I am wondering whether everyone else has felt lately, as I have, an intense proximity to the base materials of their condition. An urgency toward the personal. A clarifying rawness of purpose brought on by the spectacular erosion of public civility, the unceasing tumult of our political climate. “Inevitable catharsis by the threads of chaos,” in the words of Thomas Wolfe. I have felt this acutely, the big existential questions more insistent than ever, shadowing my steps. Don’t you kind of feel like an anonymous character in Star Wars or The Lord of the Rings—a marginal creature living in a world where a spreading darkness is imperiling the very soul of the universe? This year I have routinely discovered the profound in the plainest clichés. Here’s one: Life is an adventure.
Last January during a visit to New York I was walking through Prospect Park with a few friends on a Saturday afternoon when one of them took an unexpected phone call from his mother in Hawaii. My friend’s voice was immediately shaded with confusion and concern, and the rest of us gleaned that something serious was going on there; residents had received a BALLISTIC MISSILE THREAT INBOUND alert to their phones—“THIS IS NOT A DRILL.” His mom was making her calls. He told her to go to the basement of her apartment building while we looked into it. From Twitter, we soon learned that it was a false alarm, though it took the authorities over half an hour to officially call off the warning (the governor had also been delayed in calming the masses when he couldn’t remember his Twitter password). The incident seemed a stark expression of how messed up everything is right now.
This is a time for fellowship, for drawing your people in close. I’ve been thinking a lot about where the good folks around me come from and how those places shaped them. My friend in Brooklyn grew up in Fort Collins, Colorado, the high country; he has such a connection to it, wears it like an article of clothing. Another friend of mine is from Cleveland, Mississippi—to paint a contrast—the heart of the Delta, flat as penny; he doesn’t come from money, and now he’s magnanimous by reflex. A couple of others came up together in Mt. Rainier, Maryland, as it happens, less than a mile from where I now live in Northeast D.C.; it’s a beautiful community over there, thoroughly middle class, and the two of them recently started an employee-owned company. None of us live in our hometowns as adults. For my part, I have found it easier to appreciate where I’m from at a remove.
I grew up in the nineties in Charlotte, North Carolina, my dad’s hometown, then a sleepy city in the Piedmont Crescent lit afire with the New South urbanism that defines it today, a place I considered mostly cultureless and shallow. By the time I finished middle school, my life was oriented around the simple goal of skateboarding with my friends as much as possible. The No. 19 bus went past my neighborhood on its way north down Kenilworth Ave. For a dollar I could take it to the depot uptown, the frequent launching point for our weekend escapades. But when I was in ninth grade, all of my friends stopped skateboarding, in my memory one by one until I was alone. A grave betrayal at an impressionable time. I attended one of the largest high schools in the state—an experience marked by divisions, where everything was segmented, separated, and encased—and it seemed that my friends had given up skateboarding in order to become completely different versions of themselves. Within that arena, my natural bearing—shy, cerebral, antiestablishment—acquired the role that had apparently been assigned it: misfit, indie. That was my caste more or less for all of high school, and I recognize in myself today, a dozen years later, the blooms of those weird seeds that were planted in me then.
One was my uncle’s suicide when I was fifteen, a haunting brush with the infinite delivered via the irrevocable finite, about which I still can draw up only futile words. Another came two years later in a plastic jewel case handed to me by an English teacher during senior year: a copy of the new album Jacksonville City Nights by Ryan Adams & the Cardinals. I don’t remember why she did that—she wasn’t even my English teacher—but somehow she recognized, in that way great teachers do, that I needed it. Perhaps she knew that it would open new psychic geography to me, that I would find my way back to Heartbreaker, Adams’s intimate masterpiece, and Whiskeytown, his early band from Raleigh, and that I would go on to use his songs as a line home in times when I am far, far away.
His songs are about women that rain, read magazines from the back to the front, or dance all night, and men that lose them, go underground with their wedding ring, get strung out like Christmas lights, or just have a gnawing hunger to leave. His songs are also about North Carolina, many of them. Carved from the same grain of heartwood as Wolfe’s Look Homeward, Angel, they express both affection for his homeland—“All the sweetest winds they blow across the South”—and resentment of its limits: “how you burden my soul / How you hold all my dreams captive.” Most of all, his music is about getting lost and getting found and getting lost all over—“happy and sad and back again”—which as far as I can tell is the measure of this grand adventure.
On the night of January 22, 2004, Ryan Adams was in a hospital in Liverpool, very far from home. Earlier that Thursday evening he and his band had performed at the Royal Court Theatre, touring behind his latest album, Rock N Roll, and the paired EPs Love Is Hell, Pts. 1 & 2, releases his record label had fought him over and that had received a cold critical reception. (“Adams’ career is fast becoming a blizzard of lost possibilities and abandoned trails,” one review began.) He was twenty-nine years old and in the midst of a consuming spell of recreational drug use that had come to define his embattled celebrity and performances. Still, as a very Nashville person once told me, his worst stuff was as good as a lot of people’s best. That night in Liverpool, deep into the show, he had played a newer song called “The Shadowlands,” a cryptic and bleak ballad about a relationship destroyed by addiction. As the band worked over the song’s spare, repeating three-chord piano riff, Adams took the mic in hand, closed his eyes, stepped to the front of the stage and then off it. He fell six feet into the orchestra pit, landing on his left wrist. On the recording (Adams has long allowed taping at his concerts) you can hear the fall during the song’s final lines: “Sometimes you just can be a man / Sometimes you just can be a man”—thump—“When you’re living in the darkness / Of the shadowlands.” From the floor, he’d managed to keep time and get out the rest of the lyric before calmly observing into the mic, “It’s broke.”
He was right, and the tour was over. The band flew back to New York and dispersed, another group undone by the volatile singer-songwriter, whose reputation seemed to be calcifying. Nursing a fractured wrist, unable to play guitar, Adams did as he had done in his previous low point: he went home, back to North Carolina, and back to the “city with a hopeless streetlight / Seems like you’re lucky if it ever change from red to green,” as he’d put it in a Whiskeytown song. “It is the oldest wrongest place in the world,” he once wrote, “and it’s where I’m from and it’s where my songs are coming from.” Back to Jacksonville.
Four years earlier, in the winter of 2000, in the wake of a different sort of break—from a relationship, from a band, from a record deal—he had done the same thing. That first retreat had Adams, then twenty-five, watching the New York City skyline grow smaller in the back window of a friend’s van, his few possessions packed with him, his dream shrinking to flat. “I thought I was done,” he recalled to Marc Maron last year. “I got back to North Carolina and—it was a really long, sad, weird time.”
Jacksonville is a small city north of Wilmington that would lie on the coast if not for Camp Lejeune, the Marine Corps’s second-largest base, which occupies the mouth of the New River and dominates the local culture. Adams’s origins there, suffused with the pathos of the young artist, have been well covered over his past decades in and out of the spotlight. His parents split up when he was young, and he was largely raised by his maternal grandparents; it was his grandmother, Geemaw, whose influence set him on his path. “I love music because my grandmother loved it, she loved it so much,” he told an interviewer in Australia last year. “In fact, it’s the safe place I remember. It’s the first place I remember.”
On both of these spells back home, he stayed with his old friend Allen Midgett, whose backyard abutted Geemaw’s. All the way back to the source. Adams has seldom talked in great detail about these periods (he declined to be interviewed for this story), but we have the music. In each case, he turned to writing—withdrew into that safe space—and both intervals back in Jacksonville yielded songs of intense specificity and depth: much of the albums Heartbreaker (in 2000) and then Cold Roses, Jacksonville City Nights, and 29 (in 2004) were demoed on a four-track cassette recorder in Midgett’s living room (dubbed “Waltmore St. Studios” in album credits). Adams is rumored to be working on a memoir, and I hope these periods are elucidated. It’s unclear which songs he wrote there, but when you listen to these albums you hear some of the most specific and mythic images (somehow both at once!) from his catalog. The clarity that comes from having nothing left to lose. Out of darkness, light. “Magnolia Mountain,” “Easy Plateau,” and “Peaceful Valley” are pleas for a spiritual release from the fits of life, dreams for a long rest in the hereafter (“Tell me there ain’t nothing but an easy recline”). A core running through the work is displacement, whether in love or other realms, whether told in the first person (“’Cause I feel just like a map / Without a single place to go of interest”), the second (“And nightbirds sing you / An empty tune in / An empty house in / An empty room”), or the third (“Rose lived on the south side of town / Until her landlord showed up with two hundred-dollar bills / A notice of eviction on the other hand”). In 2004, Adams penned the sequel to his Whiskeytown song “Jacksonville Skyline,” unsparingly detailing his hometown blues on “The End,” reinforcing old feelings: “Jacksonville, how you play with my mind / How my heart goes bad suffocating on the pines in Jacksonville.” But, to lean into cliché, it is absence, not the searing presence that comes with waking up back in your childhood neighborhood, that makes the heart grow fonder. He had started writing “Oh My Sweet Carolina,” his famous love letter home, in a bar in Manhattan and brought it with him in that van leaving New York. I imagine him demoing it at Midgett’s house in Jacksonville, not yet aware that it would make his career (that he’d sing it with Emmylou Harris, with Elton John), only knowing he was not long for leaving again: “Oh my sweet Carolina, what compels me to go? / Oh my sweet disposition, may you one day carry me home.”
In 2000, he had only pit-stopped in North Carolina on the way to Nashville—where he recorded Heartbreaker in two weeks—and his stay in 2004 wasn’t to last, either. When he returned to New York and to touring again, he formed a band called the Cardinals, rumored to be an homage to the Jacksonville High School mascot (or perhaps the state bird). As a teenager in the late eighties, he had been an outcast metalhead. His older brother, Chris, fed him Scorpion and Iron Maiden, and through friends like Midgett, Adams began to hear bands from the Triangle. He’d dropped out of high school at sixteen, and after his grandfather died in 1991, he moved to Raleigh. Jacksonville would always be weighted with a past he’d gone to lengths to escape. As he told an interviewer last year: “There’s a real desperate loneliness, I think, in that place. And the older I became, the more I was aware of what that ominous presence that I couldn’t name was—I think it was that.”
His flight doesn’t ring with quite the same melodrama as Wolfe’s protagonist, Eugene Gant, in the memorable scene, but the impulse is indistinguishable. Declares Eugene: “The first move I ever made, after the cradle, was to crawl for the door, and every move I have made since has been an effort to escape.”
In Ryan Adams, the mythic memory of Thomas Wolfe is reincarnate in a contemporary host: an emotional kid from a marginal city in North Carolina with a precocious—underlined—and prolific—triple underlined—talent for transmuting the cramped circumstances of his childhood into dramatic, heartbreaking art of a rarefied sort. Hailing from opposite ends of the state, they each ended up in New York City as young men by way of a crucial teenage education in the Triangle—Wolfe at Chapel Hill during World War I and Adams in the bars of nineties Raleigh. As creators, the unfathomable volume of each man’s output clouds the artistic legacy. Wolfe was so infamous for his production it was openly mocked in the press, the pages piling up in the crates where he kept his manuscripts, all of his novels running beyond five hundred pages. Adams, now forty-four, has sixteen studio LPs to his name, plus the three he made with his Raleigh band Whiskeytown; dozens of standalone EPs and singles; numerous live albums; and the untold hours of unreleased music, the albums he finished then canned, the four-track tape recordings of songs cut on the fly. “When I turn that faucet on, the water comes out,” Adams has noted.
The water seems often to be of an autobiographical quality. Each man’s legacy is strongly defined by an initial masterpiece: Wolfe’s debut novel, Look Homeward, Angel, published in 1929 when he was twenty-nine, and Adams’s first solo record, Heartbreaker, released in 2000 when he was twenty-five. (It also seems worth noting how each artist’s legacy is indebted to the guidance of an early creative adviser: Wolfe’s first editor, Maxwell Perkins, and Adams’s producer Ethan Johns.) Though both men staked storied careers on deeply personal writing about the place where they came from (and New York), each returned to his hometown only rarely, and they’d both left North Carolina behind by their early twenties.
Adams’s disposition has not much carried him home recently. He lives in L.A., where he owns a recording studio and record label named after the fake one he made up in grade school, Pax-Am. He hasn’t performed in North Carolina since June of 2005—the year Jacksonville City Nights was put in my hands—at a memorable show in Raleigh that saw him reunite with his old bandmate Caitlin Cary for a Whiskeytown reprise. On tours since, he has skipped right over North Carolina: one night in Richmond, the next stop in Charleston. And he has fewer reasons to go back now: his beloved Geemaw, for whom he wrote “Oh My Sweet Carolina,” died in 2013, and his childhood friend and confidant in rough seas, Allen Midgett, went a year later. Soon after, he released a single titled “Jacksonville,” his latest song for a lost home: “They’re tearing down another building in my hometown / It’s like I don’t know it anymore.” It has the feel of a final tour through a place to which he will never return: “Driving to my house, it’s empty now, no one’s inside / Looking through the windows in the back.” The refrain: “You have gone missing from my life.” And then last year, a nail in the coffin: his older brother and original influence, Chris, passed. “There’s an expectation that with age comes eventual loss,” Adams wrote in reflection this year. “In my experience I have lost so many important people to me since I can remember. It is framed in my mind by the withering landscapes of the 1980s of Jacksonville, North Carolina.” He may play there again, bring his music back to the state that made him, and where he made so much of it. I hope he does.
But then, where is home, anyway? Adams wrote this on Twitter in April: “Where you’re from and where your spiritual and/or literal home become is the gift of a life lived wild on the wheels.” He wrote this in a Whiskeytown song twenty years ago: “The ghost has got me running.”
What do you want to find? That is the question your ghost, whatever form it may take—uncle, brother, friend, lover—will ask you before you go. Thomas Wolfe put this answer in the mouth of Eugene Gant: “Myself, and an end to hunger, and the happy land.” And there is a home as real as any place. As real as my Charlotte, Adams’s Jacksonville, or Wolfe’s Asheville. Or Gant’s Altamont for that matter. Or, tucked back in the blue hills above it, perhaps, the fabled Magnolia Mountain, where nobody ever dies. Goddamn if in the unstable year 2018, a needlepoint cliché can’t draw blood, penetrate with the piercing truth of the needle your Geemaw used to stitch it. Home is where the heart is! For Ryan Adams, that place is music. Songs. “A life’s fleeting, perfect moments,” he wrote recently, “piling up like unfinished paintings with only loss and memory to do the work of the missing colors as the rest of the world slept.”
Home. Adventure. Memory. Myth. I am thinking of a favorite passage from The Lord of the Rings, books I read before Ryan Adams or Thomas Wolfe reached me and to which I have returned recently in search of my old ghosts. This is from early in the first book, at the very beginning of the hobbits’ long journey, when they chance to share supper and spend the night with some benevolent elves, the wisest creatures in Middle Earth. The evening is summed up in reflection, in Tolkien’s luminous prose, capturing the hazy, golden warmth with which one’s formative encounters and experiences hang in the mind:
Sam could never describe in words, nor picture clearly to himself, what he felt or thought that night, though it remained in his memory as one of the chief events of his life. The nearest he ever got was to say: “Well, sir, if I could grow apples like that, I would call myself a gardener. But it was the singing that went to my heart, if you know what I mean.”
Their road continued on—all the way into the shadows of Mordor, land of ash and fire—but what a spell, that night! A time to lean back on in the mind. The safe place. “Steady your soul and ease your worry / They got a room for you.” The singing! Some beauty, some order out of this jungle of life.
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