“No Depression” Stands Athwart Music History

Jan 18th, 2008 // 10 Comments

nodepression.jpgOnce again, we present Rock-Critically Correct, a feature in which the most recent issues of Rolling Stone, Blender, Vibe, and Spin are given a once-over by an anonymous writer who’s contributed to several of those titles–or maybe even all of them! After the jump, he looks at the most recent issue of alt-country chronicle No Depression:

“A Conservative is a fellow who is standing athwart history, yelling ‘stop!’ “

So spake the logorrheic William F. Buckley upon the founding of the National Review in 1955. Your Boy doesn’t necessarily ascribe an identical motivation to the publication he assesses this week. But check out this excerpt from “A Vintage Year,” one of a series of essays from The Best of 007, a catch-all yearly roundup in the January/ February edition of No Depression.

The angry young man fell out of fashion at some point in the late ’90s (at least for middle aged white men who don’t listen to rap). I blame the Backstreet Boys for that, them and the cult of happy greed they were employed to sell to our lottery-drunk culture. I also blame generations of angry young men who had little to offer but their fury (and that would, in part, be my excuse for not listening to rap).

How many long nights did I spend trying to fashion that fury into something useful, something presentable? Trying to put it to bed. The world will not bend to my will. I recognize the errant arrogance of that sentence. It’s hopelessness, and it’s optimism.

These words are courtesy of No Depression co-editor Grant Alden, who should consider recognizing the “errant arrogance” of most sentences in the same essay. Leaving aside that his piece is fragrant of a mid-life crisis, Alden seems to be struggling with a cultural marketplace that no longer caters to his sensibilities–and my gawd, is he defensive! He goes on to cite older artists like Bettye LaVette, Mavis Staples and Lyle Lovett as exemplars of mature artistry, and–somewhat admirably–takes solace in their music as he rages, rages against the dying of the light.

It feels like a succinct distillation of his magazine’s function. No Depression began in 1995 as an outgrowth of a AOL message board frequented by Alden and cofounder Peter Blackstock; the board took its name from a 1990 Uncle Tupelo cover of 1936 Carter Family song, The mag chronicles a movement best known as alt-country or Americana, most idiotically referred to as Y’allternative, but also referred to by the mag’s name. In 1991, the rise of Garth Brooks overtook Nashville, and a lot of folks concluded that the spirit of “real” country music had fled Music Row and moved on to the likes of Nashville renegades like Steve Earle and sympathetic alt-dudes like Uncle Tupelo.

Maybe the intentions of Mssrs. Earle, Farrar, and Tweedy never involved standing athwart history, yelling stop. But the music they’ve made enables their advocates to do just that. ND stands for a purity that allegedly existed in music made decades ago but that is–allegedly–sorely lacking today. The mag’s motto, “Surveying the Past, Present and Future of American Music,” seems misdirected, unless said “future” is premised on singer-songwriters playing heart-on-sleeve tunes in anachronistic musical styles on acoustic guitars. A better creed would be “The Journal Devoted to Steve Earle, His Associates, And Musicians He Would Likely Endorse.”

This is all to say that ND is more retrograde than any other magazine YB has discussed in this space (and that’s saying something). Singer-songwriters; artists evoking classic country and soul idioms and/or who are associated with Lost Highway or Bloodshot Records; bluegrass pickers; largely sedate indie bands; artists eager to complain about “Nash Vegas”; artists who have been in the same room as either Willie Nelson, Alison Krauss, Jon Langford, Emmylou Harris, Tom Waits or Lucinda Williams for at least five minutes–if a given artist shuns more recent stylistic iterations, then they’re right up No Depression‘s alley. And heaven knows that there are enough aging, alienated music fans–the dreaded NPR devotees-sympathetic to that view to legitimize the mag’s raison d’être. Incidentally, a few members of the mag’s freelance stable are veteran rock critics–YB assumes that many enjoy writing for a publication premised on the idea that “traditions must be upheld,” etc., etc.

The issue under consideration features “Songs in the Key of Springfield,” a cover profile of Shelby Lynne, who said the hell with Nashville, cut one excellent record (I Am Shelby Lynne), three lousy ones since 2000, and a new one, Just A Little Lovin’, where she reinterprets most of the tunes on Dusty In Memphis. (She also happens to be Earle’s sister-in-law.) Its scribe, Bill Friskics-Warren, sticks to the genesis of her most recent album, and doesn’t mention the gruesome murder-suicide that her father visited upon her mother. YB guesses that this topic is rendered off-limits by Lynne’s camp to most interlocutors (but not to big shots like the New York Times Magazine‘s Rob Hoerburger), but the assumption might be that ND readers are prepared to read about “just the music, maaan…”

YB doesn’t want to seem too churlish: He liked a piece therein, “The Old Folks Started It,” regarding Otis Taylor, a 59-year-old who has set out to rehabilitate the image of the banjo, initially an African instrument that has appropriated “Stepin Fetchit” connotations in African-American contexts over the past several decades.

Or maybe he does want to seem churlish: Kurt Reighley’s “Gone to Carolina” fails to show YB why Band of Horses is remotely interesting, but it does show that BoH is very well-connected in Seattle. Similarly, Peter Cooper’s “An Appalachian Ghost Story” recounts the tale of Malcolm Holcombe, an eccentric singer-songwriter beloved of dissident Nashvillians like Williams and, inevitably, Earle–but not of YB. It often seems that if an artist’s voice is gruff and elemental, ND will roll out the red carpet.

For No Depression operates as a booster for artists that fly the flag for the way “Hank woulda done it” or are otherwise respectful of tradition. It seems as if relative artistic merits or deficits are irrelevant; if the correct posture–which is to say, against crass commercial culture and for a idealized and pure past–is taken by an artist, then said artist is on ND‘s side. Take a short profile of 17-year-old neo-Cajun fiddler Amanda Shaw in which Alex Rawls notes her former affiliation with Disney, then reveals that her song “Pretty Runs Out” has been used to accompany a YouTube video illustrating the decline of fellow Louisianan Britney Spears.

So! Shaw plays fiddle and implicitly rebukes the symbol of everything wrong in No Depression‘s world. She’s doubtless Britney done right, in their view.

  1. iantenna

    are you sure hank done it this a’way?

  2. SuperUnison

    I bet these guys’ collective dick is still hard from “Sky Blue Sky.”

  3. Anonymous

    The ND crowd has been through with Jeff Tweedy since Summerteeth.

  4. Mick Kraut

    They do however hold out hope that ever new Ryan Adams record will be another “Heartbreaker”…

  5. MrStarhead

    If these guys really wanted to position themselves as the mag that offers outside-Nashville coverage, they would have aligned themselves with the growing Texas music scene by now (Cross Canadian Ragweed, etc.), which marries ’70s country with grunge and other rock forms. But they haven’t.

  6. Anonymous

    They are still the self-appointed keepers of the sacred music. Beware, all ye pop-loving sinners, recognize thy shame and repent. The Britney Spears ref is a dead giveaway. Why should they care about her? Because they need her, or their own purity has no meaning. Or something.

  7. Charles A. Hohman

    For me, the most irritating thing about ND is not its attitude toward pop, but toward mainstream country. They extol “classic country” acts like Cash and Hank and Jennings, while ignoring that those men worked within largely the same idioms that a Brad Paisley or Taylor Swift use today. I blame a lot of this alt-country arrogance on Gram Parsons, and I thank Anono-Critic for not mentioning him. Parsons’ distorted rich-kid romanticization of a world and a music that never quite existed has loomed large over the ND movement (and nuts to anyone who thinks his country-rock fusion had not been done prior). As with Parsons, the complicating factor is that many of the artists mentioned above (Steve Earle, Lucinda Williams) have produced fine records despite their narrow-minded traditionalism.

  8. Anonymous

    Why should a publication, one that seemingly prides itself on spending the bulk of its pages covering artists largely ignored by mainstream media outlets, give any lip service to mainstream county? The very idea that the music is mainstream would seem to render it useless to the core readership of ND. However, at a closer glance, many of the people who actually WRITE the songs recorded by country poster boys and girls are, in fact, featured in the publication. Perhaps they’re not pretty enough for the pages of other trendy music mags.

  9. Lucas Jensen

    I just don’t see the problem Anono-Critic has with No Depression. They appeal to exactly the demographic they set out to appeal to. Maybe they don’t rock the boat, exactly, but I think they stick pretty close to their mission statement. To be honest, I’m growing weary of this segment in Idolator’s repertoire. I think that YB would have every niche magazine go broader and every broad magazine get weirder. Can’t No Depression just be No Depression?

  10. Anonymous

    Don’t know about the fine folks at ND, but my site twangnation.com, which serves more or less the same demo mostly stand in contrast to snarky cultural pricks taken with their own clever observations (oh how meta!), like this anonymous hump.

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