A Whole Lot Country
Over the past several months, I've contributed stories every now and then to a bimonthly magazine called No Depression that takes as its subject matter the burgeoning field of "alternative country" music -- which is to say, music with recognizably "country" referents that yet exists on the margins of the mainstream country music industry as exemplified by country radio and the Nashville infrastructure that supports it.
Know what I mean?
Not everybody does.
Nonetheless, when the first ever No Depression Tour -- a four-band caravan peddling its wares under a banner that's transcended the magazine that named it to become the tag for a genre -- hits Houston on Monday, locals will have a chance to see for themselves a reasonable representation of just what the hell a No Depression band is. (Though locals have had a considerable hint through the efforts of such Houston bands as the Hollisters and Horseshoe.)
An easy, if not encompassing, answer to what makes up a No Depression act starts in the 1930s, when the Carter Family's D.B. Carter penned, and his family recorded, a tune called "No Depression in Heaven." In 1990, a then-new country-rock band called Uncle Tupelo named its debut disc No Depression in abbreviated homage. In the summer of 1994, an intrepid bunch of Tupelo fans, distraught by the band's breakup, began posting messages to each other in a "No Depression" folder on America Online. And in September 1995, when Grant Alden and Peter Blackstock decided to launch a paper-and-ink magazine as an outgrowth of the AOL group, they kept the same name.
Uncle Tupelo had meanwhile split into two camps, with songwriter Jeff Tweedy forming Wilco and songwriter Jay Farrar forming Son Volt, thereby providing the fledgling No Depression with the sort of Stones/Beatles dynamic that fueled the early days of Rolling Stone. Soon enough, any band with an affected twang, a professed love for George Jones, a childhood proximity to a vinyl copy of Willie Nelson's Red Headed Stranger or just a drunken cover of J.D. McCoy's "Convoy" tossed off in the heat of the punk moment was getting a knowing glance from media types happy to finally have the easy shorthand that media types love: "Ahhh, another No Depression band." The word "movement" was tossed around in critical circles like a medicine ball, which is to say, not at all lightly.
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But the No Depression movement is not, of course, a movement at all, and Peter Blackstock, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer music critic who launched No Depression with co-editor Grant Alden, knows it.
"I see this kind of music having always been around, and just seeming to go up and down in cycles in terms of the attention it gets," he says. "I don't think it's a movement in the way that some things tend to be happening for a couple or three years and then it moves on to something else. When Grant and I started the magazine, we said from the beginning we wouldn't get into this unless we thought that this is the kind of music that has always been around and will always be around .... We really believe that this music is a lot more than a flash in the pan, it's a sort of ingrained form of American music."
When Blackstock talks about "this music," he's talking about a country-rock crossover that apparently took a lot of folks by surprise when Uncle Tupelo resolved its internal struggles between rock and country influences by tossing it all into the bag together. But the crossover impulse didn't start there. Critics called it cow-punk in the early 1980s, and its practitioners -- Jason and the Scorchers, the Long Ryders, the BoDeans, etc. -- were drawing on a tradition that already stretched back to the International Submarine Band, the Byrds and the Flying Burrito Brothers. (Or, some might say, to Gram Parsons, a guiding influence in all three of those groups.) This was, and is, music that sees a continuity, or at least a lack of discord, between Hank Williams and Chuck Berry. Marketing types would like to see the No Depression scene flourish into a full-bore pigeonhole that they could sell as the next big thing. But Blackstock, at least, doesn't think it'll happen.
"There doesn't seem to be any way to focus it, and that's one of the things that maybe makes it difficult for this to become a next big thing," he says. "Artistically I think that's a good thing. It allows us to do a lot of things under one roof." In Blackstock's No Depression universe, folk, rock, bluegrass and punk all get their nods in a world-view that finds its nexus in country stylings.
The No Depression Tour, with only four bands offered as a sampler, is a bit more limited, but still manages to offer a legitimate cross section of the scene's unfocused energy. Headliners the Old 97s, from Dallas, have two independent releases under their belt and an Elektra-released major-label debut, Too Far to Care, scheduled for June. The band has also been in the studio recently recording a single collaboration with Waylon Jennings, just the sort of outlaw lionized by No Depression magazine.
North Carolina's Whiskeytown, another alt-rock buzz band, released Faithless Street and several seven-inch singles before being snapped up late last year by the Geffen-distributed Outpost label. Seattle's the Picketts, meanwhile, have quietly released two records on Rounder, and have a tendency to countrify material such as the Who's "Baba O'Reilly" and the Clash's "Should I Stay or Should I Go" in their live sets. And rounding out the lineup are Albuquerque's unsigned Hazeldine, three girls and a boy drummer with nothing but a couple of basement demos and a lonely seven-inch single to their credit.
The Picketts, according to Blackstock, are the tour's scene veterans, while the Old 97s and Whiskeytown are alt-country buzz bands championed by the magazine since its earliest issues, and Hazeldine is "a band that most people probably will not have heard of yet, but that I really believe they will be hearing of soon." But whether they belong together is a matter of some controversy in the circles for which alternative country has become the musical religion du jour. Wilco frontman Jeff Tweedy, for one, has not hesitated lately in voicing his concern that the No Depression tag might be more a limitation than a blessing, most recently in a lengthy interview/profile in Rolling Stone, the point of which seemed largely to be that it's only rock and roll.
Still, there's no denying that both No Depression (the magazine) and the bands that have found eager champions amongst its writers and readers have had an impact far beyond the publication's meager 9,000 circulation, and beyond any individual No Depression (the musical tag) band's record sales as well.
But whether the No Depression scene can maintain its influence over the long haul is another question entirely. Alt-country has already given way to electronic music as the media's post-rock-replacement of the week. But anyone more interested in the next good thing than in the next big one has a good chance, with this tour, to see whether "new country" was just one more flash in the A&R brainstorming pan or -- less spectacular but far more gratifying -- a new name for a musical impulse that's always been there -- and always will be there, just as long as there are country folks, or even just folks who wish they were.
The No Depression Tour featuring the Old 97s, Whiskeytown, the Picketts and Hazeldine begins at 9 p.m. Monday, March 17, at the Fabulous Satellite Lounge, 3616 Washington Avenue. Tickets are $5. For info, call 869-
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