18 Years Ago: Whiskeytown Release ‘Strangers Almanac’
For a band that burned out after a mere five years, Whiskeytown still managed to leave behind an enduring legacy within the span of their three albums. It’s difficult to stack up those three offerings against one another -- each is more indelible than the last -- but Strangers Almanac, in particular, has left a lasting imprint on the face of alt-country ever since its arrival on July 29, 1997.
Following his stint in the punk outfit the Patty Duke Syndrome, Whiskeytown’s prolific and erratic leader Ryan Adams teamed up with fiddler/vocalist Caitlin Cary, guitarist Phil Wandscher, bassist Steve Grothmann and drummer Erick “Skillet” Gilmore to form the Raleigh, N.C.-based alt-country outfit and released their Angels EP and the subsequent Gram Parsons-indebted debut full-length, Faithless Street, in 1995.
Faithless Street was met by critical praise and ultimately led to a major-label rush shortly after Whiskeytown’s appearance at SXSW in 1996. The band eventually signed with Geffen’s Outpost Records.
But Whiskeytown would become synonymous with their volatile live shows and ever-changing lineup, and sure enough, they experienced their first personnel shakeup before they even entered the studio for their sophomore effort. Gilmore and Grothmann parted ways with the band in 1996 and a new rhythm section featuring bassist Jeff Rice and drummer Steven Terry were enlisted as their replacements.
The band headed to Nashville’s Woodland Studios in 1997 to record Strangers Almanac. There, they re-recorded several songs from earlier '96 recording sessions (the original takes later surfaced on Whiskeytown reissues). In comparison to Faithless Street, Strangers Almanac leaned much more heavily on Adams as both a frontman and a songwriter, with the singer helming the majority of songs or sharing vocal duties with Wandscher and Cary.
On Strangers, Adams alternately delivers exercises in the classic, tried and true (“16 Days,” “Excuse Me While I Break My Own Heart”); the haunting, desolate and gorgeous (“Dancing With the Women at the Bar,” “Avenues”); and the uninhibited and explosive (“Yesterday’s News,” “Waiting to Derail”).
However, Whiskeytown’s inner turmoil would quickly see the band fall apart following Strangers Almanac. Wandscher soon split from the band, with Adams and Cary as the only original members remaining. The constant turnover even spurred self-deprecating T-shirts sold at their concerts, which were notorious for onstage outbursts from Adams, who was battling substance abuse at the time.
Despite pervasive tension, the band managed to record a third and final album, Pneumonia, in 1999; however, Outpost shuttered in the midst of a label merger and the album was shelved until it was finally released in 2001. However, by that time the band had finally called it quits for good in 2000 (Adams went on to release his acclaimed solo debut, Heartbreaker, that same year), leaving behind a fabled history known for its meteoric rise and crash and three significant albums in their wake.