Since the magazine's founding in 1995, No Depression has reported on and helped define the music that goes by names such as alt.country, Americana, and roots music. Though dismissed by the commercial country music establishment as "music that doesn't sell," alternative country has attracted thousands of listeners who long for the authenticity and rich complexity that come from its potent blend of country and rock 'n' roll and any number of related musical genres and subgenres.
To celebrate No Depression's tenth anniversary and spotlight some of the most important artists and trends in alt.country music, editors Grant Alden and Peter Blackstock have compiled this anthology of twenty-five of the magazine's best and most representative feature articles. Their subjects range from venerated country artists such as Johnny Cash and Ray Price to contemporary songwriters such as Lucinda Williams and Buddy and Julie Miller to the post-punk country-influenced bands Wilco and the Drive-By Truckers. All of the articles included here illustrate No Depression's commitment to music writing that puts the artist front-and-center and covers his or her career in sufficient depth to be definitive. Alden and Blackstock have also written a preface to this volume in which they discuss the alt.country phenomenon and the history and editorial philosophy that have made No Depression the bible for everyone seeking genuine American roots music.
Grant Alden and Peter Blackstock
Not Just Another Band from East L.A.: Los Lobos
The True Believer: Alejandro Escovedo
Ain't Life Grand: Jon Dee Graham
When the Fallen Angels Fly: Billy Joe Shaver
Outlaw Blues: Ray Wylie Hubbard
John T. Davis
One Road More: The Flatlanders
Burning Memories: Ray Price
The Music Came Up from His Soul: Johnny Gimble
Bill C. Malone
The Man in Black and White and Every Shade in Between: Johnny Cash
The Long Journey Home: Rosanne Cash
Happy Woman Blues: Lucinda Williams
Hearts on Fire: Buddy and Julie Miller
Sweet Emotion: Kasey Chambers
Make Me Wanna Holler: Loretta Lynn
Down from the Mountain: Patty Loveless
A Simple Path: Kieran Kane
Horse of a Different Color: Paul Burch
Coal Miner's Sister: Hazel Dickens
Quicksilver Girl: Gillian Welch
Go Your Own Way: Ryan Adams
World Wide Open: Jay Farrar
Outside the Wall: The Jayhawks
In through the Out Door: Wilco
Rocking Tall: The Drive-By Truckers
A Life of Quiet Inspiration: Iron & Wine
For most of the ten years we have published No Depression, each issue has appeared with a subtitle that constantly changes but usually promises a bimonthly alt-country magazine (whatever that is). For most of those ten years, too much attention has been paid to the alt-country half of that phrase, and too little to its parenthetical companion.
First suggested by Peter's father as he sought to explain to a family friend what his son was doing, "whatever that is" has always been the best explanation for what No Depression is, or might yet become. As we have often reminded readers, alt-country was meant ironically, for we were two music critics living in Seattle, the citadel of grunge, when ND first appeared; the whole idea that editors so far from Nashville might be interested in writing about country music, or would dare to do so, was curious at best and arrogant at worst.
Guilty as charged.
Over the intervening years, alt-country came to mean several things. To the mainstream music industry (O Brother notwithstanding), it became code for "doesn't sell"; to fans, it came to describe a network of hard-working bands that fused punk rock's DIY spirit to country music's working-class honesty. Most of those initial groups, indeed, didn't sell all that many records and sought greener pastures of one kind or another, or settled into day jobs.
It was their misfortune to be powerful nightclub acts at a time when major labels prized the perfection of the studio and the arena stage; to write compelling and complicated songs for adults when juvenile slogans sold best; and to engage the music industry when it was no longer interested in (or capable of) nurturing talent for the long haul. Modest critical success and sales in the tens of thousands hardly outweighed the imperatives of corporate consolidation, when established artists were dropped for delivering albums that sold only in the hundreds of thousands.
And yet our magazine not only survived, but grew (as has a fragile but sustainable infrastructure of other small businesses that nurture this music... these musics). Not because we are especially astute publishers, but because "whatever that is" was meant as a blunt reminder that ND was the creation of two editors who remain endlessly curious about—and enchanted by—music.
We are not biologists. It is not our purpose to identify, quantify, and codify a subgenus called alt-country, or to limit ourselves to its study. We are writers, minor-league historians, fans; musicians bridle at being categorized, as do we. It is our purpose to write and assign articles about artists whose work is of enduring merit. And, yes, those artists have some tangential relationship (at least to our ears) to whatever country music may have been—even to what it may now be. Or, rather, to the musics of our country, these United States.
The book at hand is our second anthology. The first summarized articles that appeared during our first three years, ending with ND #13. In the interests of actually publishing a second volume on the occasion of our tenth anniversary, we limited this anthology to articles that appeared in issues #14 (March-April 1998) through #51 (May-June 2004). Even so, the book could have been twice as long, had we been allowed. We gave the authors a chance to make minor corrections or adjustments to their text; we recognize that much has changed since these pieces originally appeared.
Looking back at that first anthology through the eyes of this one reveals some distinct developments in the nature of No Depression. Most immediately obvious, our articles grew longer and more in-depth as the magazine's reputation spread and its circulation expanded. In the beginning, our role was, perhaps, more introductory. As ND has grown, we have sought to cultivate and present profiles of major artists that could purport to be definitive journalistic works. It is our hope that these collected pieces have contributed, in some way, to the historical record of the music and its makers.
Our scope also has broadened a bit from those early days, as has the nature of the music we have covered. We are more apt to address a range of American roots-music forms today; this seems an inevitable outgrowth of any publication focusing on the common ground between country and rock 'n' roll, given that both forms owe considerable debts to bluegrass, blues, folk, jazz, rockabilly, and any number of related genres or subgenres.
Indeed, foremost among our regrets about the space limitations inherent to anthologies is that No Depression today covers more territory than we are able to reflect here. Which is not to say that there isn't still plenty of variety among the twenty-five artists represented here. Perhaps more to the point, nearly all of these artists are models of the diversity that is No Depression—whether in the form of Los Lobos' multilayered Latino-tinged hybrid, or Johnny Gimble's western-swing blending of hillbilly and jazz, or Buddy & Julie Miller's enchanting combination of country, soul, folk, and rock, or the Drive-By Truckers' head-on collision of classic Southern rock with contemporary punk.
It is, ultimately, impossible to boil down to any simple phrase of a few hyphen-bound words. Conversely, though—and happily so—this music is quite easy to write about at length and in depth, and with both passion and intelligence. These are the qualities we have sought to bring to the pages of No Depression in our first ten years. Take a look at how the story has unfolded so far... and join us for the next ten years, and beyond.
None of this would be possible without the forbearance of our wives, Susan Thomas and Lisa Whittington. Less than none of this would be possible but for the less glamorous work of our third partner, Kyla Fairchild, who tends to the business concerns of our hobby run amok. Special thanks go to our longtime friend, one-time landlord, and office manager, Mary Schuh, and to the brave handful of souls who have sold advertising for ND: Trish Wagner, Tom Monday, Kay Clary, and Jenni Sperandeo. We are indebted beyond the power of mere words to all who have written, photographed, and illustrated for ND, and to the many who have read our words over the years.
We dedicate this volume to the late Roxy Gordon, editor and publisher of the 1970s outlaw-country newspaper Picking Up The Tempo. Though neither of us were aware of Roxy's publication during its heyday, the dog-eared copies he sent to us a couple years after we had started No Depression served as a signpost of sorts, a reminder that we were not so much exploring new territory as we were picking up a lost trail in our efforts to cover this music—whatever it is, or was, or will be.
(To subscribe to No Depression, visit www.nodepression.net or write to No Depression, P.O. Box 31332, Seattle, WA 98103.)
Grant Alden and Peter Blackstock founded No Depression in 1995 in Seattle, Washington, and have been its editors ever since. They are also the magazine's publishers (along with Kyla Fairchild). Alden lives in Morehead, Kentucky, and Blackstock lives in Poulsbo, Washington.
Praise for No Depression:
No Depression "is in many ways the prototypical peer-group publication that comes along once in a generation and attracts and defines its collective audience of readers, in much the same way that the young rock magazines Rolling Stone, Crawdaddy, and Creem did decades ago."
—Chet Flippo, Billboard
"For those who crave that tasty trail mix of traditional country, punk, folk, and rock that goes under the moniker alt country or Americana, there is no finer or more thorough source for news, reviews, and profiles [than No Depression]. We adore the long chewy portraits of the genre's big names, and the dispatches from concertland."