The First Annual No Depression Critics’ Poll
PETER BLACKSTOCK WRITES: If No Depression continues to qualify alt-country simply as whatever that is, then the decisions about what records belonged in our inaugural year-end poll were best left to the writers who contributed most frequently to our pages in 2003. Consensus, we surmised, would serve to tighten the focus or, conversely, to broaden the scope, which in a sense is the very push-and-pull weve displayed in our pages over the years.
The top five records seem to represent focal points. All five of the artists have appeared on our cover, though only one for the album in question (the Drive-By Truckers in July-August 2003 for Decoration Day). Wed featured the other four as cover subjects for their previous releases the Jayhawks in May-June 2000 for Smile, Rodney Crowell in January-February 2001 for The Houston Kid, Lucinda Williams in May-June 2001 for Essence, and Gillian Welch in September-October 2001 for Time (The Revelator).
The Jayhawks and the Truckers were neck-and-neck at the top but had a clear step on the others. Both groups were recognized for career efforts, though in the Jayhawks case, that assertion perhaps requires a qualifier. Rainy Day Music might not eclipse the groups early-mid 90s standard-bearers Hollywood Town Hall and Tomorrow The Green Grass; but this was clearly their best work since Mark Olson left the band for Gary Louris to guide.
The Truckers, meanwhile, followed a milestone work, 2001s Southern Rock Opera, with an album that was, if less audacious, a stronger statement of their vision. They also managed the increasingly rare feat of reaching beyond the aging roots audience and into the realm of the college cognoscenti once a trademark of the alt-country world, but lately more of a dividing line than a common bond.
Though Rodney Crowell finds himself on the graying side of that generational divide, his achievement was similar to that of the Truckers. The Houston Kid put Crowell back on the map as an important artist, but Fates Right Hand one-upped its predecessor; it would have been easy for him to suffer a kind of second-career sophomore slump, but the record was just too good for that.
Its no surprise to see Williams and Welch in our top five, though Id question whether its more a matter of established reputation than specific achievement. Our writers votes testify to a contrary opinion; but where Crowell met middle age head-on, Williams reach for hipness on songs such as Righteously suggested her approach to turning 50 was to pretend shes still 25. And while Welch is still more than a decade removed from facing such concerns, shell likely make greater albums along the way than the good-but-not-great Soul Journey.
Its the next five spots, however, that are perhaps more interesting, and which demonstrate the range rather than the focus of No Depression. Rosanne Cash appeared on our March-April 2003 cover for Rules Of Travel, and we featured Kathleen Edwards prominently for her auspicious debut Failer; but the resplendent indie-pop of the Pernice Brothers, the sagelike songwriting of the late Warren Zevon, and the new-school garage-rock of the White Stripes play to alt-countrys fringes rather than its center.
And yet, they do belong, a reality thats underscored by the top two spots in the reissues poll. Few artists have demonstrated as much artistic versatility in their careers as Neil Young and Willie Nelson; yet their lifes work weighs heavily on the shelves of alternative-country listeners. Whoever they are.
GRANT ALDEN GRUMPS: Truth is, I’ve never been much of a fan of year-end critic’s lists, but this one is probably my fault, even though Peter did all the work. When Country Music magazine closed down in 2003, somebody mentioned that No Depression had become — quite by default, by accident — one of the last places where serious criticism of country music might regularly be published.
In a tired moment as we finished an issue, I turned to Peter and suggested that perhaps, in that spirit, we ought to do something along the lines of the annual critic’s poll Country Music had run. (The CM poll was compiled by ND senior editor Geoffrey Himes, who also contributed to their pages.)
The Jayhawks, you will notice, if you visit www.nodepression.com to view the individual ballots of our voters, were not anywhere on my list. (Neither were Fountains Of Wayne.) Heck, they didn’t even win a majority, but we’re getting used to that.
That, of course, is the duality (or plurality; whatever) which has always made this a fun magazine to create, and, we hope, an interesting magazine to read, and to argue about.
Still, I can think of no artist — with the possible exceptions of Danny Barnes and the Drive-By Truckers — who in 2003 made the best album they will ever make. Sometimes that signals a gathering groundswell, some new creative energy about to break wide. This time, I think it reflects the powerful divisions and uncertainties that run throughout society.
For artists, it is increasingly difficult to imagine how one might make a living in the music business, much less what that business might look like in two, five, ten, or twenty years. For citizens, regardless of political persuasion, it is increasingly difficult to imagine how we fit together into a collective body politic that makes sense.
We live in the richest, most powerful nation in the world, and we are all scared. Worse, I fear, we have good reason.
That is a terrible context in which to create lasting art.
Regardless, I will remember 2003 for the birth of my daughter, and the near death of my only brother, not for any grand musical revelations. That sentence may explain why I have felt myself turning inward this year, and why I have been so enormously pleased with the small musical pleasures that have come my way.
Most of them, oddly enough, came out in 2002 (though I do tend to run somewhat behind in my listening). None will change anybody’s world, I suppose. But had I time to make the annual audio compilation diary I once did, this year’s disc would include the Backstabbers’ glorious version of Bill Anderson’s “Cincinnati, Ohio”, Valorie Miller’s spectacularly sad “Not My Daughter”, and Kenny Roby’s wickedly joyful “Glad It’s Not Me”.
Ah, and it would include a heaping helping of Don Rigsby’s work, which, to my great sadness, did not make our collective list. To my great joy — and I realize I’m a bit slow on the uptake here — I think I’ve finally found, in Mr. Rigsby’s voice, the answer to a nagging question: Who is there, after Del McCoury?
For the rest, I shall hope for peace, of all kinds, for all of us.