1000 Recordings to Hear Before You Die + 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die
“To be young is to be sad, is to be high.” Ryan Adams sums up his musical career up to the point when he recorded “Heartbreaker” pretty well with the refrain to the album’s first song “To Be Young.” Adams had just broken up with his band, Whiskeytown (as a result of drug and alcohol related issues) and then broke up with his girlfriend. What a talented songwriter like Adams needed was a solid rock to build his next album on, and fortunately he found one.
Actually, he found two. Adams teamed up with the established country music-making partners David Rawlings and Gillian Welch. Adams was young, and he was still sad, but unlike his time with Whiskeytown, he wasn’t high. With Rawlings and Welch assisting, Adams wrote some great songs and was stable enough to get it put out.
Adams has always been involved in the somewhat dubious “alternative country” genre, which is essentially country music never meant for country radio.
Fortunately, alternative rock stations were generally pleased to feature the genre’s stars. Adams pays homage to his predecessors in more mainstream country and other genres. “To Be Young” and “Shakedown on 9th Street” are stompers; the kind of country tracks you expect to hear at the bar on a Friday night. Most of Adams’ songs (and most of his career) shows his predilection for blues. “Bartering Lines” is a Leadbelly inspired piece of work, featuring Adams singing of the “withering pines” (that’s a question for another day: why are bluesmen always singing about withering pines? What makes a pine “withering?”)
Adams is of course more of a country-man than a bluesman. He may have the blues, but his style is all country, thanks to the instrumental additions of Rawlings and Welch. He gets help with vocals from additional alt-country royalty, Emmylou Harris, on “Oh My Sweet Carolina." He leans in a rock-ier direction with his current band, The Cardinals.
Adams puts out a lot of music. "Heartbreaker" was the first of 13 albums he put out last decade. Unfortunately, none lived up to this classic.
INTERESTING FACT: There's no doubt that Adams was undergoing heartbreak when recording this; he had just broken up with his girlfriend, music publicist Amy Lombardi. She didn't inspire the title however. Adams said he was given 15 seconds to come up with a title, and his eyes went to a poster featuring Mariah Carey wearing a shirt that read "Heartbreaker." The rest is history.