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Whiskeytown - A short interview's journey into Hell

I have to tell you about the bizarre thing that happened while I was talking to Ryan Adams for this story. It was at a monthly show called the Songwriters Alliance Series at the Berkeley Cafe. A guy here by the name of Jeff Hart puts it on and invites people from local bands to play. Its like those songwriter shows at The Bottom Line in New York City; everybody takes turns playing songs theyve written, wished theyd written, etc.

Anyway, Ryan was a last-minute replacement for Chris Stamey at the most recent one. Two people from the band Dish also played; you may have heard of them (their record just came out on Interscope). It was at the Berkeley Cafe, and a smallish crowd of about two dozen was there, including this strange drunken fellow who said he was Kenneth from Nashville. He was getting in everybodys face trying to talk his way onstage. He buttonholed Jeff and said he should let him onstage because, Im reeeeeeeal gooooood. In fact, Im the shit.

In retrospect, it was probably a bad idea to let him on. But he seemed harmless so they called him up at the very end probably on the one-in-a-million chance that the guy was Wild Man Fishers long-lost cousin. But no, he was predictably pathetic. Jeff loaned him a guitar and the guy couldnt even strum or sing, much less remember the words to anything. Drunken and sad.

Jeff handled it as gracefully as anyone could have and brought the show to a close (Kenneth wouldve sat up there babbling all night if they had let him). Afterward, people were milling around and packing up to leave, but Kenneth was getting weirder and creepier by the second. He was sitting at the bar and began making strange statements and threats. He said he had two weeks to live, his wife just died, he had a knife and planned to walk outside and kill the first three people he saw, and so on.

Then he picked up a barstool and slammed it down. I was sitting at a table nearby talking to Ryan and taking notes for quotes while this was going on. My back was to Kenneth, and the barstool slam sounded like a gunshot, which was scary. That was about the time the cops showed up, shining flashlights at the guy. He cowered behind the bar, vowing to cut anybody who came anywhere near him. We all stood there watching, wondering what the hell would happen. Then the guy said, Dont make me shoot, which made the cops think he might have a gun. So they cleared the room and a standoff ensued.

Thus ended my interview with Ryan the first time Ive ever had one called on account of third-party psychosis. Fortunately, it was for this here short piece, so I didnt need much in the way of quotes. Anyway, they herded us all outside and we hung out on the sidewalk, wondering what to do. All the musicians still had their instruments inside, so they were stuck. I hung around for almost an hour and called it a night at 2 a.m., when it became clear nothing would happen anytime soon. At 3:30 a.m., the cops finally called in the riot squad in helmets to drag him out. Kenneth had barricaded himself behind the bar and was reportedly serenading the cops with Jeffs guitar, which was unfortunately damaged when they went in and got him. Jeffs video camera was also broken in the scuffle (he tapes all these shows for posterity).

Apparently, Kenneth has a long history of crime and mental instability, and had just gotten out of the local mental hospital two days earlier. I wonder why they let him out; he obviously wasnt ready for the world.

Anyway, pretty exciting for a Wednesday night in Mayberry. Amusing, but sad, although maybe Ryan will get some song fodder out of it.

And now .... WHISKEYTOWN

While the Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill, N.C., Triangle is better-known as an oasis of hip indie-rock like Archers of Loaf and Superchunk, the area also has a handful of ace country-rock bands. The Backsliders are the acknowledged kingpins of the subset (think hardcore honky-tonk), and Pine States shows are good for lots of laughs (think the Tubes covering George Jones and Hank Williams Senior, that is). But the most inspired outfit of the bunch is Whiskeytown.

The bands main drawing card is singer/frontman Ryan Adams, whose voice and songwriting show astounding maturity for a mere 21-year-old. Adams writes with the same brand of acid-tipped pen as James McMurtry and sings in an angelic Gram Parsons tenor twang, while the other four players veer crazily back and forth between rock and bluegrass and country and punk, sometimes all at once.

Whiskeytown first came together last year after the acrimonious breakup of Adams previous band, the Patty Duke Syndrome. By then, the more countrified songs he was beginning to write didnt fit Patty Dukes rawer punk sound, anyway. Or as Adams puts it in the chorus of the Whiskeytown song Angels Are Messengers From God: So I started this damn country band / Cause punk rock was too hard to sing. Not that he really believes that.

People in punk bands around here are starting to do other things because punk rock just gets old after a while, says Adams. Whiskeytown is five completely different people whose main focus is to write good songs. Were not the sort of friends who hang out a lot and get real buddy-buddy. This whole band is sort of an accident. If anything happens, it happens.

Thus far, Whiskeytown has released a four-song, 7-inch EP titled Angels on the local independent label Mood Food Records. Its a fine effort that includes the aforementioned Angels Are Messengers From God and three other songs. But the bands best recorded work to date is its incredible version of Blank Generation on the locally produced Richard Hell tribute album Who the Hell. Its a brilliant arrangement, built around Caitlin Carys woozy fiddle and a cackling chorus straight out of an otherworldly Grand Ol Opry.

Perhaps theyll top it with the full-length album in the works for later this fall (which will also be released on Mood Food). Theres a lot of severity to the songs; a lot of them are really emotive and heavy, Adams says of the album's material. Some that I wrote belong to other people: They were written for someone specific to hear. Theres a good depressive feel to some of them, and a heartwarming feel, too. But the hopefulness definitely comes from the music, not the material.

Author David Menconi
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