In Whiskeytown, however, Ryan’s punk-rock past seemed more evident in terms of attitude than musical style. While Whiskeytown may have been twangy, the main aesthetic was ragged-but-right and don’t sweat the tuning. And thanks to Ryan’s ample gifts for picking up styles quickly, he could convincingly sing and play country music as if he’d been doing nothing but that from the beginning. It also didn’t hurt that his plainspoken voice and phrasing resonated on the same wavelength as the aforementioned Gram Parsons.
Beyond musical reference points, interpersonal relations were also a key element of the band’s chemistry. Like the Replacements, Whiskeytown were a volatile combination of personalities made even more so by voluminous alcohol consumption – that name was no accident. The fact that Ryan and Phil’s tempestuous relationship seemed to be steeped in mutual hatred gave Whiskeytown a very high baseline for tension, drama, and combustibility. Ryan once said that the worst heckling he ever got was from his own bandmate onstage.
“In the middle of a song, Phil would sometimes look over and go, ‘Fuck you,’” Ryan told me in 1998. “I’d say ‘Fuck you!’ back, we’d stop the song and there’d be feedback while we tried to hit each other.”
Tension between Ryan and Phil to the point of physical violence would be a Whiskeytown constant. Caitlin once had the misfortune of getting caught in the middle of a scuffle and got clocked for her trouble. Ryan felt bad enough about it to give her a mandolin as a peace offering, which he presented with a letter of apology:
I am very sorry,
I think I must be crazy.
Forgive me if you can‑‑
If you can’t, play this
Much love, and sorry,
Despite the personality clashes, the Ryan/Caitlin/Phil triumvirate was pure musical gold, thanks to multiple dynamics. The most obvious was the vocal combination, Ryan’s Parsons to Caitlin’s Emmylou Harris, in harmonies that could be heart-stoppingly beautiful. When they were on, they sounded like they were born to sing together. Ryan’s voice was usually top-dead-center, with Caitlin’s dusky voice providing color, support, and sometimes counterpoint.
But Phil’s role was just as important. Sometimes his guitar would take that counterpoint role to Ryan’s voice, and sometimes it was more a matter of their different instrumental sensibilities meshing.
“I loved the way we’d play together, the guitar parts kind of intertwined,” Phil said. “He was more indie rock while I was more classic rock, which he always used to give me shit about. But he came around.”
Ryan was never much for waiting around, so Whiskeytown got busy recording almost immediately. Just a few months after forming, they scraped together enough money to go into Sonic Wave Recording, a studio near the Raleigh Five Points district. This was a reversal of the customary order of things – band would usually spend long months or even years woodshedding and playing live before recording. But recording before amassing much of a gig history was a conscious decision.
“The whole goal was to write and record, then really start playing live, rather than falling into the trap of playing live all the time and you’ve got no time to go into the studio,” said Wandscher.
At Sonic Wave, they worked with Greg Elkins, a friend of Ryan’s who lived near his old closet abode in Oakwood – right down Elm Street from Dana Kletter, and next door to members of the band Erectus Monotone. Elkins’s band Vanilla Trainwreck had just broken up in September 1994, and he was trying to get a studio career going. Whiskeytown were one of his first recording projects, and he was every bit as raw as the band when it came to studio techniques.
“At that point, it would be generous to say that I barely knew what I was doing,” Elkins said in 2011. “There wasn’t a whole lot of time or money involved and everybody was bending everything as far as they could to make something happen. Rubbing two sticks together to make fire, basically. It was lean for everybody. Pretty much the perfect scenario. Quite frankly, those recordings are an embarrassment to me. That’s not a comment on the musical quality, only on my limited abilities back then. It’s been hard that one of the first things I ever worked on turned out to have the legs that it did.”
The eight tracks Whiskeytown recorded with Elkins at Sonic Wave all eventually saw the light of day. Four of them comprised Whiskeytown’s first mini-album, which was released in early 1995 through a complicated chain of relationships involving Ryan’s old girlfriend Sarah Corbitt.
Corbitt had graduated from Saint Mary’s and gone on to UNC in Chapel Hill, where she also worked part-time at an independent store called Monster Records. By then, she was dating Ross Grady, an NC State graduate student with Whiskeytown members Caitlin Cary and Steve Grothmann. Between his friendship with various band members and his local-music radio show on WKNC, Ross was around during Whiskeytown’s formation.
In fact, if any critic can legitimately lay claim to being first on the scene with Whiskeytown, it’s Grady. He wrote the first story about the band in January 1995 in the Independent Weekly, a piece about alternative country focused on “Whiskey Town” and another local band called Pine State. It ran with an onstage picture of Whiskeytown (taken by Grady himself) in which Ryan appeared to be about twelve years old, and yet another virtuoso quote by the young maestro: “I don’t have time to be unclear – I’m going to die someday.”
One of Sarah Corbitt’s Monster Records coworkers was Kurt Underhill, another young man with music business aspirations. He had recently formed a label called Mood Food Records (with the motto “SoundFood for your MusicMood”), and he was looking for bands. Knowing that she and Ross were in the local-band loop, Underhill asked Sarah whom he should sign.
“I told him, ‘You should put out Whiskeytown,’” Sarah said. “‘They’re great and people love them.’ I got him and Ryan on the phone together during a shift, and they did the rest.”
And so it came to pass that Whiskeytown signed a record deal not long after forming (although it was a deal they would soon regret) and had music for sale in Schoolkids, Monster, and other record stores in short order. Titled Angels and pressed on old-fashioned seven-inch vinyl, the new record was an EP of four songs from the Sonic Wave recordings: “Angels Are Messengers From God,” “Captain Smith,” “Tennessee Square,” and “Take Your Guns to Town.”
“Take Your Guns To Town” puts a spin on the 1958 Johnny Cash classic “Don’t Take Your Guns To Town,” although the chorus plays both sides to give it a sense of push-pull tension: “Take your guns to town/Don’t take your guns to town.” The recording features Ryan singing solo and describing the feelings of someone on the road (or on the run), with the obligatory references to drinking. But the words are secondary to the exuberant arrangement, wonderfully balanced between snarling guitars and Caitlin Cary’s keening fiddle.
“Captain Smith” features a rare Phil Wandscher lead vocal, which works well enough; but mostly it convinces you that Ryan was the one who belonged out front as the primary singer. It’s the most up-tempo of the EP’s four songs, blazing along at a rollicking runaway-train clip with call and response between the guitars and vocals, and the drums doing the pushing (a template also favored by the Old 97’s). By contrast, “Tennessee Square” is a stately waltz where acoustic guitar sets the tempo, with lyrics about being stuck in a nowhere town that sounds a lot like Jacksonville.
As for the songs that wouldn’t be released until later, there was “Macon, Georgia County Line,” very similar in tempo and style to “Captain Smith” (with harmonica credited to Phil); “Oklahoma,” a snarling rocker on which Ryan’s vocals range from murmur to holler; the downcast ballad “Pawn Shop Ain’t No Place For A Wedding Ring”; and “Nervous Breakdown,” a cover of the 1978 hardcore flip-out by Black Flag, done up in an amusingly straightforward countrypolitan arrangement prominently featuring harmonica.
But the most attention-getting song of the bunch was the mini-album’s unofficial title track, “Angels Are Messengers From God,” a ballad that later came to be known as “Faithless Street.” And it does evoke the street (or the gutter) more than heavenly bodies, coursing with exhausted anger and resentment – even though it’s one of the quietest, most deliberate songs Whiskeytown ever committed to tape. The guitars are subdued and the tempo is a slow heartbeat, with Caitlin’s sadly crying fiddle carrying the tune. Ryan claimed to have written “Angels” after a night of heavy drinking, in a fifteen-minute spurt. But Caitlin’s fiddle part was important enough to the finished recording for her to rate a co-writing credit.
In terms of subject matter, “Angels” could be the sequel to Ryan’s post–Patty Duke Syndrome revenge anthem “Bastards I Used To Know,” cursing loneliness and blue-collar poverty with similar vehemence. But “Angels” feels more like a forward-looking manifesto because of the end of the chorus, which Ryan sang solo in a tone of resigned weariness. It was an infamous declaration that would haunt Whiskeytown for the next five years in the form of a thousand pun-filled headlines, kickers, punch lines, and rants:
So I started this damn country band
‘Cause punk rock was too hard to sing.