When I was interviewing folks for “Losering” a few years back, one of the people I tried but failed to track down was pedal steel player Bob Ricker, who did some stellar work on Whiskeytown’s full-length debut Faithless Street (in fact, I wrote that he was that album’s “unsung hero”). He’d been gone from Raleigh for more than a decade by then, and I asked around; but nobody I queried seemed to know where to reach him, so I had to move on.
Fortuitously, however, I heard from Bob recently after he read the book, and we chatted a bit about the old days. Now 57, Bob has been in Nashville since 2000, working as a telecommunications consultant when he isn’t playing and producing music. But the early ’90s found Bob living in Raleigh while working in Nortel’s Research Triangle Park plant by day, and playing pedal steel guitar around town by night.
At a bookstore in Raleigh one evening, Bob met local musician Jeff Hart — the same Jeff Hart who was ringleader of the 1995 show where I first interviewed Ryan Adams, as recounted in the “Losering” preface — who introduced him to some key people in the scene. Bob played a few shows with the earliest version of Chip Robinson’s Backsliders before falling in with Whiskeytown in 1995, one of a series of pedal-steel players who passed through the lineup as Ryan Adams tried to countrify the sound. Although he was nearly 20 years older than the rest of Whiskeytown, Bob fit in well enough.
“I think the thing that made Whiskeytown work as a band was that it had some pretty intelligent people,” Bob says now. “They’d catch on quick about sharing lead parts, what worked, what didn’t and accepting things that would make it work. And of course, Ryan was just full of songs, which is why he made it where a lot of others didn’t. Some of the parts on [Faithless Street] are just so original, they get to people. I was impressed with Caitlin, too, but most of all Phil. He really made a lot of stuff happen in the studio, and I was impressed at what he came up with at such a young age. There were parts I’d recognize from classic country that I was sure he’d never actually heard, and also some Beatle-ish stuff. That really helped make the whole picture.”
Bob also remembers Ryan coming out to his house to work on songs, and his wife’s reaction when he told her “this kid had it” — “Are you kidding?” But her skepticism ended as soon as she heard them playing together. Bob actually has tapes of some of what they worked on, which I would dearly love to hear. Someday, I hope!
Alas, Bob’s job at Nortel involved enough out-of-town travel that he had difficulty being around for Whiskeytown’s gigs. After the Faithless Street sessions, he stayed through the fall of 1995 (he was onstage at that October’s infamous Berkeley Cafe show where Ryan and Phil teamed up to destroy Ryan’s guitar), but had to bow out before the early-1996 release of Faithless Street. He recently found an old circa-1995 setlist from a Whiskeytown show at the Brewery in a road case, which is on the left. Going on two decades later, he still gets asked about Ryan with some frequency.
“At the time we first met he was still more punkish, but he seemed to want to be more country,” Bob says. “He was always really polite — with me, anyway. We’d work on things and he was like a sponge, taking it all in and adding to it. Nowadays, stories about Ryan are like stories you hear in Nashville from people who played with Elvis. You know, there’s what it was like in the band, and then the legends that grow. But you really could tell right off the bat with him that he knew what he wanted, and how to get there.”