In the early spring months of 1997, Ryan Adams and Phil Wandscher—22 and 26, respectively—had an appointment in Los Angeles. A week earlier, they had finished the bulk of the second album by their band, Whiskeytown, an unstable Raleigh quintet that had sparked a mighty buzz the year before with its independent label debut, Faithless Street.
Adams and Wandscher, who had been each other's foil since the band was formed, were bound for Ocean Way Studios—a premier room used by Miles Davis, Michael Jackson, Herbie Hancock and Joni Mitchell—to rendezvous with Jim Scott, the producer who had recorded the band's follow-up in Nashville. They boarded a plane at RDU.
"Like a minute before they closed the door, Ryan just gets up and is like, 'I'm outta here, man,' and just takes off," remembers Wandscher. "He fuckin' runs off the plane, and they closed the door behind him."
Wandscher sat still: In Chicago, while waiting on the connecting flight to Los Angeles, he realized that Adams had bolted with the tickets in his pocket. He pleaded his way onboard and arrived in Los Angeles that evening. Back in Raleigh, Adams got on a train and took it across the country, showing up to the studio a week late. Together, they mixed Strangers Almanac, the last album Whiskeytown would release while still a band.
Adams' sudden departure didn't surprise anyone. It had been a difficult if exciting year for Whiskeytown, a band that had started just as humbly and casually as the other dozen acts Adams formed since moving to Raleigh as a teenager five years earlier. Nothing had gone easily or quite as planned: Jere McIlwean, one of Adams' oldest friends and bandmates from back home in Jacksonville, N.C., had died; Adams has described McIlwean as a closet heroin addict. Adams had broken up with his girlfriend. And while Whiskeytown—the hot new property of a Geffen imprint called Outpost—was playing the CMJ Music Marathon in New York in the fall of 1996, Hurricane Fran flooded North Carolina. Three-fifths of the band—violinist Caitlin Cary, drummer Skillet Gilmore (Disclosure: an Independent Weekly employee) and bassist Steve Grothmann—drove home, but Adams and Wandscher decided to test their luck in the city.
"We couch-surfed for a couple of weeks, and just hung out there," remembers Wandscher. "And when we got back, the first thing we encountered was Caitlin and Skillet and Steve telling us they didn't want to be in the band. They didn't want to be in Whiskeytown anymore."
Adams headed back to Jacksonville, unsure if he could or should salvage Whiskeytown. He didn't seem to need the band, anyway: A&M Records was dangling a solo contract in front of him, and—as he told Peter Blackstock in a 1997 No Depression cover story—he almost took it. But Wandscher went looking for him, temporarily talking him out of a solo career and into returning to Raleigh. They recruited drummer Steve Terry, who had known Wandscher for several years, and bassist Jeff Rice, a friend of the rest of the band. And though Cary remained uncertain of her future in Whiskeytown and the band's future in general, she returned for the time being.
"With Steve and Skillet gone, it didn't feel like 'the band' anymore, but it did still feel kind of important and charged," says Cary. "The impulse to quit the band started to feel just slightly more foolish than staying."
Adams agrees. He says he mainly just wanted to please Gilmore, the former Sadlack's owner who had asked Adams in 1995 if he could drum in the country band he heard Adams was forming: "Seriously, I loved his expression when I brought him something that made him really smile," says Adams. "And with Caitlin, I would stay up forever at night looking for the perfect words and chords that I knew would get her excited."
With Gilmore out of the band and Cary—who started dating Gilmore soon after he left the band—on the fence, Adams pulled it together to make the record he'd vowed to make.
"I was not going to let Caitlin down or the fact that she had left a life that was working for her at the university so that I could go down with the A&M label as a footnote on a roster of footnotes," he says.
Whiskeytown got in a van and headed to Nashville's Woodland Studios. Adams left all of his guitars in a parking lot in Raleigh, so the band had to buy three cheap guitars from pawnshops before they could rehearse the new material for Scott. Adams had written a batch of new songs on the drive to Nashville, and—in addition to the tracks the band had recorded for a demo in North Carolina with producer Chris Stamey—he wanted to include them: "Inn Town," "Everything I Do," "Waiting to Derail" and "Avenues."
With a rhythm section that had been together for a week playing songs that had been written on the ride to the sessions, the rehearsals were difficult at best. Recording wasn't much easier. Faithless Street mostly captured a series of live studio takes, cheaply and quickly made and purposely rough around the edges. They recorded Faithless Street in a barn, but Scott didn't work that way.
"It was a kind of hardworking thing we were certainly not used to," remembers Cary. "Up to then, making Faithless Street, it seemed like we just hit record. ... Jim was always fun, but he wasn't always easily satisfied, and I can remember a whole lot of heated discussions of a kind we were not used to."
Wandscher says he got along with Scott, but the more expensive record meant more work for a band that wasn't used to it: "I don't think Ryan had been around somebody like that before, somebody that was really a whipcracker and just wanted to get the job done. You know, Ryan would see how much booze he could chug before a vocal take, and then he'd need to go buy a pack of cigarettes. ... But the studio was amazing, and the dudes that worked there were a bunch of stoner rednecks, so that made sense and took some pressure off. It was pretty loose."
But Scott let the band have its fun, too. He left several imperfections in the mix. You can hear what sounds like shells rattling during the first 10 seconds of "Inn Town" and Adams scratching his face at the end of "Everything I Do." Scott had recruited marquee players like keyboardist John Ginty and pedal steel player Greg Leisz to augment the band. On "Avenues," Adams had never played piano on record, but he wanted to write and record the part. All told, the band recorded between 25 and 36 songs in Nashville. Those several dozen became the 13 of Strangers Almanac.
Adams acknowledges that Scott is a fantastic engineer, and that Whiskeytown was surprisingly capable during the sessions. But 11 years after finishing Strangers Almanac (it's been almost as long since he last heard it), Adams still doesn't like or believe the album. After all, he had secretly thought of quitting to find Gilmore and start "the band we originally talked about."
"I did not believe it was going to come out at all, actually. There were more than a few things wrong with myself personally, and our band was not communicating," says Adams, adding that he lifted the title "Inn Town" from a song Superchunk's Mac McCaughan wrote for his band WWAX in 1988; Adams felt he needed to honor a record he loved after being so disappointed in his own. "I never liked the album. I could never connect with the 'band' that made Strangers. It was, in my opinion, not a representation of the band I was in."
Adams doesn't speak for everyone. For years, Cary would walk out of any bar that was playing Strangers Almanac. It was too hard to hear. She put the CD on several years ago, though, and she actually liked it.
"It's pretty good," says Cary, who's released two LPs and an EP under her own name and two LPs with the harmony-rich Tres Chicas since Whiskeytown called it quits on New Year's Eve 1999. "I don't think it could ever be one of those records for me, but I can sorta see why it might be that to someone else."
For Wandscher, Strangers Almanac meant yet another connecting flight. He has been playing in Seattle's Jesse Sykes & the Sweet Hereafter for the better part of the decade. After an article about Wandscher appeared in a Seattle newspaper, Death Cab for Cutie's Chris Walla—who was recording across the street from Wandscher's apartment—recognized the ex-Whiskeytowner.
"He said, 'Are you Phil Wandscher?' He's like, 'Oh my god, I love that album Strangers Almanac. It's one of my favorite albums of all time,'" says Wandscher. "We actually became good friends, and he gave our record to Barsuk. And they signed us."
"Beautiful strangers," you could say.