It’s My Birthday, I Can Write What I Want To

Looking at the title you might be thinking, “Isn’t that what Evan does every month?” You are correct, but I typically write about things most people are interested in. Today, in honor of the 29th anniversary of my birth, I will be writing about my most cherished of obsessions, the music of Ryan Adams. Specifically his album 29, and the song “Carolina Rain.”

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Adams’ 29 is the final installment in a trilogy of records he released in 2005, and it is by far the weirdest record of the three, and maybe even of his entire career. Adams has claimed the album is a loose concept album about his twenties, with each song about a single year. That’s like saying Batman comics are about a guy whose parents were killed; there’s much more going on, and it’s a bit of an undersell.

The album opens with the blues burner “29” and ends with the fragile and biblical “Voices.” In between the record ranges between lush piano numbers (“Nightbirds”), Spaghetti Western flourishes (“The Sadness”), and the murder balladry of “Carolina Rain,” one of my absolute favorites of all of Adams’ songs.

On one of my live recordings of this song, Adams introduces it by saying, “This next song is about a ghost, and several people that… die.” The characters include a waitress, a dead landlord, Caroline, her husband Alderman Haint, Caroline’s sister Percy, Percy’s husband the narrator, and a recently deputized sheriff.

The song relates the story of a drifter who arrives in Mecklenburg County, North Carolina, falls in love with Caroline, and then marries Caroline’s sister “if only to be closer to you, Caroline.” Along the way we learn Rose is a prostitute who reveals the truth of Caroline and the narrator’s relationship to Alderman. Alderman is subsequently murdered and thrown into the quarry, where his misplaced rosary alerts the sheriff that something is amiss. Oh, but before that, both of Percy and the narrator’s daughters die. Then the narrator is killed outside the banquet hall as the song ends.

To say that I’ve become obsessed with this song since first hearing it is a bit of an understatement. In college, I attempted to adapt “Carolina Rain” into a short story. My writing workshop responded with, “This doesn’t make any goddamn sense.” To which I said, “I know! Isn’t it great?”

It’s unclear who exactly killed Alderman Haint, and sometimes I’m convinced he’s the landlord offed by Rose at the song’s beginning. Other times I think the narrator killed Alderman, and the nameless landlord was murdered only to set the stage for the bloodshed to come. But that would mean the narrator was killed for a murder he didn’t commit, which seems to defy the song’s fated logic. I’ll never be sure either way, which is what draws me back to “Carolina Rain” again and again.

Somehow, Adams manages to reinvigorate a traditional folk song form with all sorts of postmodern weirdness, and the result is utterly lovely despite its abundance of death. Death is one of 29‘s major preoccupations, which isn’t surprising since it was written by a man on the cusp of his thirties. The album’s cover is a painting by Adams, seemingly showing Death leading a group of people to a house to do God knows what. I like to imagine Death’s three followers as Alderman Haint, the song’s narrator, and maybe the landlord or Rose, all of them following Death hoping to learn who exactly killed whom. Whatever they find in that house, I bet it doesn’t make any goddamn sense.