By Michael Bertin
SEPTEMBER 8, 1997: It was one of the few South by Southwest parties where the official conference laminates were meaningless and the bedhead look was mandatory. Despite the lack of industry Power Rangers, it was crowded. The line to use the unisex bathroom inside was painfully long, and outside, navigation was pretty much shoulder-to-shoulder slow. On a small table next to the kegs was a Sharpie and a stack of blank ID tags with spaces for a name, and of all things, an America Online handle, as many of the attendees knew each other not by face but by their e-mail address. The event, featuring bands such as the Waco Brothers, Whiskeytown, Moonshine Willy, and the Volebeats, was the second SXSW shindig at the Yard Dog thrown by the folks at No Depression, the magazine which has given itself the charge of covering the alternative country scene. In just two short years, the magazine that draws its name from a Carter Family song of the Thirties, an Uncle Tupelo album, and an AOL discussion group, has become almost brand-name for the genre. And the AOL jockeys overflowing out of the yard into the alley behind the South Congress art gallery? They were in part responsible for starting the very publication they had come to mooch free beer from.
In the summer of 1994 - July 13 to be precise - an AOL bulletin board was started for Uncle Tupelo fans. Shortly after its inception, the title of the folder was changed to "No Depression/ Alternative Country." It was that discussion group that gave Austin native Peter Blackstock and fellow music scribe and Seattle neighbor Grant Alden the idea that there just may be a niche here big enough to scratch.
That fall, Blackstock became a regular in the group, and as the number of people posting regularly grew to around 80 or so, he began to speculate that this was probably just a small sampling of people who had a common interest in and affinity for this music as well as a desire to discuss these bands. Sometime the following spring, Blackstock, a former writer for both the Chronicle and Austin-American Statesman, was telling his buddy Alden about this bulletin board, and as Blackstock recalls, "Grant suggested that we start this magazine."
Alden's version of the same story lends itself to slightly more colorful visuals. "I remember - and Peter doesn't remember this so it may just be my myth - but I remember being at a show and looking around at the audience and sort of going, `You know, we really ought to do this magazine,'" recalls Alden. "And Peter looked at me and said, `Are you serious?' I said, `Well, I've been drinking, talk to me tomorrow.' And we did talk the next day and somehow or another the magazine was born."
Roughly three months later, in September of 1995, the first issue of No Depression hit the stands - all 2,000 copies of it. Lacking coffers of cash to market the magazine, the pair turned to their favorite AOL bulletin board as well as their national network of fellow music writers to help get the word out.
"We sent other writer friends of ours a copy of the first issue and some of them wrote about it in their weekly and daily papers and that helped," says Blackstock. "I know, for instance, Bill Wyman, who was at the Chicago Reader at the time, did a big piece there and we immediately had a surge in subscriptions in Chicago that was really noticeable."
Alden and Blackstock actually underestimated demand for the publication as the first issue, featuring Son Volt on the cover and topping in at 32 pages, sold out quickly. The two immediately bumped the print run up to 3,500 for the second issue (by the third, featuring Steve Earle on the cover, their size had doubled) and they've been increasing the print volume at a rate of roughly 1,000 additional copies per issue ever since - not to mention the fact that the publication went from a quarterly to a bi-monthly in its second year. For the second anniversary issue, which hits the stands tomorrow, September 5, an impressive number of 11,000 copies were printed.
For a magazine that's generally perceived as focusing almost exclusively on "alternative country," No Depression has, in its two years of existence, covered a variety of bands that fall well outside the shadow of the Uncle Tupelo family tree. Feature stories on the Ass Ponies and John Fahey as well as album reviews for things like a string quartet that does Metallica covers are fairly obvious examples of subject matter that the average lay-fan might think is outside the defined boundaries of what constitutes a No Depression band. Which of course prompts the question: What exactly is a No Depression band?
"Mostly if Grant or I like it enough to write about it," says Blackstock. "A lot of it comes down to that. We definitely don't try to draw specific lines on, `This is or isn't twangy enough.' We've stretched those borders pretty far." Alden echoes that sentiment. "There is no orthodoxy here. There is no, `You've got to be within 10 points of Uncle Tupelo or we're not interested in you.' It's, `Do we like the music? Do we think it has merit?'"
Uncle Tupelo may have been at the heart of the twang-core inspiration, but it was just that - the inspiration. Blackstock claims that tagging the magazine as "The Alternative Country Quarterly" was done primarily as a starting point for the whole discussion of this type of music - music that sees country and punk not as first cousins twice removed but as brother and sister.
"On that first issue we put the phrase `The Alternative Country Quarterly' on with, at least from my perspective, a very strong sense of irony," says Alden. "I mean here we are two guys in Seattle, the grunge capital of America, starting a country magazine. And I was very consciously making commentary, if not fun, of the way in which what is laughingly called alternative rock had been so quickly adopted by the mainstream."
There is a subtle lexicographical parallelism here, though. Just as the term "alternative" has been taken over, albeit largely for commercial purposes, as a term for music that it might or might not encompass, so too has No Depression, uh, stolen a term for its own brand-name benefit. Right?
"We borrowed something," corrects Alden. "We chose it very consciously, because of the three reference points that it encompasses: It encompasses a Carter Family song; it encompasses an Uncle Tupelo record; and it encompasses that discussion group. And without those three things, the magazine probably wouldn't exist and probably wouldn't make any sense." [Note: some credit should go to Ron Thumbs, who now works at Request, and was the person that gave the AOL folder the title of "No Depression."]
So, with burgeoning scenes in Minneapolis, Chicago, parts of North Carolina, and Austin (locals like Dale Watson, the Derailers, the Bad Livers, and James McMurtry have all been featured in No Depression while albums by the likes of Mike Nicolai and Mary Cutrufello, to name but a couple, have been reviewed), and a successful magazine covering the music, it would appear that the bands and fans are entrenched enough to continue to drive this scene.
Yes, all is well in the land of alt-country. Happily ever after. The end.
But wait. With the predictability of a Central Texas summer weather forecast (highs in the 90s, lows in the 70s - maybe a chance of rain later in the week), the No Depression backlash has come. Yet, it has come not from disenchanted fans or some critically slighted artists, but rather from one of the two iconic cornerstones of the y'alternative scene as well as from one of the genre's young white hopes.
In the last year, Wilco's Jeff Tweedy has made his desire to have his name divorced from the whole alternative country movement pretty clear, so much so that he declined to speak for this story. (For the alt-country illiterate, Jeff Tweedy was one of the two creative forces in Uncle Tupelo. The other songwriter in the band, Jay Farrar, now fronts Son Volt.) Moreover, Rhett Miller of the Old 97's has launched similar complaints in this very publication ("Wreck Your Image," Vol. 16, No. 48 about being pigeonholed as a No Depression band.
Not surprisingly, the magazine's co-conspirators are not daunted by such criticism, but are instead very understanding of the complaints of the musicians, even if the complaints are being lobbed against them. Says Blackstock: "I totally sympathize with the artists who are put in that position, because I think any artist has a healthy resistance to being categorized in any way."
Alden speaks of the backlash in more personal terms: "Nobody wants the tag. I mean it's marketing death to be called anything. And no artist wants to have their work put into one convenient box, because then they struggle their entire career to get out of that box if they want to do something else.
"It goes back to Jeff Tweedy can do whatever the hell he wants and we're probably going to write about it and we're probably going to like it, because he does good work.... Let's be fair, I wouldn't want to be put in that box either. Part of the reason I was interested in starting No Depression was because I didn't want my career as a writer about music to be circumscribed by the existence of grunge. I didn't want to forever be the grunge writer from Seattle.
"[Of course, now it's], `Oh yeah, he did grunge, now he does No Depression bands.' And I can't get anything else, but whatever. At least I have two legs to stand on instead of one."
Typecasting the bands, then, may be a bit unfair, so let's typecast the fans instead. The primary audience for alt-country seems to be white guys; take a look at the audience at any Son Volt show and you'll see that it's almost exclusively Caucasian and overwhelmingly male, their ages seeming to be in the mid-twenties to early-forties range. These are people who grew up in an economic and social setting that bears absolutely no resemblance to the economic and social conditions of the Thirties, the time when the Carter family penned the tune from which this genre draws its name and part of this musical tradition. So why on earth are these people drawn to this music? What part of that experience do they identify with?
"Part of it is that people who generally tend to appreciate good songwriting get drawn to this stuff," says Blackstock, who, having grown up in Northwest Hills here in Austin, admits he fits the profile. "The focus in country music in general and in folk rock and in the various elements that have come together to shape whatever this music is, the focus is very often on good songwriting. I think a lot of it is just people who appreciate good songwriting more than, say, an electronica dance beat or whatever."
Alden, who doesn't buy into the aforementioned demographic generalizations, sees some general characteristics common to the audience members; he even does his partner one better with a stab at why these young lovers of songwriting have found this particular type of music. "My sense is that there is a generation of people that were taught by college radio that they could find interesting things to listen to that weren't in the Top 40 and some of those people are still looking," he says.
"Now, grunge was not typically lyric-driven music - and I don't think it's a mistake that the Hat Acts grew at the same time grunge grew because Music Row ended up being the pop music of the Nineties, particularly for white people - but a certain percentage of people who were trained by college radio to look elsewhere for music are still looking, and they're interested in lyrics. And the place for me where most of the interesting lyrics and story songs or whatever are being presented is in this little sub-genre, or the fringes of country music, which covers a fairly broad spectrum of stuff."
And while the spectrum of No Depression may be broad, it's definitely a sub-genre, or fringe or whatever. The magazine's growth may be testament to the appeal of alternative country music, but that appeal is still to a relatively small number of people.
Using album sales as a barometer of how many people are digging alt-country sounds demonstrates that only a modest number of people are digging into their pockets to buy actual product. According to Soundscan numbers, Son Volt's debut, Trace, the biggest-selling album the genre has produced, sold only 175,000 copies, with Wilco's Being There coming in second at 121,000 units sold. Anodyne, Uncle Tupelo's most commercially successful album, moved about 80,000 units. The popular assumption is that Soundscan, the service which tracks sales nationwide, misses about 10% of sales coming from indie record stores that do not report to the service. Even correcting for that amount, these sales figures aren't going to give too many major label executives their second houses.
In fact, during the alternative country panel at this year's SXSW Music Conference, one attendee made the assertion that the whole enterprise has been a failure, because Gillian Welch, one of the more commercially viable artists, was able to sell only 40,000 units of her debut, Revival. Fortunately, the magazine's creators are not chartwatchers, nor are they major label execs, so neither Alden nor Blackstock sees sales as a measure of success or even related to what the magazine is about. The goal isn't, in Alden's words, "to crystallize a movement and sell millions of records."
The true mission? Alden waxes analogous, "There's an old science fiction series called Dangerous Visions that Harlan Ellison edited in the early Seventies... the premise of Dangerous Visions was that Harlan went to his friends and said, `Send me all the stories that no one else will run.' That has always been something I have aspired to do with the magazines I have been associated with. Send us things that no one else will touch because they're too fringe or too hard or they're too whatever."
That type of approach probably won't sell millions of records, but it just may move about 11,000 copies of a magazine.
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