FOR THE INDEPDENT'S ROCK 'N' ROLL QUARTERLY (Week of January 27 - February 2, 1998)
By Art Menius
I represent a young, high energy old-time string band. Somebody told me that they'd do really well with no depression. I thanked her, but thought that they already had a great attitude. Not long afterwards, their record company sent me a clip from a magazine called No Depression. The lights went on, revealing a musical scene more than a specific genre. This world has a place for emerging artists of the 1990s, veterans from the 1970s and '80s from the late Townes Van Zandt to our own Flying Pigs, and even older musicians like Doc Watson. I found out quickly that we're right at the heart of the matter in the Triangle with events like Spittlefest and Honky-Tonk-A-Rama and bands, managers, record labels and distributors, and writers all calling North Carolina home.
The relatively simple epiphany reveals that one can start with country music and go anywhere in American roots music. Loving both rock and that rural edge, these musicians use country music - especially chord progressions and vocal mannerisms -- as a method, a starting point, not a book of rules. The modern history of ND begins with a midwestern band called Uncle Tupelo, who broke up in mid-1994 after recording their fourth album.
No Depression comes from Uncle Tupelo's title cover of the Carter Family song on their debut release. A "No Depression - Alternative Country" bulletin board on AOL began the scene's media. The band peaked with their magisterial third CD, March 16-20, 1992 (Rockville ROCK6090-2). Moody, spontaneous, restrained, and rootsy, the CD marks perhaps the most successful rock/country fusion effort, combining the best aspects of both. We hear a rock band singing a coal miner's union song with the conviction of a Woody Guthrie and creating new songs that sound traditional.
Uncle Tupelo begat Wilco and Son Volt. Son Volt, represented by Raleigh's Black Park Management, earned exceptional notices for their 1995 debut Trance, then returned last year with straightaways (Warner Brothers 46518-2). More rooted than Wilco, the country stylings remain strong, progressing logically from March 16-20, 1992. Yet the rock bubbles urgently just below the surface propelling the recording. "Cemetery Savior" captures the tension generated by these forces - the very marrow of No Depression - in a few driving moments.
A bit more pop oriented, Wilco released A.M. ("Pop songs with Dobro," says Wilco frontman Jeff Tweedy, who co-founded Uncle Tupelo with Son Volt's Jay Farrar), toured heavily, then disappeared for more than a year. Wilco reemerged at the end of 1996 with the ND's boldest release, the double CD Being There (Reprise 46236-2). Country influences and chord progressions coexist with borrowings from the Beach Boys, R&B, Raspberries, and the Rolling Stones on nineteen mostly rocking cuts. This year promises the release of Wilco's collaboration with English punk folkie Billy Bragg on a set of previously unrecorded Guthrie songs.
Previously active musicians, the Bad Livers and Steve Earle for example, joined the movement, while bands presented under the alt.country banner emerged from around the country. The Old 97's, Jayhawks, Robby Fulks, and the Derailers swelled the ranks of those touring nationally. The Northwest, Texas, and the Triangle joined the midwest as centers of ND activity. Raleigh's Backsliders (Mammoth Records) had already been playing their kind of country rock. Chapel Hill's Southern Culture on the Skids broke out nationally with their Creedence meets Wilson Pickett and Uncle Dave Macon funk. They proved leaders of a large pack, profiled comprehensively on two enjoyable compilations from Chapel Hill's Yep Records: Revival Vol. One: Brunswick Stew & Pig Pickin' (Yep YP 2001) and Revival Vol. II: Kudzu and Hollerin' Contest (Yep YP 2005). These discs include a host of area favorites like Whiskeytown, Six String Drag, Two Dollar Pistols, Mercury Dime, and Trailer Bride. Even better, the comps suggest the breadth of No Depression with country rock, honky-tonk, old-time, rockabilly, and folk-rock all represented and provide the best available introduction to the ND scene in the southeast.
Founded in Raleigh in 1994, Whiskeytown appeared on Cary's Mood Food label before their major label debut last summer with the justly well received Strangers Almanac (Outpost OPRD-30005). Caitlin Cary's fiddle (check out "Excuse Me While I Break My Own Heart Tonight") helps Whiskeytown maintain a country edge while mining an encyclopedic wealth of rock and soul styles and riffs.. Ryan Adams moves seamlessly from the country singer of "Excuse Me" to the rocker of "Yesterday's News" on to the blue-eyed soul of "Everything I Do." Whiskeytown maintains its identity from one to the next. Stranger's Almanac delivers a compelling brew that jells into to perhaps the best ND release of 1997. Amazingly, this version of the chronically unstable Whiskeytown line-up came together only days before recording.
Greensboro's Six String Drag moved to the majors for last September's High Hat (E Squared 1055-2). Kevin Roby provides consistently strong songs, but a lot of good cuts don't always make a great album. "Red" combines banjo and Muscle Shoals in a song that somehow holds together, yet "Driven Man" could fit on an Elvis Costello album. "Cold Steel Brace" is straight ahead rock, yet "I Can't Remember" could pass for a Louvin Brothers out take. There's even more going on - pop, Louis Armstrong, and gospel rockabilly - good, but too much pork for just one fork. Even this generously talented band could put all these streams together into a sound all their own .
Darkling, the forthcoming CD from Rowan County's Mercury Dime (Yep 2007), finds them skirting the edges of Byrds territory, melding those sounds with influences from Springsteen, Dylan, Long Ryders, the Band, and beyond into a synthesis all their own. Cliff Retallick's lyrics come across as much more oblique and overtly poetic than typical for No Depression, often evoking politics as image in the throes of wordplay ("You've got AWACS in your haystacks") or as pure fantasy ("Robert Kennedy works in the airport").
Bill Monroe's alternative country became bluegrass, yet it also fueled rock 'n' roll. Gram Parsons' vision mutated into the mega-sellers of first the Eagles and Poco and later Nashville hit country. Today's movement revisits that legacy with another generation at the helm. While producing a wealth of memorable music, alt-country appears moving closer to the alt than the country. Over its short history, ND has already fused with an assortment of sounds far afield from roots music. Could it be not so much a paradigm shift as another periodic purging of artifice from rock, a return to the basics?