Country rock group
Whiskeytown’s short, volatile, yet brilliant career made the band the darlings of the alternative country crowd during the 1990s. Their rise also mirrored the ascent of alternative country, or alt. country as it is also known, and helped shape the new genre. Reviewers alternately heaped praise on the band’s eclectic vision and bravado and bemoaned its unreliability and drunken stage antics. “Depending on who you ask,” wrote David Goodman in Modern Twang, “Whiskeytown is either: (a) the second coming of Uncle Tupelo, or (b) a bunch of ill behaved pseudo-redneck pretenders.” Despite the turmoil, personnel changes, and missed opportunities, Whiskeytown nonetheless won over both critics and fans with their ability to create a potent brand of country-rock on stage and in the recording studio.
Whiskeytown came together in Raleigh, North Carolina, in 1994 when drummer Skillet Gilmore heard that Ryan Adams was forming a country band. When Adams walked into a local bar called Sadlack’s, Gilmore volunteered himself as the band’s first recruit. After a hesitant start with a banjo player named Rags, the group jelled when guitarist Phil Wandscher joined. “It just worked,” Adams told Peter Blackstock in No Depression. “His guitar playing and my guitar playing, and his sensibilities and my sensibilities, they were perfect.” Wandscher invited a friend, bassist Steve Grothman, to join their jam sessions, and fiddler Caitlin cary just happened to walk off the street one day while the band was playing. “Nobody knew her,” Adams told Blackstock. “She just walked in, she didn’t know anybody.”
Within two months the ragtag unit entered the studio to record a seven-inch EP for Mood Food Records in 1995. Angels caught the energy of a band finding its sound, and proved an apt warm up for its first album, Faithless Street in 1996. “The music itself,” wrote Zac Johnson in All Music Guide, “is often sparse and gritty, brutally honest, and quite beautiful.” Although released with little fanfare by a small label with mostly local distribution, the CD became a critics’ favorite. “Firing twin barrels of the rawest rock ‘n’ roll and the grittiest country,” Blackstock wrote, “it was the kind of debut that signals something truly special is on the horizon.”
After Faithless Street’s warm reception, Whiskeytown faced the usual pressures of an up-and-coming band. “Once things kicked in,” cary told Allison Stewart in the Boston Phoenix, “it went so fast that it was sort of unnatural. It felt like we had the rug pulled out from under us. That’s probably at the root of all the Whiskeytown problems.” After the band appeared at the South by Southwest (SXSW) festival in 1996, a bidding war ensued among various record labels. “Although the band continued to tour after their SXSW experience,” Andy Langer wrote in the Austin Chronicle, “a different A&R [Artist and Repertoire] rep met them at almost every gig along the way .” Whiskeytown ultimately signed with Outpost, a Geffen imprint that promised the band a free hand in the studio.
Success, however, came at a price. By the time Whiskeytown began to record Strangers Almanac the band was in disarray. Grothman and Gilmore departed in the wake of signing the record deal, and drummer Steve Terry and bassist Jeff Rice joined the band a week before recording began. “We just said,” Adams told Blackstock, “‘We’re going to Nashville to make a record, are you guys ready to go?’” Producer Jim Scott was left to pull it all together in the studio. “We were a pretty big mess at the time,” Adams told Langer, “and I think [Scott] pretty much felt that we sucked.” Despite the disarray, Whiskeytown managed to record 36 tracks, 13 of which became an album released in 1997. “Supporters hailed [Strangers Almanac] as the alt. country recording of the 1990s,” wrote Goodman, “and Whiskeytown as the future of alternative country.” After the album was completed, Rice was replaced by bassist Chris Laney.
That same year also saw the release of Rural Free Delivery, an EP of outtakes and demos from Faithless Street. Although Mood Food, the band’s previous label, released it against the group’s wishes, fans were nonetheless glad to have it. James Chrispell called it “well worth seeking out” in All Music Guide. As Whiskeytown toured to support the new album, the band continued to earn its reputation as volatile and unpredictable. “The mood on stage was usually fraught with tension, “wrote Stewart, “and gigs were messy or brilliant or both.”
Following a show in Kansas City in September of 1997, Wandscher, Terry, and bassist Chris Laney were
Members include Ryan Adams (born on November 5, 1974, in Jacksonville, NC), guitar, vocals; Caitlin Cary, fiddle, vocals; Skillet Gilmore (left group, 1998), drums; Steve Grothman (left group, 1996), bass; Jeff Rise (group member, 1996-97), bass; Steven Terry (group member, 1996-97), drums; Phil Wandscher (left group, 1997), guitar, vocals.
Group formed in Raleigh, NC, 1994; recorded EP Angels, 1995; released debut, Faithless Street, 1996; Rural Free Delivery, 1997; signed with Outpost label to release Strangers Almanac, 1997; disbanded, released Pneumonia, 2001.
Addresses: Record company—Lost Highway, 10 Universal City Plaza, 4th FL, Universal City, CA 91608, website: http://www.losthighwayrecords.com.
dismissed. Whiskeytown regrouped with guitarist Ed Crawford and bassist Jenni Snyder, and drummer Skillet Gilmore returned to the fold. The band then began a West Coast summer tour, during which Ryan Adams made headlines by pushing monitors off stage, destroying his guitar, and returning to his dressing room in the middle of a song to vomit. The band also appeared with the Old 97’s on Austin City Limits. By the time Whiskeytown began work on its third album in 1998, the band was once again in shambles, with only Adams and Cary remaining from the original lineup. Although they were able to complete the album with Mike Daly’s help, Outpost closed its doors after a corporate merger, leaving Whiskeytown’s new album in limbo for two years.
Pneumonia, like its two predecessors, moved in an entirely new direction. “This is easily Whiskeytown’s most ambitious and eclectic work,” wrote Mark Deming in All Music Guide. By the time the album was released, however, Whiskeytown had broken up, and both Cary and Adams had released solo material. Although the band’s six-year run was relatively brief, their live shows and studio output prompted Rob Kemp of SonicNet to call them “one of the leading lights of the mid-’90s insurgent country movement.” Unlike their contemporaries, Whiskeytown cast a wide net musically, embracing country, pop, and rock. The band never traveled the safe route, but allowed its sound to evolve from album to album, making Whiskeytown a band that resisted categorization. “We’re not a country band, and we’re not an alternative band,” Adams told Brian Steinberg in Country Standard Time. “I can’t put a label on it, to tell you the truth. We’re just Whiskeytown.”
Angels (EP), Mood Food, 1995.
Faithless Street, Mood Food, 1996.
Rural Free Delivery (EP), Mood Food, 1997.
Strangers Almanac, Outpost, 1997.
Pneumonia, Lost Highway, 2001.
Goodman, David, Modem Twang: An Alternative Country Music Guide and Directory, Dowling Press, 1999.
“Falling Up, Standing Down,” No Depression, http://www.nodepression.net/archive/nd10/features/whiskeytown.html (June 10, 2003).
“No Expectations,” Austin Chronicle,http://www.weeklywire.com/ww/09-08-97/austin_music_feature1.html (June 10, 2003).
“Ryan Adams Reflects on Pneumonia, Gold” SonicNet.com, http://www.sonicnet.com/news/archive/story.jhtml?id=1442609 (June 10, 2003).
“Whiskeytown,” All Music Guide,http://www.allmusic.com (June 10, 2003).
“Whiskeytown Gets Major with Strangers Almanac,” Country Standard Time,http://www.countrystandardtime.com/whiskeytownFEATURE.html (September 15, 2003).
“Whiskeytown Tales,” Boston Phoenix,http://www.weeklywire.com/ww/09-11-00/boston_music_3.html (June 10, 2003).
—Ronnie D. Lankford, Jr.