The Second Annual No Depression Critics’ Poll
The promise of “alt”
The most powerful piece of music I heard in 2004 was Buddy Miller’s version of Bob Dylan’s “With God On Our Side”, whether it was on Miller’s album, Universal United House Of Prayer, or in his stunning performance at September’s Americana Music Association Conference in Nashville. Miller transformed Dylan’s tune, originally based on Dominic Behan’s Irish folk song “The Patriot’s Game”, into a southern gospel hymn, thus sharpening its central message: Whatever else He may or may not be, God is not a meddling micro-manager who determines the outcome of human decisions, and He certainly can’t be used as the justification for the genocidal slaughter of American Indians, the atomic incineration of Japanese civilians, or the invasion of Iraq in search of nuclear weapons and terrorist networks that didn’t exist.
The God of Dylan, Miller and John Kerry is a hands-off God, a God who treats human beings like adults who must bear the consequences of their decisions, a God who allows the laws of evolution, physics, meteorology and sexual attraction to play themselves out without interference. By contrast, the God of Toby Keith, Darryl Worley and George W. Bush is a hands-on God, a God who treats humans like children who can’t handle nuance or dilemmas, a God who regularly contravenes the laws of nature to make sure the good guys win and the bad guys lose. These two different views explain the difference not just between the Blue States and the Red States, but also between alt-country and mainstream country.
For the factor that makes country “alt” is irony, the recognition that the good guys don’t always win, that what should be is very different from what is. That’s not a very comforting thought, but it does have the advantage of being true. And the year’s best music grew out of that truth. It was Dave Alvin, having anguished over an ill parent who was never going to get better, seeking spiritual sustenance in the canyons of the high Sierras. It was the Silos’ Walter Salas-Humara finding reasons, even in the wake of grisly car wrecks and bitter injustice, for “holding on to life.” It was the Drive-By Truckers’ Patterson Hood refusing to believe that a working man’s poverty is God’s punishment, nor that the triumph of lying politicians is God’s will. It was Jon Dee Graham resolving to love the world, where “bad things will happen,” even if it is “complicated and incomplete.”
Whether you view God as a supernatural person or as a mere metaphor for nature’s most potent forces, He (or She or It) cannot save us from making difficult decisions, nor rescue us from their consequences. He can only provide the strength to keep struggling in “The Great Battle”, as Graham put it. This recognition provided the year’s best music and best politics, even if they didn’t triumph on the charts or at the ballot box.
— GEOFFREY HIMES
Everything old is new again
I have this continuing belief, based on some fuzzy-percentages combination of intuition and longtime observation, that most listeners still come to the spectrum of roots-to-pop music we talk about here looking for variety and surprise. That most music we bring up in these pages has some sort of “rooted” quality — a sense of a past and place behind it — doesn’t mean fans of this stuff are less interested in finding immediacy and a sense of willful exploration and discovery, too.
Many came to this neighborhood looking to bring (or find) a jolt of straightforward country truth and songmaking in their rock ‘n’ roll. The 1996-style “narrow definition” of alternative-country had its power and also its faddish aspects — and even, I’ve noticed, a few admirers who would gladly hear the tones and themes associated with it repeated precisely forever, as if that wouldn’t yield a whole new kind of boredom. The good news is that there were some real signs of life this past year, some fresh contributions.
The biggest may have been made by 70-year-old honky-tonk master Loretta Lynn, who gleefully took an experimental side trip toward garage rock in the understanding that there’s something in her vocal and lyric attack that really is attractive and fitting over there in Jack White’s indie-rock world. (Bonus points to White for not sticking her with a single-note comic-book musical definition in return.) It’s very clear that mainstream country was only minimally ready to accept the whole adventure; this alternative-country world is built to accept it with relish.
There were rock contributions in 2004 from established acts: Bobby Bare Jr.’s wit and generosity (as on “Visit Me In Music City”), the return of the Old 97’s with a celebratory pop-twang mix both frisky and mature; Jason Ringenberg’s righteous but level-headed political rock on Empire Builders; the “other side” of small-town southern life taken on by the Drive-By Truckers.
Most encouraging were the newcomers. There were harmonious and swinging songs of modern complications from Tres Chicas; energetic new-timey sounds from Old Crow Medicine Show boys; and, onstage and soon on disc, traditional North American stringband meets salsa and soul from the Duhks. If greying boomers and Gen-Xers really want to keep the circle unbroken, they’ll welcome fresh twentysomethings like the Crows and Duhks. Loretta and Dolly would!
For those who’ve shown up in this neighborhood demanding more country in their country, I’d suggest much of that fight is being won, big time. Mainstream successes such as Gretchen Wilson and Joe Nichols, the allowable-again dark vision of the Alison Krauss-Brad Paisley duet “Whiskey Lullabye”, the influx of honky-tonk and modern bluegrass on the charts — all of these things should say “give country a new chance” to anyone interested in stone country sounds and sensibilities, rather than just an oppositional stance for its own sake. If only country radio would open its playlists enough to notice smaller label contributors of quality such newcomers as Moot Davis and Ed Burleson, or longtimers like Dale Watson and Cowboy Jack Clement. Meanwhile, though, Americana radio does.
Kieran Kane and Kevin Welch produced some tones this year that managed to sound country and hip-hop at the same time (more obvious live than on disc), which is something country’s daring Big & Rich may pull off going forward. And fresh-outlook singer-songwriters as diverse as Jon Dee Graham and Holly Williams proved that the “Americana” storytelling arena doesn’t have to be a last-gasp home for unemployed folk singers.
— BARRY MAZOR