In response to music journalism, Elvis Costello once said, "Writing about music is like dancing about architecture." Taking that sentiment into account, music journalists Peter Blackstock and Grant Alden have built a really cool dance floor with their magazine No Depression. On that dance floor, there's quite an alternative country romp going down (whatever that is). If you've read or seen the magazine, perhaps you've noticed that phrase--alternative country (whatever that is)--which always appears on the cover, slogan-style. And if you've ever heard of 6 String Drag, Waylon Jennings, Steve Earle, Kelly Willis or Whiskeytown, then you may know that there is quite a music scene out there covering these types of artists. But what you may not know is that when the fifth anniversary of Seattle's No Depression magazine rolls around in August 2000, both cofounders will have left the Pacific Northwest and headed south. In fact, Alden has already relocated to Nashville, Tenn., and, this fall, Blackstock will be moving to Raleigh.
On how it all began, Blackstock remembers, "I think I went by his house to borrow a record from him, or to drop off a record that he was borrowing from me--and I started talking about this message board on America Online called 'No Depression' that had evolved out of an Uncle Tupelo discussion board, and into a general discussion of all things 'alternative country.'" Ultimately, Uncle Tupelo's break-up blossomed like amoebae into two of the movement's most heralded outfits, Wilco and Son Volt. At the same time, Alden had been wrapping up his coverage of the Seattle grunge scene, and was reverting to the music of his childhood, old folk music and the like, while Blackstock had been a huge fan of Uncle Tupelo and newer, country-rock. Together, they realized that the AOL message board was a sign that there might be a market for the combined scene.
No Depression's very first issue was finished one night quite untraditionally in the scheme of publishing history. "We were going back and forth from a friend's design studio to Kinko's and pasting up the pages by hand--like really old-school paste-up--which is not the way we do it now. But in that first issue it's obvious that it was crudely done. Some of the photos were even Xeroxed," Blackstock recalls. "Then we took a break and went to see the Bottle Rockets at a club called the Tractor Tavern, had a great time, then went back and stayed up until about 4 in the morning to finish the magazine. That was very much the spirit around the idea of starting No Depression, and captures what it was like in the early days, [with] the business and pleasure aspects completely running together."
Volume 1 ended up 32 pages long and featured Son Volt on the cover at the same time the band's album Trace was released. "It was ideal timing in the sense that it was a really great record that got a lot of attention, and was pretty central to the kind of music we were trying to cover," he says. And the Uncle Tupelo influence is pretty forthright because No Depression is the title of one of their albums, although Blackstock also intended it to refer to the old Carter Family song from which Uncle Tupelo actually lifted the phrase.
"That was a little bit of an insider reference that some people weren't going to get," he admits. "But we thought that if you did understand that reference, it would carry some weight, and that it referred to this young band that was bringing back some traditional roots into its music, as well as to the very beginning of country music 50 or 60 years ago." These two elements--the new and the old--also parallel the co-editor's preferences: Alden's being in the traditional folk and bluegrass direction, and Blackstock's being a rock-mixed-with-country sort of thing.
The first issue sold out completely--all 2,000 copies--then became a collector's item. Since then, No Depression magazine has become the creed for fans of the genre, who seem to be enjoying the reverence the magazine has garnered. Blackstock and Alden had no idea it would succeed so well. For them, it was just an urge to cover the music scene to which they were drawn, a scene that includes all kinds of roots-influenced American music and beyond. "'American' in terms of the sound," Blackstock confirms. "It can sometimes be from England or Norway or Canada, but it's music that is almost always to some extent borrowing from the traditions of folk, country, bluegrass or gospel of the past century of American music, as opposed to music that's trying really hard to be alternative."
Inspired by the magazine and the music it covers, the 'No Depression' genre--yes, it has evolved into a name for the genre--has sketched a loose circumference for bands to use as a basic country-music blueprint and then stretch on for prairie-miles into rock, jazz, folk, you name it, just left of the commercial country dial. The only rule is to respect deeply rooted tradition.
"There is a real distinction between the magazine and the perceived music scene called 'No Depression,'" Blackstock adds. "The fact that certain types of music get called 'No Depression' music is good in the sense that it gets the name of our magazine out there, so people might recognize what it means if they see it on the newsstand." On the other hand, he says it tends to pigeonhole the magazine as supporting a very specific, narrow, country-punk thing, when actually it covers a broad range of music from all over. And according to Blackstock, the best of that music is coming from these parts lately. "In fact, it's one of the draws for my moving there," he says, "since there's this enormous pool of talent incubating from Whiskeytown to 6 String Drag to Jolene to Two Dollar Pistols, and it seems to be continuing to happen and gaining a real supportive community."
Blackstock also says he's drawn to Raleigh because it is a relatively small, friendly and easygoing town, and that it reminds him of his hometown, Austin, Texas, in the 1970s. "I think from growing up in Austin, I learned to appreciate towns with really good music scenes that are not big cities and that you can see a lot of really good bands locally, and on a regular basis without having to live in Chicago or New York. If you can get a smaller to big-sized town that's active musically and culturally, then to me, that's the best of both worlds."
Since Alden has relocated to Nashville where he co-edits and runs the production side of the magazine, Blackstock has been able to jaunt to Raleigh to visit friends, see an occasional show or interview a band on his way to Nashville to meet Alden for issue wrap-ups. In fact, he nostalgically recalls one of his most memorable interviews as the time he came to Raleigh in May 1997 to interview Whiskeytown. "I had a conversation with the band that took place in bars up and down Hillsborough Street," he says. "I felt like I got the whole experience of where their Faithless Street album came from as I was walking in and out of the places where they hung out, listening to them tell the stories which inspired the songs."
Though No Depression will be edited from the Triangle come October, there are no hints that the magazine will take the form of a computer screen for good, which is great news for coffee shoppers who enjoy tangible, soothing newsprint on their kneecaps. The magazine does have a Web site, www.nodepression.net, that is currently moving in the direction of being an archive library, and will carry some previously published editorial matter to entertain you at your RTP desk job. And though the magazine will remain a magazine, Blackstock has always been impressed with the advantages of the Internet and says it greatly helped them to obtain distribution. "A lot of the people from the 'No Depression' AOL board sent us names of a few cool record and bookstores in their towns. Through that, we were able to connect with about 30 to 40 places, and those places took us on for the first issue." And early on, they could tell that it was going stick, because stores across the nation wanted to carry it. It's been a long, strenuous, gradual climb to get from 2,000 copies to 20,000 copies per issue. But, that's what they've accomplished in five years.
And in addition to that accomplishment, Blackstock has recently co-produced a re-creation of Mickey Newbury's 1971 album Frisco Mabel Joy with Chris Eckman of the Seattle band The Walkabouts. The album is titled Frisco Mabel Joy Revisited and will be released on Appleseed Recordings in October. Contributing artists include Eckman, roots-rocker Dave Alvin, jazz guitarist Bill Frisell, folksinger Michael Fracasso, Norwegian band Midnight Choir, and songwriter Kris Kristofferson. Of the side project, Blackstock says, "It's just a labor of love for me; I've sought only to get back what money I've spent to make it happen. I consider journalism to be my real career and calling, but I do find myself wanting to pursue creative avenues involving music occasionally as well."
So, assuming that a cooler calling--if there is one--doesn't fall into Peter Blackstock's path before this fall, he'll relocate here and look for a place to live and edit his magazine. And, when the dust settles, he'll find himself knee-deep in the fertile North Carolina alternative-country music scene, whatever that is.