It’s no secret that Ryan Adams has received his fair share of criticism – from both the media and listeners alike – over the length of his career. I’ve heard so many of the same, overused adjectives thrown his way that they’ve now become clichés to avoid. But, for the sake of argument, let’s review: prolific, eccentric, egotistical, volatile…just to name a few. I mean, didn’t Adams once kick an audience member out of a show after that supposed fan taunted him with a “Summer of ’69” song request? Or is that an urban legend?
Honestly, I didn’t hop on the Ryan Adams train until his song “New York, New York” became a VH1 anthem for our healing nation after the events of 9/11. All it took was a flash of the video on the television screen, with the Twin Towers standing proudly in the background, to make me wonder: seriously, who is this guy? After I learned the name, I scrambled to gather his entire discography; it was only two albums deep at that point. I bid you good luck if you choose to start from scratch today.
Upon initial listen, no other artist’s music has so quickly and deeply resonated with me on both an emotional and physical level. I have listened to “Oh My Sweet Carolina” two hundred times in my life, and with those first four notes from the guitar, my mood immediately turns somber, cold chills spring up on my arms, and I think of home. Conversely, there are more than a handful of songs – “To Be Young,” “The Hardest Part,” and “Chin Up, Cheer Up” – that force my toes into tapping before my brain can even register the beat.
Most often dubbed “alt-country,” Adams has in fact tried his hand at a bevy of styles ranging from acoustic storytelling to soulful backbreakers, atmospheric confessions to full-bodied jams, small town honky-tonk to straight up big city rock ‘n’ roll. Lyrically, he paints meticulous pictures of roadside diners and bars, crushing break ups and what-might-have-beens, blue-collar trials and tribulations, and frustrations of the lonesome and wistful; clearly, he’s been a few places and seen a few things. It’s relatable to the point of borderline autobiographical at times.
I have never hung on to music for dear life like I have with Adams’ for the past seven years. I don’t know how to describe this music except to adorn it with this vague yet telling notation: it’s everything to me, a catalog of memories.
It is dancing like fools in the kitchen with my boyfriend. It is talking philosophy in the basement with Joe. It is playing cards and singing at the top of my lungs with Karie. It is crying all alone in my bedroom on a Friday night just to release the week’s stress. And it is talking shop with my music buddy Andy who, four months after a shout out in my inaugural Strangers Almanac column, isn’t even on this earth anymore, in a flesh and blood form, anyway. Somehow, this music is everyone I love, and it’s me, turned inside out and upside down: exposed.
In the end, despite the raised eyebrows and disparaging remarks that inevitably follow Adams, when I think about his music, I don’t think much about him at all. The bottom line is that I don’t care what famous actress he’s currently dating, and it most certainly doesn’t bother me if the man releases three albums a year (I actually admire him for the ability to harness the chaos of creativity inside of him into something accessible on a regular basis). I don’t pay attention to rumored scuffles with his record label, and if his in-concert persona is questionable, I look the other way.
Simply put: I’m on board because of the music, and the music alone. And I won’t ever let go.
He said it: "I come from tough southern people who aren’t bothered by mosquitoes, divorces, or occasional car wrecks. I remember my parents and grandparents sipping on cans of beer, playing horseshoes in the backyard as the summer heat turned dark. The rosebushes and pine trees, where the fences ended, roared with crickets that sounded like doors creaking in an old haunted house. I would watch from the windows in the back rooms, listening to Prince sing ‘Purple Rain’ as though his life depended on it. And I played my brother’s old tennis racquet like a guitar, emulating that sound that could only come from that little old silver cassette player that weighed me down like an anchor. And even then I performed better alone. Most people do."