This week will take me to Austin, Texas, for South By Southwest, the big annual music-industry hootenanny I’ve been attending for 26 years (check here for dispatches I’ll be filing for the paper). It’s a time and place that inevitably brings back memories of Whiskeytown because Austin during SXSW served as the setting for some key events in the “Losering” story, including the band’s big coming-out show in 1996 (see Chapter six); Ryan Adams making the deal for Bloodshot Records to put out his first solo record in 2000 (an event that happened in a bathroom — see Chapter 12); and the 2001 dust-up that inspired Ryan’s Gold song “Harder Now That It’s Over” (see Chapter 14).
But my most vivid personal SXSW memory of Whiskeytown is one of those small moments you remember without trying, or even really even knowing why you do. I was walking down Eigth Street in Austin’s downtown club district in 1998, when someone in a parked car waved me over. That turned out to be Jenni Sperandeo, who was then Whiskeytown’s co-manager.
“Get in,” she said. “I’ve got something you need to hear.”
So I did and she fired up a cassette tape of something Whiskeytown had recorded over Christmas; a scathing rocker that was the least twangy thing I’d ever heard them do. But it was great and I was pretty blown away. A desire to seize the tape and flee briefly flitted through my mind, an impulse I restrained. Later, however, I found myself wishing I’d made off with it. That was the first time I ever heard “Rays of Burning Light” from Whiskeytown’s Forever Valentine, one of Ryan’s greatest “lost” albums. Fifteen years later, it remains unreleased, so thank God for bootlegs.
Jenni and I talked for a bit that night before I resumed my club crawling, and in my memory the conversation was pretty upbeat. There still seemed ample cause for optimism about Whiskeytown at that point, even though Strangers Almanac hadn’t been a hit and the band was well into its revolving-door-lineup period. But they had just played a triumphant “Austin City Limits” taping that spring, and Ryan was still writing great songs. It seemed like only a matter of time before they would break through.
Alas, what none of us knew in March of 1998 was how much closer Whiskeytown was to breaking up than breaking through. Two months later, it was announced that Universal was buying PolyGram, a merger that would eventually liquidate Whiskeytown’s label and put the band into limbo; and Jenni would be out as Whiskeytown’s manager by that fall, dismissed in the wake of a semi-disastrous tour opening for John Fogerty (see Chapter 11).
All these years later, Jenni still works in the music industry. She became president of Dangerbird Records in 2012 — a label whose roster includes Fitz and the Tantrums, Butch Walker, Silversun Pickups and other notables. Her memories of Ryan and Whiskeytown are, shall we say, complicated. Not without fondness, but also rather jaundiced. When I got Jenni on the phone in 2011 to interview her about her time managing Whiskeytown, she had plenty to say, going back to Ryan begging her and Chris Roldan to manage his band almost as soon as they met.
At first I was, “You people are nuts. You’re great but you’re a kid and also crazy”…It was difficult to know who [Ryan] was at that time. He was self-mythologizing from the very beginning. Even as I was talking with him, I’d be thinking, “Well, there’s a very thick layer of bullshit on all of this except for the fact that you’re very talented.” He’d say all this shit about himself and his family and where he’d come from, a great deal of drama, but it was hard to tell if any of it was true…Me being a girl, I think he felt like he could stare soulfully into my eyes and get his way. He probably did, owing to my youngness and the stupidity of it all. Maybe a little less with Chris, but he was not as tied up with them as I was.
For all that, Jenni really believed in the band and the music. That was enough to make her willing to put up with it all.
It was challenging in some ways, but they were such a great band. What gets lost in translation about Ryan and how he ended up where he was was how great Whiskeytown was. I don’t know that he’s ever had that good a band around him, and that was the last time he had to take input from other people. I think Phil [Wandscher] gets lost a lot, he’s why they didn’t sound like just another rock-leaning alt-country band from that time. It’s not like Caitlin was a strong personality with him in that way. He encouraged her to be serious about it, and I don’t think she really was at that time. Phil provided the creative push for him there. Even now, I go see Jesse [Sykes] and Phil play and he’s amazing – and left-handed! Dude is a stunningly good guitar player, which Ryan was not. If you listen to those records, it’s that Phil piece on top of Ryan’s voice and the redeeming vocal part from Caitlin that makes it all work.
Maybe Jenni will have something else for me to listen to if I bump into her in Austin this week.
ADDENDUM: Jenni posted this link to her Facebook page with the following note, which engendered a quite-lively discussion:
I still don’t know whether to be embarrassed or proud of this, but it does sure remind me of that tingly feeling you have when you know you are right.
SECOND ADDENDUM (3/18/13): For those who care, I did SXSW 2013 recaps here and here. I’m just glad I didn’t have to contend with this guy.