Hello Stranger from Issue #69
Confused yet? While I’m certain that few readers puzzle over the internal logic which guides our cover choices nearly as much as we do, I’m also confident that ours is the only magazine which might plausibly feature indie rock stars the Shins on one cover, and emerging platinum country singer Miranda Lambert on the next.
Step back, if you would, and consider a slightly broader tapestry. In the last six issues No Depression covers have celebrated and investigated Elvis Costello and Allen Toussaint (legends from two very different worlds), new-time string-band stars Old Crow Medicine Show, vintage soul master Solomon Burke, Lucinda Williams, the Shins, and now Miranda Lambert.
It is true, yes, that part of what we wish to do is sell magazines. It is also true that our content continues principally to be guided by the aesthetic preferences of this magazine’s two admittedly eccentric editors. (Well, at least I’ll admit to being eccentric. Peter, I’m sure, is perfectly normal. For a music geek.)
As Louis Armstrong said, “There is two kinds of music, the good and the bad.” He also said (gotta love Google…and Mr. Armstrong), “All music is folk music, I ain’t never heard no horse sing a song.”
So, yeah, our covers are, to an extent, commercial choices. Usually. We hope that by luring fans of Miranda Lambert into our pages, say, we might also introduce them to Uncle Earl and Elizabeth Cook and the Avett Brothers, and maybe even Bright Eyes. (Somehow I suspect they’ll not be drawn to Tom Morello, but I’d like to be wrong about that. And I’ve a hunch they already know about Bright Eyes.)
Nevertheless it’s been a long time since we had a mainstream country star on our cover. I suppose we can’t count Loretta Lynn, Merle Haggard, Dolly Parton, Rodney Crowell, Rosanne Cash, Johnny Cash, Emmylou Harris, Lyle Lovett or Willie Nelson as mainstream stars because they weren’t on the country charts at the time we put them on our cover. And Patty Loveless — perhaps the closest we’ve come — was, like Ricky Skaggs years before her, making a splendid detour into bluegrass.
That, by the way, was the point: That these gifted singers and songwriters were making some of the best music of their careers after country music had largely written them off.
Twelve years ago, when Peter and I first stood around on my front steps talking about maybe starting a magazine, we envisioned No Depression, in part, as a kind of argument against what Music Row was selling. As an argument for good music which deserved an audience. Our early marketing literature very pointedly said we were about country music, not about Garth Brooks and Shania Twain.
But, as Barry Mazor observed when writing about Dierks Bentley in #57, that battle is largely over and, fundamentally, we won. For the moment. Just listen, as I do driving around Eastern Kentucky now and again, to country radio. Sure, there’s plenty of schlock; there always has been. But there’s also real life there: Fine songs, good singers, plenty of heart.
Which is to say, country music — mainstream country music — deserves once again to be taken seriously.
And which is also to honor the gifted community of songwriters and supporting players whose work is more central to No Depression yet are simultaneously nurtured by Music Row.
“People ask me, continuously, why do you live in Nashville?” Rodney Crowell told me. “These are usually conversations with old friends from Austin, who have a real thing about Nashville. They don’t realize that the collaborative possibilities here are just golden. Because I can pick up the phone and get ahold of Bela Fleck, if he’s around, if I want particular help with a banjo sound. One thing about the corporate mainstream is that it sorta kicks out a little money and helps these musicians keep a roof over their heads. I stay here because of the opportunity I have to collaborate with world-class artists.”
Now, a few friends know that I spent part of last fall visiting my old home in Nashville and talking to people about the viability of starting a mainstream country music magazine. Not because I’m a particular partisan of that music — I’m not, it’s just one of many sounds capable of making me smile — but because I felt it deserved a respectable, respectful magazine. In the end it was clear that the numbers won’t work, and that’s OK. (As my wife could tell you, I’m always playing out various enterprises in my head, and they usually don’t work.)
It is far from my intent to seek to steer ND hard in that direction (and, anyway, Peter and Kyla are both good counterbalances). That’s not why Miranda Lambert is on this cover. She’s on this cover because she made a very good record — a mainstream country record that is, in fact, more than a collection of singles and toss-aways — and because country music is part of what we do.
And because you can never drive forward with your eye fixed on the rearview mirror.