A Decade of DIY
'No Depression' Celebrates American Music
Thurs–Sun Sept 22–25,
Growing up in a sad Pennsylvania town where Tim McGraw reigned supreme, there wasn't much community for someone digging Buck Owens, let alone Black Flag. Listening to these records was already a solitary enough practice, but if I wanted to catch shows of this ilk I could either see the Ramones sprinting through Pittsburgh, or David Allan Coe at a motorcycle rally in Oil City. The twain didn't meet.
But man, bless the internet. Countless hours of boredom had me Yahooing musicians, aiming to discover I wasn't alone. I found some band called Uncle Tupelo that claimed both Black Flag and Buck Owens as influences. Further mouse clicking paved a road to one source, which would serve as a wellspring for my record collection: No Depression, the alt-country (whatever that is) bi-monthly.
At 10 years old No Depression is a grassroots superhero on the newsstands, a barometer by which most independent magazines can be measured. These days, when launching a publication with no outside investment is like having no legs and running a marathon, No Depression has grown to be a significant American voice while remaining steadfastly DIY.
"The guiding principle for me in starting the magazine," says co-founder/co-editor Peter Blackstock, "was an AOL online discussion board called 'No Depression/alt.country.' From the time that I started participating in it to the time we started talking about doing the magazine it had grown exponentially."
An Austin transplant, Blackstock moved to Seattle in 1991, freelancing for the much-lamented music scene paper the Rocket. There he met Grant Alden, then serving as managing editor. When Alden left the Rocket in 1994, Blackstock claims they were both in a position to try something new.
"I think we came to the idea more or less at the same time," says Alden from his home in Kentucky. "(Peter) introduced me to the ND board on AOL, I started going to more shows relevant to that world and saw an audience that seemed worth reaching."
Throughout the summer of 1995, Blackstock and Alden sorted ideas for No Depression's first issue, taking the name from the AOL board (itself named after Uncle Tupelo's first album and the Carter Family song of the same name). Soon after, local luminary Kyla Fairchild entered the picture, handling ad sales while at home with her newborn son.
After a $2,000 personal investment from Blackstock to cover printing, the issue went to press in August 1995, a 32-page, mostly black-and-white zine boasting Son Volt on its cover. Aesthetically, it fell somewhere between an old Montgomery Ward catalog and Maximumrocknroll. All 2,000 copies sold out.
In no time, it was running in-depth features on American music icons Steve Earle, Ricky Skaggs, and Merle Haggard. It bolstered bluegrass legend Ralph Stanley before the O Brother, Where Art Thou? craze, branded Alejandro Escovedo "artist of the decade" in 1999, and embraced mainstreamers Allison Moorer and Patty Loveless. Through word-of-mouth and editorial strength, ND's circulation expanded to 39,000 copies, even amidst competition from likeminded publications HARP and Paste.
"I think because we are self-funded and we're fiscally responsible, that we're in this for the long haul," says Fairchild. "No matter what happens to [the competition], we can keep doing what we're doing."
Now refreshed with a new design and slogan ("Surveying the Past, Present and Future of American Music"), No Depression is prepped for another decade. To celebrate, they booked 10 shows across the country, culminating in this weekend's Sunset Tavern blowout with Raul Malo, Waco Brothers, and Peter Case, among others.
Yet, for all their work, Alden holds reservations on par with No Depression readers: "Why isn't Mike Ireland famous yet? Does Billy Joe Shaver really have to hang with Big & Rich to be played on the radio?"
Though understandably dismayed by Nashville's mono-billy monsters, there is little question that No Depression raised a few corporate eyebrows. After all, Music Row darlings Gretchen Wilson and Dierks Bentley currently deliver modern traditionalism. Even CMT puts effort into Americana-friendly programming.
Tastemaking aside, No Depression's greatest strength is something taken for granted. Last week I passed a car with its bumper boasting a No Depression sticker. It struck me how those two words now symbolize something akin to anarchy symbols for the punk crowd: a sense of identity. And it's that sort of common ground that will keep subscriptions rolling in for another 10 years.