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Review: David Menconi's Ryan Adams: Losering, A Story of Whiskeytown

University of Texas Press; 222 pages; Sept. 15, 2012



For a time, Ryan Adams was getting more ink for his romantic entanglements, bizarre stage behavior, drug-addled antics and ever-widening, big, fat mouth than he was for his music. It was easy to lose sight of the masterful songwriter who crafted moments of heartache, longing and reckless abandon with crystalline precision. In Ryan Adams: Losering, a Story of Whiskeytown, David Menconi charts Adams' course from brash, garage-rock beginnings to the cusp of mainstream fame (and infamy), reminding us why we care about Adams and his art.

A contributor to publications including Spin, Billboard and alt-country flagship No Depression, Menconi was in the thick of Raleigh's 1990s left-of-the dial rock scene, when the triangle was tipped to be the new Seattle and insurgent country the "new grunge." Into this whirlwind of creativity and uncertainty landed 19-year-old Ryan Adams. Brash, sensitive, insightful and arrogant, Adams possessed a songwriting maturity beyond his years, and was far more ambitious than anyone else on the scene.

Menconi is at his best when he is documenting that particular time and place when everything was possible, exhilarating and just a little scary. At times, Menconi's insider status causes him to lose his way, charting the byways of that long-vanished scene. Crucial dots between players remain unconnected, but a vivid picture still emerges of an admittedly loosey-goosey milieu.

From it emerged the vehicle for Adams' ambitions. As a band, Whiskeytown was a force to be reckoned with, both a lurching, boozy juggernaut and a quiet oasis of heartfelt perfection. Menconi makes a case that Whiskeytown was the creative pinnacle of Adams' career. At heart, Menconi is a music geek, and when he discusses Adams' powerful legacy he excels. A track-by-track analysis of Whiskeytown's (and Adams') best LP, Strangers Almanac, metaphorically links the LP to a wayward, heartsick night on the town. A ramble though a long-vanished Raleigh in search of redemption, Menconi's description nails the LP, but it also offers the key to understanding Ryan Adams. Driven by ambition, Adams was also nearly driven off the rails, partly by aesthetic and career goals, but also by a need to lower veils on painful chapters of his life. Adams may never want those veils to be lifted, but through Adams' music, and Menconi's prose, we begin to see why they are there.

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