The Rise Of No Depression Country Rock

A roundup of the small but scrappy group of bands that fit the No Depression bill.

By Bud Scoppa
ca. 1997

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  usic
 lovers is seeking out and gobbling up everything  they can find by bands and artists who fall  under the "  alternative-country" umbrella (also  Young, Neil, "Tonight's Thereferred to as "  No Depression," for reasons  Night"that will be explained shortly). These acts  include the vanguard triumvirate of the  Jayhawks, Son Volt and Wilco, and spiritual  kinsmen like Joe Henry, Richard Buckner and the  Bottle Rockets.

 This new country-rock movement has a pair of  progenitors, one historic, the other recent. The  former is radical hillbilly Gram Parsons, whose  influence is bigger than ever more than two  decades after his death. Parsons'  body of work  encompassed just six albums-- including the  Byrds' Sweetheart of the Rodeo (recorded during  a brief period that Parsons was in the Byrds),  the first two albums by his own band, the Flying  Burrito Brothers, and a pair of solo albums—but  they comprise the sacred texts of country-rock  past and present.

 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.
Record companies and radio stations make the  presumption that fans want to be force-fed a  specific kind of music to the exclusion of all  others. But music lovers don't operate within  such a narrow spectrum - examining practically  any individual's record collection will prove  that point. No Depression contributors certainly  don't listen exclusively to Uncle Tupelo and ist  spinoffs. In the ND folder, you'll find threads  that deal with punk, rap, metal, jazz, blues,  R&B - the discussion is as wide-open as the  taste of the people doing the talking. That  certainly goes for the artists as well. Jeff  Tweedy's current playlist includes lo-fi mavens  Guided by Voices, Beck, and synth-noise band Six  Finger Satellite, along with jazz greats Duke  Ellington and Django Reinhart. Not one hillbilly  among 'em.

 Because it's a detail-oriented, song-based  forum, 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 mainstream idioms.

 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 Oasis T-shirts.

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 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 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.