Dark Star

I first saw Ryan Adams perform during the Goldtour in the winter of 2002. It was in Munich at the Georg-Elser-Hallen, an ill-lit music venue named after a German carpenter who tried to kill Hitler in 1939.

 It was a good show. Bucky Baxter, a former member of Bob Dylan’s band and the father of Rayland, played steel guitar. I don’t know why but I heckled him. Watching a rock and roll show in a hall full of Germans is a strange experience. They are not there to boogie, they are not there to rage. Rock and roll appears a wholly alien creature.  

 By the time of that show, Adams had two solo albums under his belt, including his debut on Bloodshot Records, Heartbreaker, already regarded then as something of an indie classic. Two years before, he had disbanded his star-crossed country band Whiskeytown after ditching his homeland of North Carolina for New York.  

 In recent interviews Adams has been dismissive of his work in Whiskeytown, calling the songs “style appropriation” of a type of music – “country” – that he doesn’t really care for. But those albums are still revered by so many. There are no better songs about feeling disconnected in the South, and yet, his imaginative renderings of life in small-town North Carolina betray a deep sense of affection for the place, crooked though those renderings may be. 

 My favorite Ryan Adams songs are the ones where he’s singing about the South, usually from some place outside of it. His songwriter voice, at times, comes off like the Quentin Compson of the American songbook. He’s the Southern kid  living up North who has to explain the mysteries of the dark and bloody ground after being asked by a Yankee, “Why do you hate it?” 

Of course there are so many kinds of Ryan Adams songs. A quick trip through his extensive back catalog is a schizoid experience and unfolds like a survey course through a myriad ofstyles of American popular music, from rock to country to New Wave to metal to hardcore punk.

His new self-titled album was recorded and self-produced at his PAX-AM studio in Los Angeles and released on an imprint of the same name. It comes at you full throttle like a shot of ‘80s adrenaline, and makes you wanna pull out that yellow Sony Walkman and Vision Shredder skateboard that you got for Christmas in 1987 and just go to town. The album cover art itself is decidedly ’80s. It features a pixilated selfie and appears to mimic the cover art of 1984’s Reckless by Bryan Adams, his almost namesake, an album released on November 5 of that year, Ryan’s 10th birthday.

 By all accounts Adams seems to be at a personal and professional high-point. His PAX-AM studio sounds like it’s his ideaof an idyllic paradise, an important psychic base from which he can make and produce music unfettered by the demands of the music industry. (Adams recently produced albums for Ethan Johns, Jenny Lewis and Fall Out Boy.) He seems to be following the path laid out by Jack White, an artist Adams recently praised for subverting the traditional model of the record industry with his Third Man Records operation.  

 In this issue, we take a good look at the music scene in Los Angeles. We visit some of the city’s best singer-songwriter venues, including the Grand Ole Echo, which hosts a Sunday old-timey jam that almost sounds like a back-porch hang in Nashville. We also stop in at the Hotel Café, an L.A. institution that has served as a key meeting place and clubhouse for musicians during the last several years.

 We take a look at the musical history of Laurel Canyon, the epicenter of the folk-rock scene in the late ’60s, a place that created a musical ideal that still holds sway for a number of young acts today. We talk with a number of L.A. writers about the business of penning tunes for film and television, including Jenny Lewis, Robert Schwartmann of Rooney, and Adam Schlesinger of Fountains of Wayne. Writing for the screen is a different beast and requires the writer to learn a new language. In the television world, those who can produce their own material stand at an advantage, as directors are looking to keep the payroll down to a minimum.

 And don’t forget to check out our annual Holiday Gear Guide. This year we feature nothing but guitars, most of which come in well under a $1,000. They won’t break the bank like so many that are fresh out of the factory. Happy holidays.

Author: Caine O'Rear

Caine O'Rear is a writer and editor based in Mobile, Alabama. He is the former editor in chief of American Songwriter Magazine. Follow him at www.instagram.com/caineorear.

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