Life After Whiskeytown: Ryan Adams and Caitlin Cary

Who was the most important figure to emerge from the break-up of Whiskeytown – Ryan Adams or Caitlin Cary? Geoffrey Himes ponders the issue.

WHISKEYTOWN BROKE up in 1999, but from the ashes of that alt-country band has emerged a solo career so striking and so satisfying that it seems destined to eclipse the band’s considerable reputation.

That solo career belongs to Caitlin Cary, who comes to Baltimore Sunday. Ryan Adams, Whiskeytown’s lead singer and chief songwriter, has gotten all the press, but it is Cary, the band’s fiddler and harmony singer, who has released one of the finest albums of the new decade. Her first full-length solo disc, While You Weren’t Looking, marries pop pleasure to emotional resonance in a way that Adams and a hundred other Gram Parsons wannabes have failed to achieve.

It may be true that Adams has more talent. He is able to mimic almost any rock star of the past 40 years-not only as a singer and guitarist but also as a songwriter-and he is astonishingly prolific. He certainly has more charisma. With his tousled hair, leather clothes, legendary drinking bouts, grainy voice and heavy-lidded insouciance, Adams has impressed stars such as Elton John and Emmylou Harris as easily as he has college coeds. But Cary is making better music. And that’s what should count, isn’t it?

Adams’ first solo disc, 2000’s Heartbreaker, was a respectable effort; his acoustic-guitar-framed ruminations on a busted love affair were striking, even if his mimicry of Parsons and Bob Dylan was so blatant that the sentiments often seemed as borrowed as the arrangements. But the follow-up, last year’s Grammy-nominated Gold, revealed the limitations of imitation. Why should anyone be interested in these lacklustre reworkings of ’70s-era Rolling Stones, Rod Stewart & the Faces and Neil Young & Crazy Horse when the originals are still in print?

When Adams sings a love song such as ‘Nobody Girl’, one gets the impression that his affection is aimed more at his record collection (Young’s ‘Cowgirl in the Sand’, in this case) than at any particular woman. When Cary croons a love song such as ‘Pony’, one can almost picture the man on the receiving end of her lustily romantic confession.

Paradoxically, Cary’s narrowly focused love letter is more universal, more likely to spark recognition in the CD listener than Adams’ more generic declaration. Cary’s own music is filled with echoes from Richard & Linda Thompson, but her melodies are so memorable and her stories so personal that her antecedents hardly matter.

When Cary performed at Austin’s South By Southwest Music Conference in March, she didn’t command the spotlight the way a star like Adams does. A bit plump and shy in demeanor, with dark bangs spilling over her moon-shaped face, Cary has an unconventional beauty that’s easy to overlook.

When she sang the show’s opening line, “Oh, when you’re leaving for the hundredth time today,” with a weary wisdom, there was none of that pleading for pity that afflicts so many pop singers. It was as if she were sharing her ache not because she wanted sympathy but because she had no alternative but to tell the truth.

The line comes from ‘Please Don’t Hurry Your Heart’, a song she co-wrote with Adams and Whiskeytown’s Mike Daly. Daly-a tall, skinny guy with a bundle of untamed curls-was on hand in Austin to play the song’s implacable guitar riff, which reinforced the reluctant-but-compulsive quality of Cary’s vocal. By refusing to beg for our attention, they compelled it.

They did so, in part, because their melodies were so mesmerizing. The new album’s first radio track, ‘Shallow Heart, Shallow Water’, boasts a Cary/Daly chorus where the vocal rises, falls, rises halfway, rises some more, rises again, falls again and finally descends into the dominant chord. A pause punctuates each of these seven phrases, defining each one and aligning them into a symmetrical architecture that’s irresistible.

Moreover, these melodic ups and downs mirror the lyrics’ mixed feelings of fondness and frustration for a friend who can’t commit to his girl friend. The recorded version relies on steel guitars to establish a country feel, but the stage version used a piano accordion to suggest a cabaret setting, proving that Cary’s songs depend more on songwriting than arrangements.

The show reached its peak, as the album does, with ‘Sorry’, one of the great ballad melodies of recent memory. When she sings, “I am sorry, sorry,” on the tumbling, sighing chorus, she seems to apologize not only to the self-destructive friend she couldn’t help but also to herself for thinking she could.

Like Alison Krauss, Cary made her reputation as a fiddler before she revealed a talent for singing. In Austin, her violin functioned as a second voice on ‘Fireworks’, providing a contrasting, fatalistic drone to the vocal’s romantic lyrics.

As it so happens, Adams has a song called ‘Firecracker’ on his Gold album, and the contrast between the two songs is instructive. Adams begins his tune with a harmonica intro and drum beat borrowed from Bob Dylan’s ‘Most Likely You Go Your Way’ and builds to a chorus where he declares with an unironic swagger, “Everybody wants to go forever/ I just want to burn up autumn bright/ I just want to be your firecracker/ Maybe be your baby tonight.”

Cary, on the other hand, savors the irony when she remembers a first kiss as the July 4th “fireworks went pop, pop, pop.” She evinces an unmistakable affection for that long-ago love affair, but she also acknowledges that the first flush of love is as transitory as the arching sparkles in the Independence Day sky.

Like infatuation, stardom is a fleeting phenomenon. Sometimes infatuation leads to enduring romance and sometimes it doesn’t, just as stardom may or may not lead to enduring art. Cary seems to understand the difference in a way that her former bandmate doesn’t, and five years from now when Gold has left nothing smoke trails in the sky, While You Weren’t Looking will still shine like the great album it is.

© Geoffrey HimesBaltimore City Paper, 1 May 2002

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