NASHVILLE SKYLINE: Rebels Without a Clause?

Ryan Adams Sets an Example for Wannabe Outlaws

(NASHVILLE SKYLINE is a column by CMT/ Editorial Director Chet Flippo.)

What a shame for today’s would-be musical rebels and wannabe outlaws that there is really nothing left to rebel against. Unlike the eras of strict societal mores of the 1950s and 1960s and even during the early 1970s, there is no overarching authority anymore. Anything goes. Everyone is special. All the children are above average. You get a trophy just for showing up.

Marlon Brando’s biker character was asked in the epochal rebel movie The Wild One what he was rebelling against. “Whaddya got?” was his reply. These days, you just might find his character working happily on his laptop at a Starbucks and dutifully buying at least one coffee an hour so as to not get rousted for loitering. No rebellion allowed in the Starbucks world.

The runaway success of the cable show Mad Men has been attributed to the appeal of the ways in which its characters began to rebel against the button-down world that was America and its business world and government in the 1950s and 1960s.

Country music’s Outlaws of the late 1960s and early 1970s had a genuine enemy that they wanted to bypass — not to defeat, but simply to escape. That enemy was the rigidity of Nashville’s Music Row hierarchy and strict rule.

I knew and liked and respected Nashville’s rulers, such as RCA chief Chet Atkins and MCA’s major domo Owen Bradley, but they ran very tight ships, and all of their people knew that nobody had better get out of line.

As one example of the prevailing Nashville mentality, a few years ago, one very promising and rising young male artist was effectively stripped of potential success when he challenged Nashville and Grand Ole Opry czar Irving Waugh during a rehearsal of the CMA Awards show at the Opry House.

Waugh told him he needed to cut the length of his song performance slot on the awards show. The artist refused. Waugh told him flatly that he had 30 seconds to get himself and his bus and entourage out of the Opry compound — or else Waugh would have the bus towed and have him and all of his party physically ejected. The story was all over town within minutes. Goodbye, promising young artist’s career. He was pretty much subsequently shunned by the official music community here. The lesson: Obey, or be damned.

Atkins treated the rebellious young Waylon Jennings like a wayward son and tried — unsuccessfully — to get him to cut his hair and obey his dictates. Waylon mainly wanted to be able to record the songs that he wanted, to use his road band in the studio instead of Atkins’ hand-picked studio wizards, to record where he wanted — instead of only at RCA’s Music Row studios. Not that big a deal these days. But back then, it was considered heresy and a general threat against the status quo.

Eventually — only because their records began selling platinum in massive numbers — Waylon and his sidekick Willie Nelson got their way. All that they wanted in the first place was musical freedom.

Recently, I have been cheered to see the formerly very unhappy Ryan Adams find his way back into music. Not too many years ago, Adams burst upon the scene as an alt-country firebrand, first with the band Whiskeytown, and his subsequent landmark music, especially with his solo debut album, 2000’s memorable Heartbreaker. He also recorded a fine CMT Crossroads show with Elton John, during which John talked about how much Heartbreaker had inspired him.

Unfortunately, Adams was also given to excesses that sometimes resulted in concert fiascos along the way, like a memorable onstage meltdown at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium. That was coupled with a scrappy record label history. Maybe he was just rebelling against the fact that there really was nothing to rebel about or against. It’s just hard to fight against shadows.

But now Adams is 36, he’s happily married. He got some health problems solved, and he also finally removed the large chip he had been carrying around on his shoulder for so many years. He’s back with a very solid new album, Fire & Ashes, that frankly acknowledges some of his mistakes. I recommend it, and welcome him back.