Hello Stranger from Issue #33
Is it comin’ around again?
These “next-big-thing” waves tend to flow in cycles, you know. There was clamor circa 1995, when Gavin magazine’s now-relocated Americana chart made its debut, as did our 32-page first issue, and when Son Volt and Wilco were fresh outta the box after the split of Uncle Tupelo (along with the Bottle Rockets, the Waco Brothers, and a bunch of brash upstarts called Whiskeytown).
There was the “great roots-rock scare of ’84,” as guitarist/producer Eric Ambel has dubbed the era when bands such as Jason & the Scorchers, the Long Ryders and his own Del-Lords heralded an storm of traditional stomp amid a new-wave crisis.
And clearly it goes as far back as the late-’60s, when the Burritos and the Byrds and Nashville Skyline and countless other signposts pointed to a country-rock marriage (shortly before, as we posited back in No Depression #1, the Eagles crashed the reception).
Now it’s 2001, and that simmer seems on the verge of a rolling boil once more. Let’s start at the top — of the Billboard country charts, that is, where the soundtrack for O Brother, Where Art Thou? rose in mid-February. When we went to press in mid-April, it was still there. This certainly marks the first time the #1 slot on the ND Top 40 has been in sync with the Billboard country chart-topper.
Perhaps Lucinda Williams’ new album could follow suit. Having garnered gold and Grammy status last time around with Car Wheels On A Gravel Road, Williams certainly remains the most-likely-to-succeed from this chronically graduating class.
That all depends, of course, on how you define success, and Williams has always seemed one to heed Gail Davies’ assertion (in this issue’s Q&A piece with Grant Alden) that “the reward is writing a great song.” For our part, success this time around was taking a detour from the more direct journalistic paths and viewing Williams through the eyes of a Southern literary author (Silas House’s feature story) and a renowned folk artist (Jon Langford’s cover painting).
Well then, how about Charlie Robison blasting through the doors? Certainly it’d be a hoot if alt-country’s breakthrough hit ends up being Robison’s rendition of NRBQ’s “I Want You Bad” (especially given the Long Ryders’ woulda-coulda-shoulda classic cover of the same back during that mid-’80s scare).
But even Robison sounds unsure about the price of the path to gold, given that he tells writer Don McLeese he’s “running, screaming away from” the dubious marketing of so-called “Texas music” (whatever that is), surveyed by Rob Patterson in a sidebar to the Robison feature.
Then there’s the Cowboy Junkies, who fairly easily could have been a cover story this issue as well. They’re simultaneously symbolic of, and an antithesis to, the next-big-thing phenomenon, as writer Paul Cantin observes in retelling the tale of The Trinity Session. The Junkies went platinum more than a decade ago, but it didn’t necessarily alter the commercial landscape for future purveyors of alt-country.
Lest we forget Whiskeytown, the little band that could from the mid-’90s uprising. Their long-lost third album finally surfaces in May on Nashville’s highly touted new Lost Highway label; but the band’s demise likely resigns Pneumonia to the fate of a posthumous footnote (although one suspects leader Ryan Adams has a deck full of aces up his sleeve for his coming solo efforts).
And what of Gram Parsons, generally acknowledged as the original sweetheart of the whole dang rodeo? Uh, not if you ask John Morthland, who contributes his first piece to No Depression in this issue’s Not Fade Away section. Keep those cards and letters coming, folks…
Closing, then, back where we started: Is it comin’ around again?
Who knows. And who cares?