Behind the Music

N&O critic David Menconi’s new book takes on Ryan Adams, Raleigh’s Grammy-winning, indie sweetheart

September 15, 2012 

  • Meet the author David Menconi will read from and discuss “Ryan Adams: Losering, A Story of Whiskeytown” at several Triangle book shops: Sept. 27 (7:30 p.m.): Quail Ridge Ridge Books and Music, 3522 Wade Ave., Raleigh. Sept. 28 (7 p.m.): Flyleaf Books, 752 Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd., Chapel Hill. Oct. 4 (7 p.m.): The Regulator Bookshop, 720 Ninth St., Durham. For more about the book, see LoseringBook.wordpress.com

Here is an edited excerpt from “Ryan Adams: Losering, a Story of Whiskeytown ,” David Menconi’s book about Ryan Adams and Whiskeytown. The title refers to a song on the band’s 1997 album, “Strangers Almanac.”

Most Whiskeytown shows involved wildly unpredictable swings between tight and train-wrecky; but every now and then, they’d play one that was Capital-T Tight all the way. My favorite of those happened May 18, 1997, at a restaurant in downtown Raleigh’s warehouse district called Humble Pie. Of all the Whiskeytown shows I wish were recorded, this one tops the list.

“Man,” a friend remarked afterward, “that felt like seeing the Beatles at the Cavern Club.”

Such a comparison didn’t even seem overblown in those heady days. The spring of 1997 was a tremendously optimistic time for the Triangle music community, because that was when those “next Seattle” predictions from earlier in the decade belatedly came true in wonderful and weirdly unexpected ways. Corrosion of Conformity, the pioneering speed-metal band from Raleigh that had been plying the underground for 15 years, picked up a nomination for a Grammy Award, which seemed far-fetched. Chapel Hill’s Ben Folds Five had a slowly building breakthrough hit single (“Brick,” an autobiographical song about an abortion) that would soon explode and get the piano-pop trio the first Saturday Night Live slot in local-music history, which seemed improbable. And Squirrel Nut Zippers – a jazz band comprised of slumming punk musicians from various Chapel Hill bands – were already gold going on platinum thanks to an MTV hit called “Hell,” which seemed completely insane.

There was even something like optimism afoot in the nation and culture at large in the mid-1990s, a time when the “morning in America” invoked by Ronald Reagan a decade earlier seemed like it might be coming true. …Work was plentiful and the mainstream still had room for the occasional Green Day, Beck or Sheryl Crow to slip through. It was easy to imagine Whiskeytown joining their ranks with “Strangers Almanac,” set to be released that July.

Ryan and I sat down to do another interview around the time of that Humble Pie show. We met next door to the Brewery at the Comet Lounge, one of Ryan’s favorite local bars and a place he namechecked in the “Strangers Almanac” song “Yesterday’s News.” But he wasn’t too thrilled with the Comet’s liquid offerings that night, based on how he signed my copy of the album:

This Long Island ice tea is probably a Los Angeles Ice Tea – Too much Coke not enough vodka – See you at the rock thing – David Ryan Adams

Even by his own lofty interview-ninja standards, Ryan was in rare form that night, as quotable and cocky as ever, and also of a mind to settle a few scores. I told the bartender to keep the drinks coming, wound Ryan up and turned him loose. I just tried to keep up.

“At first, I was kind of upset that we made a ‘big’ record,” Ryan said. “But y’know, you’ve got to get big before you can be Keith Richards. So we just decided to get it out of the way, just deliver the goods. I think, because of my age, some people will think this record is a smart kid just making stuff up. But it’s not that at all. Some people will like this record and get it – at least I hope they will. It will talk to people, I think. It’s not a record where we segregated our audience or ourselves at all into corners.”

Here he paused to take a breath, and a drink.

“We, um, just went out back and took a leak with it,” he finally said, cracking a smile.

I knew another subject sure to get Ryan going, the silly and increasingly shrill debate about whether or not alternative country represented “real” country. For all the commercial potential Whiskeytown represented, alternative country was still selling just a fraction of what mainstream country’s hat acts were doing. And Nashville was unimpressed with this new wave, as evinced by a witheringly pompous Journal of Country Music essay that asked, “No Depression, Any Country?” The piece singled out Whiskeytown for particularly harsh criticism because of the band’s “annoying ironic distance from its material, a sense of play-acting that seems more condescending than good-humored.”…

“We are not a country band and never said we were, not even when we had a fulltime pedal steel player,” Ryan said with some heat. “We just play what sounds good to us, and we’re already from North Carolina. I lost my accent from growing up near a military school with ten different ethnic groups. So I could give a [expletive] about being a country band … we never asked for any of that or ‘proclaimed’ it. …”

Actually, Whiskeytown did proclaim that – on-record, no less. Ryan gave a dismissive wave at the mention of his song about “this damn country band” he started.

“My fascination with country music is my business,” he said. “When I write songs, I write what I’m feeling as opposed to following some curriculum, unlike some bands. Like those [expletive] Old 97’s. I can’t stand frat boys, whether or not they’re from Texas.”

Ah, the Old 97’s, Ryan’s latest target for invective. Whiskeytown had spent that spring on the road with the Old 97’s as part of the No Depression tour. Sponsored by the magazine, the No Depression tour hit 14 dates across America and had the Old 97’s in the headline slot. And even though they’d been friendly with Whiskeytown before that, afterward Ryan went out of his way to talk smack about the Old 97’s every chance he got.…

Back at the Comet in 1997, most of his career still ahead of him, Ryan was throwing down weak Los Angeles Iced Teas while contemplating the costs involved with feuds, friends and getting ahead. …It was all part of Ryan’s mythological persona as the brash, theatrical punk unafraid to say anything to or about anybody, consequences be damned.

But were the inevitable bruised feelings a cost of success, or an impediment to it? Were the antics worth the anguish? And could Ryan even help himself?

“I don’t have an anti-success bug,” Ryan said. “But sometimes it’s hard to put up with everything you’re supposed to do. If I’m in a certain mood, it maybe translates too much. Maybe that’s because I’m young and prone to throw fits. I do feel bad when I’ve disappointed people. But it always seems like we make up for it somehow.”

Excerpt from RYAN ADAMS: LOSERING, A STORY OF WHISKEYTOWN by David Menconi. ©2012. Courtesy of the University of Texas Press.

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