Wednesday, February 6, 2013

David Menconi's "Ryan Adams: Losering, a Story of Whiskeytown"

David Menconi is a music critic and arts reporter at the News & Observer in Raleigh, N.C., which gave him a front-row seat to the early days of singer/songwriter Ryan Adams’ career with the mid-’90s insurgent-country band Whiskeytown. Reportage and observations from that period’s great “alternative country scare” in Raleigh and elsewhere form the backbone of his recently published biography, Ryan Adams: Losering, A Story of Whiskeytown. In applying the “Page 99 Test” to the book, he reported the following:
“Maybe I just drank the whiskey, but I really did think Strangers Almanac was going to be enormous…”

So begins Chapter 9 of my book Losering – which, as it happens, starts on page 99 and goes on to describe the songs I thought would be breakout hits, quoting a Rolling Stone magazine review positing Whiskeytown as candidate for alternative-country’s Nirvana equivalent. It’s a perfect summation of the Whiskeytown faithful’s outlandish expectations circa 1997, doomed to linger unrequited. At the height of the go-go ’90s, Whiskeytown seemed like the best and brightest of its generation, and the band’s big-league debut Strangers Almanac felt like the right album at the right time. Believing as I did that artistic validation required mainstream acceptance, I yearned for that breakthrough to happen. As Losering details from page 99 on, it didn’t.

But if the past 15 years have taught nothing else, it’s that there is no common-ground mainstream that we can agree on anymore, just an endless number of micro-niches servicing narrow-cast audiences. Viewed in that light, Strangers Almanac was ahead of its time. It’s the rare artifact that actually improves the more details you know about it, a deeply personal album that offers a revealing glimpse inside young Adams’ head if you know what to look for. That inspired Chapter 8 of Losering, written as a song-by-song dissection of Strangers played out as a narrative of a tragicomic night on the town in Raleigh – an unconventional gambit that earned reviewer reactions from ecstatic to scathing. I don’t care, it’s still my favorite part of the book. I even turned it into a radio play.

After the peak of Strangers, page 99 is where harsh reality interjects, and Whiskeytown begins unraveling. But even though Strangers didn’t break Whiskeytown through to the masses, it was instrumental in creating The Cult Of Ryan, which is the basis of the solo career Adams has today. He’s a latterday romantic poet in denim and flannel, performing for hushed, adoring throngs hanging on his every word. No, he never had the big hit record. But Ryan Adams won the game anyway.
Learn more about Ryan Adams: Losering, A Story of Whiskeytown at the author’s blog.

--Marshal Zeringue