A roundup of the small but scrappy group of bands that fit the No Depression bill.
By Bud Scoppa
Is there a sound in all of popular music more repulsive to the youth of America than the whine of a pedal steel guitar? The smoosh of an Uncle Tupelo, "The Long Cut"accordion, maybe? You just don't hear those instruments at raves. The last thing most rock fans are likely to embrace is anything remotely And yet, along comes this band Son Volt, as twangy as it gets – defiantly twangy -- and they've been selling a surprising number of records and packing 'em in during two years of virtually nonstop touring.
Son Volt not only sells out large clubs like 1st Ave. in Minneapolis, the Cabaret Metro in Chicago and Slim's in San Francisco, but fills these venues with rabid fans who seem to know all the lyrics to the songs on the band's 1995 debut, Trace, not to mention the tunes Farrar chooses to revive from his former group, Uncle Tupelo (give the fans a couple of weeks to memorize the lyrics to Son Volt's just-released Straightaways). Be assured that the vast majority of those who love Son Volt are rock fans, not country fans - hell, hardly any country fans (you know, the folks who buy Garth Brooks and and Alan Jackson albums) have even heard of the band.
The Son Volt phenomenon is
the most visible indicator of a widespread return to the roots
that is taking shape not in the Bible Belt but on the fringes of
the rock landscape, as a passionate cadre of urban and suburban
IN THE BEGINNING...
The latter is Uncle Tupelo, a Midwestern band founded in the mid-'80s that intuitively fused punk and hillbilly elements over the course of four albums before breaking up in 1994. Neither Parsons nor Uncle Tupelo was anywhere near commercially successful - UT's biggest album, Anodyne (Warner Bros., 1994), sold slightly more than 40,000 copies - but if you traveled in certain circles, you'd think they were Dylan and the Beatles, respectively. And in what may become more significant in the long run, Uncle Tupelo spun off not one but two remarkable bands in Wilco and Son Volt.
Joining Parsons as the primary historical reference points for the alt.-country movement are hardy perennial Neil Young, The Band's Robbie Robertson, Creedence auteur John Fogerty and the Rolling Stones of the early '70s. Young has piled up a mass of influential work that informs both the texture (Comes a Time, Harvest) and the tenor (Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere, Tonight's the Night) of alt.-country. Robertson-penned Band classics like " The Weight" and " The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down" now seem as much a part of the American literary landscape as Faulkner and Steinbeck.
Fogerty's vision encompassed the entire range of the Southern roots milieu (despite the fact that he was born and raised in Northern California), and his first solo album was a stone- country opus recorded under the nom de plume the Blue Ridge Rangers.
As for the Stones, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards began interacting with Parsons in 1969, and GP's influence is all over the subsequent Sticky Fingers (which contains "Wild Horses" and "Dead Flowers" ) and Exile on Main Street ("Sweet Virginia," "Torn and Frayed" ).
These seminal artists, along
with Bob Dylan, Little Feat's Lowell George and Tom Petty & the
Heartbreakers and others, managed to fashion American myth out of
their fertile imaginations.
In the last 10 years, Uncle Tupelo, its pair of spinoffs, and fellow trailblazers the Jayhawks have rekindled that visionary tradition, setting the example for a hodgepodge of nonconformist bands and artists who share a repugnance for musical fashion as purveyed by MTV in favor of an approach grounded in traditional forms and decorated by the sounds of acoustic stringed instruments.
As these gutsy players have become aware of the existence of others sharing the same passions, an underground artistic community has sprung up that stretches over the breadth and width of America. These interconnections are not only validating but practical, providing traveling bands with floors to sleep on and warm bodies in clubs during budget van tours.
"I don't know if I necessarily think of it in the sense of a movement," says Uncle Tupelo co-founder and Son Volt leader Jay Farrar, "but starting out, there was a certain supportive nature among a lot of bands. The Jayhawks, the Bottle Rockets and Blue Mountain come to mind. We all grew up playing the same circuit."
That support system extends to the still-small but remarkably passionate audience for alt.- country. "Traditionally inspired music, or whatever you want to call it, for a long time has been viewed as being unhip," Farrar explains. "So a lot of people who enjoy it I guess do band together."
Incongruously, much of the word of mouth in this neo-traditional movement is exchanged in cyberspace. Of the several online and Internet forums devoted to alternative country artists, the most active is the America Online folder "No Depression" (named after the first Uncle Tupelo album).
When you arrive there through the Alternative pathway of AOL's Music Message Center, you'll see the legend, "For the music of Gram Parsons, Uncle Tupelo, Blue Mountain, The Jayhawks and other practioneers [sic] of the craft . . . ," along with the folder's full title, "No Depression - Alt.Country."
Within "No Depression - Alt.Country" you'll find an active and extremely knowledgeable cyber community whose members sport whimsical screen names like Miniprljam,
Texpatriot and Zeitgolf. Zeitgolf,
actually Seattle rock critic Peter Blackstock, has co- founded a No Depression
fanzine, which has quickly become the movement's journal of record. In
March, the magazine sponsored a No Depression national club tour co-headlined
by the Old 97's and Whiskeytown and also featuring Seattle-based veterans
the Picketts and baby band Hazeldine from Albuquerque.
Because it's a detail-oriented,
song-based forum, alt.country has galvanized a small army of
bright young artists and players, as some of the most promising talents
of a generation have chosen to work from a palette that allows them
to paint more vividly and precisely than would be possible in more
Among the most intriguing new bands are North Carolina's Jolene, whose Hell's Half Acre (Ardent, '96) establishes them as the most accomplished of the up-and-comers in the studio, and the Minneapolis-based Honeydogs, whose Everything, I Bet You (October Records, '96) is a must-hear for Wilco fans.
The aforementioned Old 97's
are four nerdy-looking guys from Dallas who bang out their
hillbilly tunes as if they were a hardcore punk band while exhibiting
a comedic flair: for an L.A. date on the No Depression tour
he four band members came on-stage sporting matching official
Whiskeytown, also from North Carolina,
plays its hillbilly rock 'n' roll so authentically, I find it hard to believe
that its members weren't yet born when Parsons died. And Hazeldine's three-quarters
female lineup lays bittersweet vocals over crackling electric guitars reminiscent
of Neil Young & Crazy Horse.
There are some captivating young solo artists as well, among them Richard Buckner, a young Northern Californian who makes everything he sings sounds as if his life depended on it; New Jerseyan Neal Casal, who writes songs redolent of Neil Young and sings them in the voice of a young Jackson Browne; Austinite Kris McKay, whose "Things That Show" (Shanachie, '96) mixes affecting originals with handsome and utterly convincing interpretations of songs by Farrar, Matthew Sweet, Joan Armatrading and the English Beat; and Gillian Welch, whose "Revival" (Almo Sounds, '96) is so accurate an evocation of rural music that it's shocking to learn she grew up in a suburb of L.A.
And that's not all, folks. Tweedy,
Louris, fellow Jayhawk Marc Perlman and Soul Asylum's Dan Murphy are members
of the writer/singer collective Golden Smog, initially a lark but less
so since their 1996 album "Down by the Old Mainstream" (Rykodisc) became
a bigger seller than any of Uncle Tupelo's records.
Buckner, the Old 97's, Whiskeytown and the Honeydogs all signed major-label deals within the last year, while Golden Smog and Hazeldine are being pursued by several majors, so it's obvious that the big-time music biz has acknowledged the artistic viability if not the immediate commercial potential of this seemingly outsider idiom. But don't expect these bands to compromise their principals for big advances. While being courted, Whiskeytown subjected A&R suitors to a Gram Parsons pop quiz – if the A&R rep flunked, the conversation was over.
Ironically, as the No Depression movement is being acknowledged by the mainstream media, two of its flagship acts are distancing themselves from that community, at least in terms of the stylistic conventions of country-rock. Wilco's second album, the epic "Being There" (Reprise, '96), is a conscious emulation of the music Jeff Tweedy loves, from the Beatles and the Stones to the Faces and Mott the Hoople. "I wanted it to sound like I was playing my record collection, because that's the place where I hide,"Tweedy explains. (For months now, the ND folder has featured an ongoing debate concerning the ambivalence of Wilco's Tweedy, who's been outspoken in his resistance to being typecast as an alt.country icon.)
And "Sound of Lies" (American, '97), the Jayhawks' first album without co-leader Mark Olson, is dominated by Beatlesque sounds and songcraft fashioned by Olson's longtime partner Gary Louris. Both are extraordinary, and they demonstrate that individual talent is a far more powerful vector than general trends in changing the face of music and, in a best-case scenario, the tastes of the mass audience.
Additionally, Joe Henry's most recent
effort, "Trampoline" (Mammoth/Atlantic, '96), imaginatively merges rustic
sounds with tape loops, drum machines and other electronic elements. This
album continues in the wide-open direction forged by Emmylou Harris' adventurous
Daniel Lanois-produced album "Wrecking Ball" (Asylum, 1995).
At the other extreme, Son Volt's just released follow-up, "Straightaways" (Warner Bros.), is a single-minded continuation of Farrar's mythopoetic explorations, while Richard Buckner's "Devotion + Doubt " (MCA, 1997) employs the conventions of trad.country writing and singing in the service of remarkably personal expression. Purists should also be delighted by the major-label debuts of the Old 97's ("Too Far to Care", due June 21 on Elektra, but being previewed in its entirety in the "Sonic Lodge" during May) and Whiskeytown (coming this summer on Outpost/Geffen).
With sales on Son Volt's "Trace"
expected to pass the 200,000 mark, and Wilco's "Being There" consistently
selling several thousand copies a week, these bands have dramatically improved
on the performance of their shared predecessor. This may not seem like
a big deal next to sales figures of MTV buzz bands like No Doubt (to cite
a particularly vile example), but it does indicate that there is an audience
of some size for music that is based on songwriting and presented with
vintage acoustic as well as modern electric instruments.
On the other hand, whether a base of 100,000-200,000 fans is sizable enough to sustain a career in the '90s is problematic in any case: The marketing expenses for the Jayhawks' two albums with American Recordings put the band so deep in the hole that it would've taken a miracle for them to recoup. It's speculated that these financial woes were the primary factor in Olson's decision to move on. Hit or not, "Tomorrow the Green Grass", the Jayhawks' final album with Olson, is a classic that ranks with the most memorable country-rock records of any era.
Three decades ago, during the height of psychedelia, the Byrds' audacious old-time country exploration "Sweetheart of the Rodeo" (just reissued in an expanded form on Columbia/Legacy) flew in the face of convention and marked the genesis of country-rock, a rootsy hybrid that eventually found huge mainstream success in the music of the Eagles before running out of creative momentum later in the 1970s. By that time, the Eagles had become identified with the corporate rock that the punks and new wavers were reacting against.
Let me attempt an explanation for this surprising phenomenon: the big-time music business specializes in appropriating and packaging each new trend (remember how quickly spandex gave way to plaid six years ago?), in the process robbing it of its initial vitality. Whenever a visionary artistic impulse is mainstreamed and eventually pulverized in the marketing meat-grinder, a reaction is inevitably generated in the musical community by those who feel disenfranchised.
This cycle of popularization followed by polarization goes a long way toward explaining the fervor with which a new generation of country-rock musicians and fans have embraced a sound and attitude that is all but antithetical to what is considered commercial and cool in the modern-rock mainstream.
For the most part, the mainstream music business has until recently considered this music of the No Depression bands too country - and it remains a major challenge to get this music played on most radio formats. On the other hand, the frequent use of country and folk elements hasn't undercut the appeal of Petty, Beck, Cracker or Matthew Sweet (all faves of the ND crowd).
With the right record, sufficient exposure and a little bit of luck, a breakthrough could occur for an alt.-country-associated band, causing the mainstream to shift enough to accommodate other "fringe" artists."If one artist sneaks through with a clever video, or an incredible song slips into the mainstream, all of a sudden the rules can change," says Geoffrey Weiss, an A&R executive at Warner Bros. Records, Son Volt's label.
In the long run, the song is more significant than the instruments used or the parts played:Son Volt multi-instrumentalist Dave Boquist epitomizes the prevailing attitude when he says of his role, "I just try to find something that fits."
By the same token, artistic vision is more meaningful than the style that clothes it, and Wilco's brilliant "Being There" hammers home that point by making style-shifting a fundamental part of the concept. Nonetheless, there's a singular beauty to intensely personal expression that reveals itself through a clearly defined form, as visionaries from Shakespeare to Parsons to Farrar have so compellingly demonstrated.
The Jayhawks, Wilco, Buckner, Son Volt and several other artists who've emerged from the No Depression realm possess the songwriting and substance to outlast the movement, transcend the idiom if they so choose, and have careers of duration. But will they? If there's any justice, several of these bands will break through in the next year or two. But there's never been any justice before, so don't hold your breath.
If the historical cycles hold up (c.f., Parsons, Big Star), the most talented of these bands and artists will make a string of brilliant records that are largely overlooked for a decade or two before another generation of unsatisfied fans discovers and comes to venerate them.It's a drag, but getting recognized too late beats never getting heard at all.