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There was a time not long ago--before mumbling singers and faceless DJs roamed the earth--when strong, outspoken personalities dominated underground music. In that sense, Ryan Adams is a throwback--a punk rocker, a pinprick, a buzzing fly in a dark room.

If I had a nickel for every time I heard somebody whine about Adams or call him a brat, I'd be writing to you from my island where I grill steaks and drink Cosmopolitans with my neighbor Richard Branson. The "brat" tag has been with the Whiskeytown frontman for years. But it's always been laced with a hint of protective jealousy, a near-acknowledgment that those who criticize Adams are challenging him not to take for granted his obviously rare gifts.

Judging by his terrific solo debut, heartbreaker (Bloodshot), the criticism has only made Adams stronger, more resolute in plumbing the depths of his own considerable heart, head and--gasp!--ego. He's matured as a songwriter, achieved a new level of soulfulness as a singer and added a healthy dose of mid-'60s Dylan to his Gram Parsons and Stones fixations.

Like his punk-rock forefathers, Adams knows how to provoke a reaction from people. He knows exactly what he's doing when he puts a big sensitive picture of himself on the cover of his record. Or when he apes Dylan with a song called "Damn, Sam (I love a woman that rains)." He also knows that the details of a bad relationship make great subject matter.

Love him or hate him--and neither stance makes much sense if you've never met him--the guy is complex, intelligent and awfully interesting. That alone oughta give him a leg up on the competition.

The prodigal son--a Jacksonville, N.C., native, former Raleigh fixture and current Nashville resident--returns to play record release shows at the Brewery this Thursday, Sept. 14, and at Local 506 on Tuesday, Sept. 19.

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