a jangly, acoustic approach that highlighted the more studied lyrics. Pneumonia indicates he would have outgrown Whiskeytown in short order, regardless of the band's label snafu.

Lucinda Williams has weathered quite a few storms herself. After nearly 20 years of struggle and plain old bad luck (RCA and American were not the first labels with which she clashed), the singer finally hit pay dirt with Car Wheels on a Gravel Road. Three years later, Williams opts for a decidedly more low-key approach on Essence. Waxed with the help of Texas guitarist/producer Charlie Sexton, Williams veers away from the eclectic roots rock of Car Wheels and instead explores the moody, languid textures familiar to listeners of Gillian Welch. Welch has had much better luck with the sound.

Not to make light of Williams' repeated battles with labels and the industry in general, but quite honestly her albums seemed more rewarding when we had to wait six to eight years for them. Essence lacks direction, as Williams seems content to float songs past the listener without developing any overall sense of motion or drama. A string of fine songs such as "Lonely Girls," (a slightly less heart-wrenching rewrite of Janis Ian's "At Seventeen") and "I Envy the Wind" become just plain mopey without brighter, more uptempo tunes intermingled as contrast, something Car Wheels did almost effortlessly. Moments such as the spare, Aimee Mann-ish "Out of Touch" and the driving gospel jam "Get Right With God" are far too few. On the waltz-time "Bus to Baton Rouge," an aging woman recites simple memories that, in the end, paint a very detailed picture of a distant life: "a piano nobody played . . . a driveway of white seashells." The song shows that, as always, simplicity and understatement work for Williams if she finds the proper balance. Essence is a collection of decent, sometimes exceptional songs, but nowhere near the sort of consistent quality album that we've come to eagerly await from Williams.

Still, if Lewis and Lost Highway have trouble turning a profit peddling this music, it won't be because the artists lack quality, longevity, or ability to develop a sizeable audience. Nashville still fetishizes FM radio, and big-time country programmers are unlikely to start playing Williams back to back with Faith Hill just because Lewis says they should. (Alt-country's modest gains have to date been earned largely via the Internet and word of mouth.) The audience for Whiskeytown, the Jayhawks, Blue Rodeo, Steve Earle, and the like are generally not the same folks who line up at Wal-Mart to pay $17 for the latest Trace Adkins fluff. Lost Highway may be more of a noble gesture than a long-term strategy for remaking Nashville, but what do you expect from a town that sends deities and former hitmakers such as Johnny Cash and Merle Haggard fleeing to California-based rock labels to release their music?

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