Early 1996 in the Triangle, and life is good at the center of the universe. Granted, it's a minor universe--that of so-called "alternative-country" music, a big tent destined for sprawl--but the center is still the center. Every weekend, or so it seems, you can hang in town to witness local heroes mixing Neil Young, Buck Owens, Uncle Tupelo, The Band, R.E.M., George Jones, the Replacements and/or Gram Parsons, dipping the resulting hunk of sound in beer, and rolling it in whatever batter is called for by the particular band's take on country-conscious rock. The Backsliders can't decide whether they want to be Crazy Horse or Sweetheart-era Byrds, so they split the difference. Jolene makes country rock for fans of Stipe-ian cryptograms, while Six String Drag brings soul music to the party, and occasionally horns. Whiskeytown are punky upstarts with a Jones jones and a boy genuis. And this is just The Big Four.
Know, though, that this center of the universe thing wasn't just the pillow talk of a guy falling in love with his adopted hometown. In other words, I wasn't the only one who thought this way. "(I)f indeed the No Depression community has a home base at the moment--a geographic region that seems unusually rich in alternative-country acts, in terms of both quantity and quality--it's North Carolina," offered Peter Blackstock in a review of Jolene's debut full-length, Hell's Half Acre. Those words appeared in issue No. 3 of a fledgling magazine named No Depression, identified in this spring of '96 by the cover phrase "The Alternative Country Quarterly" and masterminded by co-editors Blackstock and Grant Alden.
Despite a recent Jolene show in Charlotte, it's fair to say that The Big Four are no more. No Depression, however, rages on. It soon turned into a bimonthly publication, with its Kinko-esque roots gradually giving way to full color and its page count tripling. It continues to draw some of the best music writers on the beat.
With the release of the September/October issue, No Depression is celebrating its 10th anniversary, and across those 10 years, the magazine has maintained a strong relationship with the Triangle. Among many other ties, local writers such as David Menconi and Ross Grady documented the unfolding scene in No Depression's pages, and Blackstock's Whiskeytown cover story in the July/August '97 issue remains one of the best reads in the publication's history. (Both a Menconi story on the Backsliders and a Six String Drag profile by Grady are featured in the No Depression anthology, published in 1998. A second volume is just out.)
"What really cemented the Triangle's reputation for alt-country, though, was that it didn't end with that first wave," Blackstock shares via e-mail from Seattle. "A whole new batch of talented acts followed on the heels of Whiskeytown, et al. --not just Caitlin Cary's solo career and the Tres Chicas offshoot, but also Tift Merritt, Thad Cockrell, Kenny Roby's post-Six String Drag stuff, Chatham County Line, and the resurgence of Chris Stamey as both a producer and a performer."
Thus, it's appropriate that one of the shows being held to celebrate No Depression's diamond year is taking place at Carrboro's Cat's Cradle, featuring Stamey, Tres Chicas, the stalwart Two Dollar Pistols and the bill's wildcard, veteran folk-rocker Sally Spring.
"Maybe the most telling thing about the strength of the Carolina scene is that when we started planning our 10th-anniversary events in various cities across the country, it was obvious that one of them needed to be in the Triangle," Blackstock says. "And equally obvious that we'd have no trouble creating a solid bill solely from the local acts."
Time to party like it's 1996.
No Depression's 10-Year Anniversary Celebration is Saturday, Sept. 10 at the Cat's Cradle. Tickets are $12; and the music starts at 8:45 p.m. There are also two readings from the new The Best of No Depression: Writing About American Music scheduled, with co-editor Peter Blackstock and contributing editor David Menconi reading Sunday, Sept. 11 at 6 p.m. at Quail Ridge Books & Music in Raleigh (music by Kenny Roby) and Monday, Sept. 12 at 7 p.m. at the Regulator Bookshop in Durham (music by Caitlin Cary and Lynn Blakey). For more on No Depression, see www.indyweekblogs.com/scan.