The Austin Chronicle

No Depression in Heaven

By Doug Freeman, February 21, 2008, 8:16pm, Earache!

This past Tuesday, No Depression editors Grant Alden and Peter Blackstock announced that the seminal bi-monthly magazine will cease publication following its 75th issue in May. Launching in September, 1995 with Son Volt on the cover, No Depression covered a spectrum of music unrivaled by any other national publication. While the magazine was born of the 1990s movement, its tagline of “surveying the past, present, and future of American music” spoke to the broad reach of its interest and helped define (and continually confound) the amorphous genre of Americana. It was a scope embodied in the name itself, alluding to both Uncle Tupelo’s 1990 debut album and the Carter Family’s “No Depression in Heaven.”

Folks seem to often forget that the Carter Family tune carries a double-edged irony. It’s generally taken as an inspirational tune, a “glory-be-to-the-over-yonder,” as it were. That’s certainly true, bound in the hopeful chorus of: “I'm going where there's no depression, to the lovely land that's free from care, I'll leave this world of toil and trouble, my home's in Heaven, I'm going there.” But the lyric that's always haunted me from “No Depression in Heaven,” even as the song cast its joyous promise of redemption as sanctuary from the misery and poverty of the 1930s, was the closing verse:

“This dark hour of midnight nearing, and tribulation time will come. The storms will hurl in midnight fear, and sweep lost millions to their doom.”

That is some straight up Appalachian backwoods fire and brimstone.

The point of this digression into the Carter Family fold is to note that however much peace may be down in the Valley, the world at hand is a dire place, and its reckoning not a particularly pleasant experience. And so it seems is the reality faced by No Depression. The editors cite the drop of advertising sales as the primary factor in being forced to shut down the presses, an effect they attribute to the faltering music industry at large. In the official statement, former Austinite Blackstock and Alden declare: “In this evolving downloadable world, what a record label is and does is all up to question. What is irrefutable is that their advertising budgets are drastically reduced, for reasons we well understand. It seems clear at this point that whatever businesses evolve to replace (or transform) record labels will have much less need to advertise in print.”

If No Depression’s downfall may be attributed to the changing realities of the music business, it's also a testament to what the magazine did right. Even as their Internet presence was woefully negligible, the magazine constantly maintained a standard of focused, in-depth feature articles, which is becoming increasingly rare in music journalism, and is virtually non-existent on the Web. More and more magazines and newspapers are trading substantive, quality writing for quick, press release-raking blurbs that mirror the blogosphere. They seem to have become more concerned with mentioning as many possible bands each month rather than having something substantive to actually say about them.

No Depression offered impressively thorough features of artists often unknown outside of regional press. Whether covering music from Austin to Appalachia, Nashville to the Northwest, the magazine was able to represent contemporary American artists with an understanding of music's roots in place and history. The folding of the magazine is a loss for fans, but perhaps even more so for the enduring music to which it gave a national platform, an extensive knowledge, and genuine appreciation.

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