Ryan Adams, who plays Revention Center October 7, has carved out one of the more unique musical legacies of the past two decades.
Ryan Adams, who plays Revention Center October 7, has carved out one of the more unique musical legacies of the past two decades.
Photo Courtesy of Nasty Little Man

The Strange Case of Ryan Adams, Changeling Pop Genius

Ryan Adams has never logged a Platinum record. Despite being in the music game for the past 20 years, and racking up plenty of acclaim along the way, the singer-songwriter and bandleader has never landed a big hit that propelled him to superstardom. He’s probably most famous to non-diehards for marrying (and divorcing) popular actress Mandy Moore. Hell, when speaking of him, it's often necessary to clarify with, “No, not Bryan Adams; Ryan Adams!”

In Adams’ case, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Whereas some artists rocket to the top but inevitably fade from view, Adams has never faded from view because he has never been totally visible. Instead, he has somehow maintained indie cred dating back to his days fronting Whiskeytown; not bad for a guy who in 2015 released a song-by-song covers record of Taylor Swift’s 1989. It could even be argued that Adams, who plays Revention Music Center on Saturday night, has carved out the most unique legacy of any non-mainstream mainstream musician of the past 25 years.

Adams actually began his career as a punk rocker, which isn’t altogether surprising for anyone who’s actually examined his lyrics. While his music have since shifted to more alt-country and indie-type fare, his lyrical content has always maintained an air of discontent and rebellion. It was in that alt-country space that he first found pseudo-fame as the front man for Whiskeytown.

The band remained an entity for the next several years, putting out three proper studio albums and various EPs. Aside from Adams and bandmate Caitlin Cary (briefly a Houstonian back in the day), Whiskeytown was more a rotating cast of band members – including James Iha of Smashing Pumpkins and A Perfect Circle fame – than a full-fledged band. So it made sense in 2000 when Adams ventured out on his own.

This is where things got interesting. In addition to being one of the hardest-working, most prolific musicians in the game today – 16 albums in the past 17 years – he is also among the most unique. Whether he gets bored with one particular genre or simply likes to change it up from time to time, Adams’ solo output is sorta all over the place.

This is meant as a compliment. Gold, which remains Adams’ best-selling album to date, is the singer-songwriter admittedly trying to make the modern classic-rock record (he succeeded). Orion goes the metal route. He slowed it down with the acoustic-based Ashes & Fire. The list goes on.

Adams has also showcased a diverse array of talents as a producer, having worked with everyone from Willie Nelson to Fall Out Boy to Liz Phair. But it was his sampling of another famous musician – arguably the most famous musician in America – that vaulted him back into the mainstream consciousness in 2015.

As a longtime Adams fan, I’ll admit I was skeptical when he announced a covers album of Taylor Swift’s multiplatinum, Grammy-winning smash, 1989. While a fan of the album (for my money, it's Swift’s career peak to date), how an artist of Adams’ ilk would blend with that of Swift was certainly cause for concern. Instead, Adams — with Swift not only blessing the project, but expressing outright jubilation at his version’s existence — achieved his goal with the release of his version of 1989, namely, that the album wasn’t just some throwaway pop record, but instead, one of the finest pieces of pop-styled songwriting ever released.

Stripped-down versions of pop hits like “Blank Space” and “Shake It Off” showcase Swift’s songwriting as more than pop filler designed to move product to the coveted 18-25 demographic. Rather, these covers convey the depth that surprisingly accompanies songs that, on the surface at least, seem anything but deep.

The covers version of 1989 was a success for both Swift and Adams. For the former, it opened up a new audience, gave her a little indie cred and more than showcased her talents as a songwriter. For the latter, it helped him get through a rough time in his life. Turns out, Adams happened upon 1989 while going through his divorce with then-wife Mandy Moore. He found joy in the album, so much so that he dedicated a whole covers album to it. In fact, so personal are the songs on his version of 1989, that Swift doesn’t consider the covers album a covers album at all.

“They're not cover songs. They're re-imaginings of my songs, and you can tell that he was in a very different place emotionally when he put his spin on them than I was when I wrote them," Swift told Beats 1 radio host Zane Lowe in September 2015. "There's this beautiful aching sadness and longing in this album that doesn't exist in the original.”

Adams has since semi-distanced himself from the covers album, in part due to the fact that he likely received more requests than he wanted with regard to covering other hit records, in part because Adams – for all his musical talents – is a known misanthrope and one to get a bit salty in interviews and via social media. But the point remains – 1989 was a textbook example of why Adams may very well be the most malleable, underrated singer-songwriter of the past two decades.

What the future holds for Adams is anyone’s guess. His latest studio album, Prisoner, is a classic breakup record, which makes sense, since it’s his first piece of solo output since his divorce. And whether he shifts back to punk, maintains his indie/alt-country roots for a while or collaborates with a hip-hop artist, his next move will certainly be unexpected. After all, with regard to Adams, that’s the only thing we’ve actually come to expect.

Ryan Adams and special guest Middle Kids perform Satuday, October 7 at Revention Music Center, 520 Texas. Doors open at 7 p.m.; tickets are $35 to $65.

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