The Second Annual No Depression Critics’ Poll
Cool rockin’ Loretta
That Loretta Lynn’s Van Lear Rose was the runaway winner in our second annual No Depression critics’ poll comes as no surprise. Though Lynn didn’t receive so much as a nomination from the Country Music Association Awards in 2004, she swept all three major categories at the Americana Music Association Awards in September. Van Lear Rose is, thus, perhaps the perfect example of alternative country, to the extent that the entity is defined by what the mainstream rejects.
Of course, “alt” does not automatically constitute “good,” as 1990s rock radio proved all too well. Indeed, if anything, Van Lear Rose seemed suspect on paper; pairing one of country’s living legends with one of rock’s contemporary “it kids” (producer Jack White of the White Stripes) carried a whiff of novelty gimmickry, or an ill-fated stab at media exposure.
Turns out it was neither. Lynn and White actually made beautiful music together, each inspiring qualities and abilities in the other that they would not have been able to achieve on their own. Their collaboration was successful enough to fear the possibility of countless copycats in 2005; perish the prospect of record labels trying to hook up Merle Haggard and Ray Price with the likes of Good Charlotte and Avril Lavigne. As these kinds of projects go, Van Lear Rose was an exception, not the rule; it worked because of the respect and admiration White had for Lynn long before any record deals were on the table, and because Lynn welcomed White’s input.
An equally rare accomplishment, in an era when very few artists break from the album-every-two-years model, is the Drive-By Truckers’ appearance in our top three for the second straight year. The Dirty South may have placed one spot lower than last year’s #2 disc Decoration Day, but that’s hardly a dropoff considering the competition in 2004. Add their 2001 epic Southern Rock Opera, and you’ve got a trilogy of records that easily establishes the Truckers at the foremost roots-rock band of the decade — so far.
Perhaps the most refreshing entry in our top five, though, is Jon Dee Graham’s The Great Battle. He’s clearly the darkhorse in that top tier, possessing neither the living-legend notoriety of Lynn and Brian Wilson nor the on-the-brink status of the Truckers and Buddy Miller. All Graham does is continue making great records and putting on terrific shows, pushing the late-bloomer concept to the limit by getting better each year. One of these days, the world is going to notice; we’re glad that so many of our voters did in 2004.
As for me, I must confess to feeling slightly out-of-touch with the consensus, as three of my top five picks are nowhere to be seen on our final list (Hem’s Eveningland, Abra Moore’s Everything Changed, and Ox’s Dust Bowl Revival; you can view most of our voters’ individual ballots at www.nodepression.net). Perhaps that’s a good thing — a sign that there was enough depth of quality in our little corner of the music world this year that such worthy releases could get lost in the considerable shuffle. Or maybe it’s simply evidence that, as the old credo goes, my favorite bands suck.
A quick look at the top of our reissues list would lead one to conclude that the alt-country in question is England. From the Clash to the Faces to the Kinks, our voters gravitated toward classic rock from the U.K., perhaps partly reflecting a focus of the major archival outlets in ’04. Me, I found greater historical value in the Flatlanders’ unearthed live performance from 1972; but then, to paraphrase Lyle Lovett, that’s right, I am from Texas. Never mind the bollocks…
— PETER BLACKSTOCK
The problem of “alt”
Amidst all this talk of an America divided by moral and cultural values, let me point out the elephant in the living room. I write for, and you are at this moment reading, a magazine born of one of those culture-war skirmishes, an enterprise that from the get-go has been defined at least in part by what it’s not about (all that crappy mainstream country) and by whom it’s not for (the people who like all that crappy mainstream country). Does this make No Depression a product of snooty-ass, self-congratulating blue-staters (albeit ones mostly embedded in the red) who sneer at the heartland’s taste in music and presidents? Perhaps more than we care to admit.
Not that elitism is ipso facto a bad thing. For example, part of my duty of a critic is to observe that some things are better than some other things, and to articulate on what grounds those distinctions are made. I’d say we need a lot more of that sort of elitism — and not just in music.
But far more entrenched, I fear, is a snobbery that borders on misanthropy, and that at some level or other pretty much comes built-in to an alt-anything. I’m talking about the assumption, sometimes admitted out loud but mostly kept to ourselves, that we alt-types are just better, smarter people than our mainstream counterparts; we are more politically savvy, more theologically sophisticated, more aesthetically discriminating.
When stated so baldly, these attitudes are easy enough to nail as bullshit. That last quality is particularly ridiculous. Anyone who holds up one broad category of music (alternative country?) as being superior, more or less in toto, to some other broad category of music (mainstream country?) isn’t much interested in aesthetic discrimination anyway.
To my ears, 2004’s musical offerings were a comparatively mediocre lot in just about all genres. But at least with big-time country, you could tell that something interesting was up: Joe Nichols covered Iris DeMent, Tim McGraw recorded with Nelly, Big & Rich rapped, and Gretchen Wilson released an album that rocked like it might’ve been produced by Eric Ambel or Richard Bennett. Not all of this music worked, not hardly. But it moved, unexpectedly, in important and potentially thrilling directions.
Meanwhile, and with few exceptions (take a bow Iris, Loretta, Bare Jr. and the Holmes Brothers), even the best of this year’s Americana crop was, well, good and all, but about as life-altering as a John Kerry stump speech. Even a record as impressive and heartfelt as Buddy Miller’s latest seemed content to preach to the choir, to stick with its own. But, damnit, what we needed, what we almost always need, is music that wants to speak across divides, and as an equal, to all those kin, neighbors and other fellow Americans with whom we vehemently disagree but still need to love.
— DAVID CANTWELL