[23 November 2008]
When the bell tolled for No Depression’s magazine production, editors Grant Alden and Peter Blackstock were determined to keep the community they had cultivated since 1995 going. Long was the magazine lauded and respected for its relentless search for talented Americana artists. Named for the Carter Family song “No Depression in Heaven” and Uncle Tupelo’s 1990 album, the magazine delved deep into the roots scene, plucking artists from obscurity.
The solution Alden and Blackstock concocted was two-fold. First, No Depression would increase publication and features on nodepression.com for cutting-edge reviews, interviews, and features. Second, the “bookazine” is a semi-annual soft-back book that presents No Depression’s quality critiques and interviews in a format that echoes its caliber.
The inaugural issue (#76, keeping in line with its last published periodical, #75) focuses on youth in Americana music. Titled “Abigail Washburn and the Next Generation of Young Musicians Take Center Stage”, this initial foray into uncharted territories of media balances in-depth interviews and high-quality photographs with its traditional set of album reviews. This time, however, the reviews are in an appendix. The cover featuring Washburn’s (of Uncle Earl and the Sparrow Quartet) jovial and juvenile pose, draped in a bright aqua polka-dotted ensemble wraps around the entire book. Bela Fleck sits with his banjo and a makeshift tie made out of a napkin. Obviously, people involved with the bookazine have an authenticity not marred by too much seriousness.
Young up-and-comers appearing in the bookazine include teenagers Sarah Jarosz (playing clawhammer banjo, mandolin and guitar, whose debut album produced by Gary Paczosa (John Prine, Chris Thile, the Duhks) expects a spring 2009 release) and Sierra Hull (whose debut album came out on Rounder in June). However, surprisingly No Depression features two acts which may not necessarily live up to the standards of No Depression’s previous periodicals.
Hanson, the dreaded six-letter-word boy band, are struggling to be known as more than the “MmmBop” boys. The article is easily one of the lengthiest. Despite author David Cantwell’s best efforts, the article does not justify Hanson’s inclusion in the flagship bookazine. Hanson’s recent releases such as Taking the Walk might be influenced by American music like Phil Spector and Chuck Berry, but their music is still more saccharine pop than the roots music the editors at ND usually cover. The article on Homemade Jamz, another featured interview, talks up an otherwise mediocre kid band (whose oldest family band member is 16). Although, the guitar crafted from a car muffler is interesting.
The bookazine does cover some other buzz worthy Americana acts, for instance folksters the Bowerbirds, quirky songstress Basia Bulat, bluegrass band the Infamous Stringdusters, and the haunting old-time of Crooked Still. In her interview, Bulat recounts meeting Daniel Johnston when he opened for Yo la Tengo. “I said something like, ‘That was a good show’. I was a little bit intimidated, because it’s an artist, and he’s you know, a big guy, and I was 18. And he said something like, “Thanks, can I buy you a slice of pizza’? It was so strange, like this bizarre, surreal moment: Daniel Johnston offering to buy me a slice of pizza”. Amidst these articles lies a beautiful photographic spread from various photographers with various subjects. The interior’s black and white format translates well.
While the 144-page bookazine is chock-full of new artists to check out, there is still something missing. Gone is the sense of a small but detailed community with the bookazine. Sure, there are the musicians and the writers. There is a sense of community with the website. But, in the bookazine, there are no sidebar advertisements from recording studios or underground labels. There aren’t mastering studios advertising their services or small-scale labels peddling their wares.
What was once a culture is diluted a little. This is not so much a critique of the bookazine, though, as it is one of the rapidly-changing music scene. The bookazine’s quality, both in its outward appearance and its sophisticated writing style, continues the No Depression tradition of bringing exposure to non-commercial grade Americana music.