No Depression & Me: A Retrospective, With Local Color
The news of Alt-country chronicler No Depression’s decision to cease publication of the magazine’s print edition with the May-June issue this year has been making the rounds of the surviving media outlets for a couple weeks now, and I can’t say I’d fault their logic in reaching this point. (Read the official word at www.nodepression.net)
I’ve been an occasional contributor to No Depression since 1997, an association I’ve appreciated most for its ability to allow me to write about local artists and events from around the Columbia area in a publication with an intensely loyal international audience.
From the beginning, my main function within the world of ND was as a regional source, letting them know about music from our area that merited coverage in ND. The very first review I wrote for ND, in fact, was for the debut CD by Hick’ry Hawkins, Anarky, Tennessee. I’d posted about it on an alt-country message board frequented by ND founder and co-editor Peter Blackstock and some of the then-nascent magazine’s writers, and he emailed me directly to ask if I’d be willing to write a review of it for the magazine’s next issue. That review appeared in ND #9 (May/June 1997), beginning a string of several years in which I had my work appear in the magazine almost every issue. Some of those reviews and features concerned artists from across the country, but a majority of them were from right here in South Carolina.
One of my favorite sections of ND has always been “Miked,” a batch of live show reviews from around the world; I have had the pleasure of reporting on a number of Columbia-area shows over the years in this section.
The Elbow Room’s late-1990’s run in Five Points was a great source for alt-country friendly shows to write about. Kim Richey and Big Back Forty played there in 1997 and I got the nod to write about it, a fact which I actually had the nerve to mention to Richey prior to the show. She was a gracious professional about it, thanking me in advance for the coverage and joking about making sure it was a good show—which it was.
Bill’s Music Shop & Pickin’ Parlor has brought hundreds of classic bluegrass artists through Columbia, and in late 1997 I reviewed a Del McCoury Band show there, making sure to note the down-home nature of the venue and its proprietor’s place in local bluegrass lore, as well as the flat-out superb performance of McCoury and his band.
One of the best theater-sized venues in the area to see a live show at is the Newberry Opera House just up interstate 26, and their tendency to bring in classic country artists led to at least one live review for ND, a 1998 show from Whisperin’ Bill Anderson. Anderson, a South Carolina native with a slew of his own hits who is still writing current hits for others (“Whiskey Lullabye,” is one recent example), put on a Grand Old Opry worthy show for a mostly older crowd in the 350-seat theater—here again, I was able to write not only about the show but the historic venue it took place in, right here in South Carolina.
As for the local artists I covered for No Depression, many of them got that coverage more than once. Danielle Howle is the best example of this—In 1998, I reviewed the new album from Danielle Howle & the Tantrums, Do a Two Sable, then in 1999 I wrote a live review of a show at the Elbow Room which featured Amy Ray, Danielle Howle, Beth Wood, and Rose Polenzani. Later that same year, I added a Town & Country regional artist feature about Danielle to the list when she was promoting the solo acoustic Catalog CD, and 2002 saw a review of Danielle and the Tantrums’ Skorborealis disc appear. Post-tantrums, I reviewed Howle’s Thank You, Mark CD for ND in 2006. That’s five different occasions I’ve written about Howle for ND, and while she’s gotten more than enough press from other major outlets over the years, ND was one of the first to repeatedly cover her work.
The other local artist I’ve written in ND about multiple times is actually no longer a local—Jack Williams. Once a fixture on the Columbia bar and restaurant scene in local rock bands like Fools In Love, Williams turned a creative corner in the mid-1990s and he has emerged as a nationally known folk musician. In ND #`12 (November/December 1997), I reviewed what’s still considered the best album of his ‘folk period’ releases, Across The Winterline. Not quite two years later, in ND #22, I contributed a Town & Country regional feature on Williams, in which I attempted to relate all the different phases of his musical life in a one-page piece. That was, and still is, an impossible task, but I think that story was probably the first major coverage of Williams in the national press. More recently, I reviewed his 2005 CD Laughing in the Face of the Blues in ND # 60, at about the same time he moved to a new home near Fayetteville, Arkansas, to be in a location more central for his constant national touring schedule.
Another local artist I’ve written about in ND several times is Hootie & the Blowfish. Not exactly what most would characterize as an alt-country act, Hootie nonetheless has had a bit of their history intertwined with ND. Guitarist Mark Bryan had a letter to the editor printed in one issue of the magazine, well before any actual coverage of his band, and co-editor Peter Blackstock and he struck up a correspondence which resulted in Bryan inviting Blackstock to Columbia in 1999 for one of the first Monday after the Masters golf tournaments and the post-tourney concert at the Township Auditorium. As the resident ND contributor in Columbia, I played host to Blackstock, taking him over to the Elbow Room after the Township show to hear a set from Cravin Melon complete with an unannounced mini-set from Hootie themselves, playing a half-dozen cover tunes for a very excited crowd. It was here I learned about Blackstock’s habit of recording the particulars of every live show he attends—when the Hootie guys came up on stage and started playing, Peter pulled out a small notebook and scribbled some notations into it. After an inquiring look from me, he explained that he wrote down the artist, date, venue, and set list if possible of every show he attended, and kept those records in a few notebooks he had filed away for reference in case he needed them for future articles he’d write. After the Elbow Room show, Peter crashed on my couch that night, and gave me an ND T-shirt as a thank-you before heading up to Raleigh the next day to visit friends. I remember a phone call the next day that I answered, which was for Peter (who had given out my number as a point of contact for that day). Turned out later I realized that the “Tonya” I had spoken to was none other than Tonya Lamm of the band Hazeldine.
In ND 27, I reviewed Mark Bryan’s first solo CD, 30 On the Rail, not that it helped the album sell any units, I suppose. I’m still fond of several of the songs on that CD, though.
Hootie’s Musical Chairs CD was supposed to be a more country/roots leaning affair, which I suppose is why I got the nod to do a review of it in ND 32 (March/April 2001). Again, not one of their best-sellers but an album I still enjoy a good bit of—and it did have a few twangy tunes that would foreshadow Bryan’s ongoing penchant for bluegrass-inspired material. 2005’s Vanguard Records release, Looking For Lucky, was a much more countrified disc and the band’s best work since their debut. I reviewed it, and said as much, in ND #59.
Other local bands who have come and gone that I’ve reviewed for ND include Kathryn Caine (Whiteville album review, ND #12 Nov/Dec 1997), The Ultraviolets (Down South Nite Club album review, ND#25 Jan.Feb 2000), Stelle Group (At Home In Exile album review, ND#36, Nov/Dec 2001), Edwin McCain (Album review, ND 43, Jan/Feb 2003), The Blue Dogs (Album review, ND 51, May/June 2004 ) John Brannen (The Good Thief album review, ND #54, Nov/Dec 2004), Johnny Irion (Ex Tempore album review, ND #71 Sept/Oct 2007), and just last issue, the Jan/Feb 2008 one, they ran my review of the new disc from Sunshone Still, Ten Cent Novels.
This whole exercise in remembering, for me, what my small part was in the pages of No Depression, has been not so much about what it did for me—though it did a lot, as the first national publication that I wrote for—but what it allowed me to do for the growing talent around me here in Columbia, especially. Having that outlet to write about locals in a publication with the reach and the authority of ND was a wonderful thing, something I’m not sure I’d have been able to find anywhere else during the past dozen years, and for that I’m thankful. Hopefully, as the publishers of ND have hinted, they’ll continue to offer opportunites for coverage of good music from all localities on their website, http://www.nodepression.net, so keep an eye out there, you may still see my byline on that occasional review or story, especially if it’s about anything from South Carolina.