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Book chronicles rise and fall of Whiskeytown, plus Ryan Adams’ solo career

Brian T. Atkinson
Menconi writes about Adams and his friendship with Austin musician Alejandro Escovedo, seen here singing “Excuse Me (While I Break My Own Heart Tonight)” on the last night of South by Southwest in 2000 during a benefit for the SIMS Foundation.

David Menconi’s “Ryan Adams: Losering, the Story of Whiskeytown” deftly charts the Raleigh, N.C.-based alt-country band’s rise and fall as well as Adams’ fruitful solo career. Menconi offers insight into Adams as a blossoming star few could capture.

“It’s a fascinating story that I happened to be around for,” says the (Raleigh) News-Observer writer and former contributing editor to the late, great No Depression magazine. “Through sheer will and talent, too, he carved out a fairly big career.”

American-Statesman: What set Whiskeytown apart from, say, Uncle Tupelo?

David Menconi: There was certainly a star quality about Ryan that most of those bands didn’t have. I love the Old 97’s, but they all seem like regular dudes you’d hang out with. Ryan was a star even before the rest of the world caught on.

Was he actually a star in North Carolina or just in his mind?

I think it definitely started in his mind. Early on, it was kind of comical watching him around Raleigh. He wasn’t taken very seriously. He was this hyper, not terribly hygienic kid who looked 12 years old, but once he got onstage, it was like, “Hey, wow, he’s really good.” It was hard to deny.

You say in the book that ‘Strangers Almanac’ is Whiskeytown’s holy grail.

I just feel like that record really captured lightning in a bottle for Ryan as well as the band. It’s a seething cauldron of desires, many of them at war with themselves.

Explain the connection to Alejandro (Escovedo) on that record.

Whiskeytown opened for Alejandro when he was out touring “With These Hands” in ’96, I think. They became friendly. I think Alejandro’s credited on two other songs, but “Excuse Me (While I Break My Own Heart)” is the one he really shines on.

Do you like that one better than the original (on 1996’s ‘Faithless Street’)?

I do. I don’t think there’s any topping the one with Alejandro on “Strangers.”

How do you feel about Ryan’s solo career?

He’s done fine work throughout, but I feel like he peaked early. (Adams’ 2000 solo debut) “Heartbreaker” is his best solo album in my book. I just find the songs aren’t nearly as compelling as what he was doing with (Whiskeytown) or early on solo.

Has sobriety affected his songwriting?

The last time I saw him play was at a show in Raleigh in 2005, which was an evening that was just fraught all the way around. He pretty clearly appeared to be in a bad place, talking to himself a lot onstage. Maybe (sobriety has) done nothing and maybe it’s done something to the music, but I think he had to give it up to continue.

What’s most challenging about writing without your subject’s participation?

It was a challenge. If he had cooperated, his view might’ve provided more of a framework. The fact that he didn’t certainly pushed me to focus more on Whiskeytown, which I thought was the most interesting. He’d probably disagree.

Explain the UT Press series you edit with Peter (Blackstock).

My rough thumbnail on it is, if it’s somebody you can imagine a feature on in the old No Depression magazine, maybe we could do a book on them. (Don McLeese’s) Dwight Yoakam book was the first. Ryan’s the second. There’s a Merle Haggard book on the way next year and another five to 10 titles percolating along.

Lit Crawl Austin with Ken Caillat, David Menconi and Sylvie Simmons