No Depression: Surveying the Past, Present and Future of American Music. Edited by Grant Alden and Peter Blackstock. Austin: University of Texas Press, October 2008. Paper: ISBN 978-0-292-71928-6, $19.95. 144 pages.
Review by Jason Mellard, University of Texas at Austin
from SJC post 2 (10/13/08)
Founded in 1995 by Grant Alden and Peter Blackstock, the magazine No Depression, for all intents and purposes, defined the contemporary musical sub-genre of alt-country. This is not to downplay the role of artists themselves, from the Byrds of Sweetheart of the Rodeo to the Uncle Tupelo album of 1990 from which this magazine chose its name. However, through insightful artist profiles, album and performance reviews, interviews, and essays, a wide range of authors have operated under the No Depression banner to craft a deft collective portrait of that imaginative space where Americana, roots music, country and western, bluegrass, blues, honky-tonk, and the independent singer-songwriter converge. That is, until the competitive pressures of the brave new media world caught up with them in 2008. Rather than head for the metaphorical hills and hollers, though, the makers of No Depression have turned to a novel solution, dividing the labors of their quality magazine between a website (www.nodepression.com) and a large-format “bookazine” to be published twice a year by the University of Texas Press. This builds on Alden and Blackstock’s prior collaboration with UT Press, The Best of No Depression: Writing on American Music of 2005, only this new text features all original material, an attempt to expand on No Depression’s concerns in a lengthier format. The initial bookazine was published in October 2008.For the most part, the first foray into the new format works. The editors chose a single theme, that of youth and the next generation of artists, to cement the collected pieces, and the result will look familiar to those who followed the magazine. The work primarily proceeds through fourteen artist profiles written by thirteen different authors. These range from pieces on singer-songwriters (Carrie Rodriguez, Samantha Crain, Basia Bulat) to blues (Homemade Jamz Blues Band, Gary Clark, Jr.) to pop (Hanson), and with a disproportionate focus, perhaps, on the new wave of bluegrass artists (Sarah Jarosz, Sierra Hull, Infamous Stringdusters, Crooked Still).
At times, the profile format can seem repetitive, as each article follows the formula of introducing readers to the new ingénue or the next big thing, each with his or her own particular journalistic hook to make the profile stand out from the crowd: worrying over senior prom in small-town Tennessee despite global renown (Sierra Hull), emerging as a stand-alone artist out of the shadow of a nurturing mentor (Carrie Rodriguez), or singing bluegrass songs in Mandarin at the 2008 Olympics (Abigail Washburn). The repetition, though, serves a purpose and slowly reveals that standing out in the crowd might not be the goal here. Rather, the profiles, taken together, underscore a series of dialectics that have long undergirded the No Depression project. Page after page, the artist profiles begin to merge into a portrait that grows, stroke by journalistic stroke, into a conversation over the collective and the individual, tradition and novelty, rootedness and movement, authenticity and performativity, national identity and global culture. From its origins, the magazine did not blindly follow nor rigidly police the borders of American roots music, but operated amidst this savvy series of dichotomies. Its authors remain devoted to Americana, cognizant and respectful of its origins, its historicity and claims on authenticity, without making the mistake of fetishizing the people or places from which it came.The editors’ choice to place Abigail Washburn and the Sparrow Quartet featuring Béla Fleck on the cover highlights this awareness. Washburn has taken to hybridizing American bluegrass with traditional Chinese music, using the same quartet to play both forms and, then, performing the first musically while singing its lyrics in Mandarin. At first listen, American roots music might seem an unlikely place to find the trans-national at work, but in reality the genre’s regional frame complements the global one in subverting the primacy of the categories of the nation and nation-state. Even those No Depression artists seemingly most grounded in the authentic roots region of American music, such as the Homemade Jamz Blues Band of siblings Ryan, Kyle, and Taya Perry of Tupelo, Mississippi, act with a reflexivity and awareness born of the times in which they live. No Depression eschews the easy clichés of the folk that have shadowed discussions on American music at least since the days of the Lomaxes, if not Stephen Foster or some prior collector of song.Though the profiles collectively signify on these themes, and the reader begins to find an argument to the collection through repetition, the commitment to the artist profile in this first edition of the bookazine perhaps misses the wider opportunities that the format offers. The editors seem to have approached the project as another No Depression issue, only larger. However, the quality of the writers that No Depression has at its disposal, together with this new, bookish form produced by an academic press, open the possibility of more in-depth critical essays. Paul Cantin takes a stab with a closing essay on the category of youth and American music that sums up the prior profiles and comments on the perennial grumpiness of middle-aged critics writing on younger artists. The essay punctuates the collection well and hopefully augurs the inclusion of more like it in the future. That said, if Alden and Blackstock have yet to take full literary advantage of the format, they have maximized the visual ones. The new No Depression is an attractive volume with interesting photography throughout and an entire photo essay midway as intermezzo.
In all, the editors of No Depression have done well in their attempts to grow beyond the magazine format, and the continuing “bookazine” produced by the University of Texas Press will likely remain a influential source of writing on American music that will complement, corroborate, and, at times, outshine more self-professed academic efforts to do the same.