Menconi: A front-row seat to Whiskeytown’s early years

schandler@newsobserver.comSeptember 15, 2012 

  • GET FAMILIAR Never heard of Ryan Adams or Whiskeytown? Here are five songs handpicked by N&O music critic David Menconi to give you a taste: 1. “Sixteen Days” (Whiskeytown, “Strangers Almanac,” 1997) – In a saner universe (i.e., one I was in charge of), this would have been the “Smells Like Teen Spirit” of mid-’90s alternative country. Perfect. 2. “Midway Park” (Whiskeytown, “Faithless Street,” 1996) – One of Ryan Adams’ finest odes to his old hometown, Jacksonville. 3. “Jacksonville Skyline” (Whiskeytown, “Pneumonia,” 2001) – Speaking of, a lovely and wistful remembrance of that North Carolina town, evocative enough to put you right there. 4. “Oh My Sweet Carolina” (Ryan Adams, “Heartbreaker,” 2000) – Yet another love letter to his place of origin, from the perspective of someone who has traveled far. Emmylou Harris on incandescent harmony vocal. 5. “Dear Chicago” (Ryan Adams, “Demolition,” 2002) – Adams has written scores of beautiful falling-out-of-love songs, none more stunning than this gem recalling an ex’s prediction that he’d “die alone and sad.”

If anyone was going to write a book about singer-songwriter Ryan Adams, it had to be David Menconi.

As The News & Observer’s music critic since 1991, Menconi had a front-row seat to the tempestuous musician’s arrival on the Triangle music scene and his seemingly permanent departure from it. Along the way, Menconi bore witness to enough drama to fill a whole album of country songs – drunken excess, brawling in bars, bitter breakups with girlfriends and bandmates – and, through it all, music from a band called Whiskeytown that would be foundational to the alt-country genre.

In “Ryan Adams: Losering, a Story of Whiskeytown” (University of Texas Press), Menconi traces Adams’ development as a person, a band member, and, ultimately, a Grammy-nominated solo musician. Along the way, the Triangle and its music scene emerge as characters, too.

We talked to Menconi about the new book in a coffee shop on Raleigh’s Hillsborough Street within sight of what was once The Comet Lounge and The Brewery, two now-defunct venues Whiskeytown frequented in its heyday, and just down the road from Sadlack’s and the former Rathskeller, where Ryan met many of the people who, in one way or another, would become part of Whiskeytown’s story.

Q: Why did you feel the story of Ryan Adams and Whiskeytown needed to be told?

Ryan has certainly built himself a healthy career as a solo act, and unfortunately, the stuff he was doing with Whiskeytown has been largely forgotten. And I feel like it’s far worthier than the stuff he’s best known for. So it seemed worthwhile to revisit that and shine a light on that.

Q: Why are you the guy to tell it?

I wasn’t the very first on the scene, but I was one of them. I said in the book, there was a time when I was Whiskeytown’s unofficial propagandist, and I had so many bylines in their press kit that they were whiting some of them out so it wasn’t obvious the same guy wrote them all. I was around and listening and watching and paying attention.

Q: Adams didn’t talk to you for this book. Why is that?

I sent a number of messages via his manager which were never responded to. And I finally wound up getting his lawyer on the phone. … . He said that Ryan would not be participating. The reason he gave was that his memories of the time are rather foggy and he did not wish to revisit them.

Q: How did you get around that?

I knew that the book was going to focus on a period that I did have a lot of firsthand material from, the Whiskeytown years, and I had a bunch of interviews with him from back then, and voluminous secondary sources. He’s left a paper trail miles and miles wide over the years, and also an electronic one on the Internet. There’re a lot of his own writings out there. So I knew that for the time that would make up the heart of the book, I had plenty on it.

Q: Do you still consider yourself a fan?

I’m a fan of the music. The person is an enigma. ... We were professional acquaintances, kind of playing our part, and we had a lot of fun with it. … I likened us to Howard Cosell and Muhammad Ali, this routine we had with the interviews, because he was always just great, great copy, always saying some outrageous crazy thing, and very entertaining. And so immensely talented, which was so obvious, I just was sure he was going places.

Q: How has the Triangle music scene changed over the 21 years that you’ve been on watch?

It’s always been a good scene for bands. We’ve had a number of peaks over the years. During the ’80s there was stuff in the same milieu as REM – Let’s Active and the dBs and bands like that – sort of Southern jangle pop, for lack of a better term. And by the early ’90s there was all this talk about Raleigh and Chapel Hill being the next Seattle. There were a bunch of bands like Superchunk and Polvo that fit into that kind of loud, fast-rules punk-pop dynamic that was big then and record companies that were interested in signing that.

There was a lot of national attention, and some bands got some deals. The ones that wound up selling were just really unexpected, though; it was like the Squirrel Nut Zippers and Ben Folds Five.… Ryan came up in the early ’90s around here playing in bands that fit right in alongside that.

Q: How do you think Raleigh shaped Ryan Adams while he was here, and how did it influence his music or career?

Raleigh’s kind of a no-nonsense town. It’s more blue collar, it’s more bar band, and that seemed to really fit him.… The music tends to be more about things. If Ryan’s music could use anything these days, it seems like, it would be a shot of real life. That’s not to say his life isn’t real, but, you know, when you’re married to a movie star (Mandy Moore) and you’re a paparazzi target and you’re palling around with Elton John, it’s kind of hard to kind of relate to that guy you used to be when you were washing dishes at the Rathskeller and really hustling for pocket change.

Q: So Raleigh was this great starting point for him. Why hasn’t he come back?

He’s said in various places that there’s just too much drama when he does. He can’t help but run into people from his past that he’d rather not deal with. I might be one of them, I don’t know.

Chandler: 919-829-4830

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