Adams was born Derroll Lewis Thompson in Portland, Oregon. At 16, he served in the Army and later in the Coast Guard. He was a tall, lanky banjo player with a deep voice. He was busking around the West Coast music scene in the 1950s when he met Ramblin' Jack Elliott in the Topanga Canyon area of Los Angeles, CA. The two travelled around and recorded albums, among them Cowboys and Ramblin's Boys (see D.A. Pennebaker's Dont Look Back, or DLB).
According to legend, Adams and Elliott would go in the studio with whatever they had, which may have included whiskey and marijuana, and they recorded whatever they felt like recording on the spur of the moment. This style of recording was probably more prevalent in the'40s, '50s and '60s -- the result of this particular style or recording process is that the recording is loose around the edges but preserves some of the spontaneity and vigor of a live performance. It is a performative style rather than a compositional style. (see Paul Williams' Bob Dylan: Performing Artist series, particularly vol. 1, for a more in-depth discussion of the tension between the performative and the compositional.)
His recording career was somewhat uneven, and like Elliott he was better known for who he influenced -- Donovan, among others -- than for his own art. With Elliott, he had gone to England to play live and record. Elliott went back, and Adams stayed. He took Donovan, who had been playing around the UK with Gypsy Dave, under his wing as sort of protege; as a result, the influence of American traditional music can be distinctly heard in Donovan's earlier work. (see DLB)
Adams died in Antwerp, Belgium in 2000. His collaboration with Elliott left behind a body of influence that prevails today. Topic Records UK has made most of his and Jack's recordings available on CD.