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16 Years Ago: Whiskeytown’s ‘Strangers Almanac’ Album Released

Whiskeytown, Strangers Almanac
Geffen/Outpost

When the lead singer of Whiskeytown decided to drop his first name, David, he opened himself up for a lifetime of being mistaken for Canadian.

And not just any Canadian. On paper, only one letter separates Ryan Adams from Bryan “Cuts Like a Knife” Adams, but he’s managed to overcome his unintentional association with that ’80s-era cheese-monger and establish himself as one of the more promising songwriters of the last two decades.

But before there was Adam the solo artist, there was Whiskeytown. Based in Jacksonville, North Carolina, the group was chance for Adams to hone his singing and songwriting, and he did a damn good job of it. The band sounded a lot like the Replacements, but their Americana accents linked them to the burgeoning alt-country movement. They released three albums, their second and most important of which, ‘Strangers Almanac,’ turns 16 years old today.

The year was 1997, and it was a transitional moment for alt-country. Son Volt were in the process of putting out their mostly acoustic roots-country album ‘Straightaways’; Wilco were well into their first phase of experimentation, with ‘Being There’ out and ‘Summerteeth’ on the way; and the Jayhawks, newly fractured, had released the so-so ‘Sound of Lies.’ None of these were albums you’d want to be stuck on a desert island with, and amid such competition, Whiskeytown’s sophomore effort shone like a diamond in the sky.

Steeped in the country-rock traditions of the early Eagles, the Flying Burrito Brothers, ‘Sweetheart of the Rodeo’-era Byrds and Gram Parson’s solo work, Whiskeytown married Adams’ keen songwriting ear and heartfelt vocals with Caitlin Cary’s expert fiddle work and harmonies. Whiskeytown also threw into the mix acoustic and distorted electric guitars, nodding to both the Replacements and the grunge era, and a rock-solid rhythm section.

‘Strangers Almanac’ is a sparkling set of country ballads (‘Excuse Me While I Break My Own Heart Tonight,’ ‘16 Days,’ ‘Everything I Do’) and meaty, grungy, sexy expressions of love or love lost. (See: ‘Turn Around,’ which has one of the best outros of the ’90s, and ‘Yesterday’s News,’ which everyone should listen to at least 10 times before they die).

Adams’ delivery falls somewhere between country croon and Paul Westerberg’s aching alt-rock style, and Adams’ high range may be one of the prettiest of the era.

‘Strangers Almanac’ — like many of its late-’90s alt-country counterparts — didn’t even reach the outer fringes of the Billboard chart, but it’s since gone on to be hailed as one of the era’s and genre’s best. It’s also been given a deluxe reissue, complete with multiple outtakes, live cuts and unreleased numbers added to the already-substantial sequence.

The “success” of ‘Almanac’ earned producer Jim Scott a place in alt-country history and helped him land gigs working with a number of other genre greats, among them Kathleen Edwards (‘Asking for Flowers’), Golden Smog (‘Weird Tales’), Natalie Merchant (‘Ophelia’) and the Counting Crows (‘This Desert Life’).

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