WHISKEYTOWN SERVES UP SHOT OF ALT-COUNTRY

By Barry Gilbert
The Arizona Republic

January 29, 1998
1998 The Arizona Republic

It's an odd musical crossroads, where folks wearing dusty boots meet folks sporting nose rings, all of them on their way to Neil Young's house.

It's so odd, nobody knows what to call this convergence of punk and country. Even the genre's chronicler, No Depression magazine, has fun with the world's preoccupation with labels, calling itself ''the every kind of music but country bimonthly'' one issue and ''the bimonthly for alternative countries'' the next.

So take your pick: alternative country (there is a mope factor), roots rock, No Depression (after an Uncle Tupelo album), adult album alternative (gag) or even Americana (an industry chart for the nation's 80-odd non-Valley radio stations that play this music).

Two of the leading alt-country outfits, Whiskeytown and 6 String Drag, bring their mixture of punk energy and country sensibilities to Nita's Hideaway in Tempe on Saturday.

Born in Raleigh, N.C., in October 1994, Whiskeytown is a regional variation on ''We drank so much, man, it was whiskey city.'' But lately, it has been more like revolving-door town, as the band recently lost three of its players, including original guitarist Phil Wandscher.

The constants have been singer-songwriter-guitarist Ryan Adams and singer-fiddler Caitlin Cary.

Adams, a reformed punkster barely out of his first band, the Patty Duke Syndrome, writes with uncommon simplicity about common people.

''Excuse me while I break my own heart tonight,'' he sings in the song of the same name. ''After all, it's mine - can I have it back sometime?''

The song is from Strangers Almanac on Geffen's Outpost Recordings, Whiskeytown's second full-length album. It's a breakup album, Adams has said, inspired by relationship and band splinterings.

In the up-tempo Yesterday's News, Adams sings, ''I can't stand to be under your wing, I can't fly or sink or swim.''

And in the horn-flavored, R&B-tinged Everything I Do, he admonishes, ''Don't you ask me how I'm doing, when everything I do says I miss you.''

''All the punk-rock stuff I ever did was still based around songs,'' Adams has said. ''It'd be loud and fast, but I was always trying to write bridges and choruses. After a while, I just wanted to do something different.''

For 6 String Drag, signed and produced by alt-country god Steve Earle on his E-Squared label, the punk roots mix with sweet harmonies. But where Whiskeytown takes its time, 6 String Drag gets in your face, says what it has to say, and gets out quickly.

The album High Hat drops its influences with pride, from classic Southern rock on Bottle of Blues and Elvis Costello on Driven Man, to Doug ''Sir Douglas'' Sahm on Elaine and the Muswell Hillbillies-era Kinks on Over & Over (''shame on me for lettin' you do what you do, over & over again'').

The Nita's Hideaway double bill isn't the first alt-country show for the Tempe club, which has brought Hazeldine, Jesse Dayton and the Old 97's to the Valley. But it's telling that the Whiskeytown-Drag show, which has played small theaters on other tour stops, is playing a club here.

''A lot of bands are not getting radio play in Phoenix,'' said Charlie Levy, talent booker for Nita's. ''It's very depressing.''

Make that No Depression.

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