Each week in God and Country Music, Nick Rynerson gives country music a chance and examines the world of Americana, folk, alt-country, and popular country music.
Alternative Country music has had a difficult time defining itself over the last few decades. Like most genres it is made up of sub-genres and everybody has their own sound and each band has different influences and vision. Because of this, fans and bands answer cow-punk to Americana to rockabilly to alt-country to ‘sort of bluegrass-ish’. But all of these descriptions are incomplete and sometimes completely inaccurate. So the country music world has taken to a broad, overarching term that has become ecumenical: No Depression.
No Depression. That is what we call it. I have had many a conversation with folks that I have found to be alt-country fans that go,
“You like Son Volt?” “Yeah man! Do you listen to Whiskeytown?” “Absolutely! That is so cool! We both dig No Depression!”
It is a junk drawer term for all types of Americana music and has a rich history and spirituality behind it. It was coined in the early 90’s when Uncle Tupelo burst onto the music scene. ‘No Depression’ is an old Carter Family Depression-era spiritual that Uncle Tupelo recorded and named their first, extremely influential album after. Tupelo was an outfit from the small town of Bellville, Illinois consisting of Jay Farrar, Jeff Tweedy and Mike Heidorn that perfected a sound unlike anyone else in the early nineties. It was a mixture of pure punk rock, old timey Appalachian music, Nashville country, outlaw country and a little bit of small town angst. And Uncle Tupelo didn’t take too long to become trailblazers and change country music for good. After their split in 1994, Farrar went on to form Son Volt, who today are alt-country elders and Jeff Tweedy formed Wilco, one of the biggest American rock and roll bands of the last two decades. And from this sound flowed ‘No Depression’, the genre and the magazine after the same name. If you like country and aren’t up on No Depression, consider this your warm, alt-country welcome!
But what recently has come to fascinate be about No Depression is it’s spiritual roots and outworking. The original song ‘No Depression’ is about heaven, with the Carter Family (and later Jay Farrar) singing,
I’m going where there’s no depression
To a better land that’s free from care
I’ll leave this world of toil and trouble
My home’s in heaven, I’m going there
And what I love about it is not just that it’s Christian-ish, but that it is human. No Depression (the song and the genre) is about hard times and finding salvation from those hard times. When Farrar sings “Whiskey Bottle over Jesus, not forever, just for now” and when Alejandro Escovedo sings “I don’t need you, like you don’t me” they are both looking for a spiritual rapture from their present hardships. And No Depression does it by going back to the genesis of country and bringing it into the present. It takes the beauty of the old music and weds it to the sounds of the time. It is distinctly different from anything else in music today.
This is wonderful parallel to the church. Both No Depression and the Church share the same stories of pain, sin and the human condition. While No Depression searches for answers in it’s music, the church offers answers in the person and work of Jesus. The church is a community here on earth that is distinct from any other group of people, somewhat like No Depression, which is one reason why it can be so hard to define yet so tangible at the same time. It is the timeless and beautiful truth of the gospel story that brings people together, not just norms, morals or culture: making it just as hard to define as No Depression. And like No Depression, it looks different wherever you go because people’s experiences are unique despite having the same God.
It is the beauty of No Depression that draws me to it, just as it is the beauty of Jesus that drew me into the church.