I watched the Ryan Adams September DVD last night, finally – after owning Jacksonville City Nights for six months and being a dyed-in-the-wool Ryan fan for far longer, one would think I would’ve gotten to it sooner. But as the in-between record that split the releases of Cold Roses and 29, I overlooked the album and the accompanying documentary, even writing a snarky review for Cokemachineglow that called “My Heart Is Broken” an “embarrassment.” Oy. I liked the record fine, but with two other superior (or so I thought) Adams albums to contend with, his great big Country Album never really connected with me.
So. September isn’t the greatest documentary of all time; it’s as scattered and ridiculous as Adams himself, a mish-mash of studio footage, brief interview segments and Ryan goofing around with his band and smoking enough cigarettes to suffocate a family of four. The highlights, aside from Ryan’s non-sequitors, are the scenes where he sits on a couch with his guitar, just singing and playing. The crisp DVD audio and the intimacy of the shots is spellbinding, a reminder of how good a pure songwriter he is at his core and another example of how striking his voice is. Even when he’s just playing for his band (well, and the cameras) to work out the songs, there’s enough age and ache in those lungs to make you wonder why Johnny Cash never covered “In My Time Of Need.”
It’s in the last half-year, of course, that I’ve begun to understand the magnitude of Cash and the side of country music he helped father. With Folsom Prison on my mind, I revisited Jacksonville City Nights. Everything in the film was there – the emphasis on the moment and the mood over a note-perfect performance; the heartfelt emotions; the sheer power of country music. There are great songs here: “The End” stands up to anything in his daunting catalog, and now I can recognize “My Heart Is Broken” for what it’s meant to be – a country standard.
While Jacksonville City Nights won’t displace 29 or Heartbreaker among my favorite Adams albums, it’s a much stronger statement than I gave it credit for, a country record with heart and authenticity. I been turned around, I been mystified / by true love / and that ain’t the hardest part. Amen to that, Ryan.