Unhappy Trails

No Depression Radio ends up really, really depressing.

"Our job is to create the sound of No Depression magazine. And just like the magazine, any given show may have elements of country, roots rock and traditional music ... how's that for exciting radio?"--Rob Reinhart, host, No Depression Radio

Uncle Tupelo, the inspiration for No Depression magazine, formed in 1987 and ceased to exist as a band in 1994.

The magazine itself first appeared in late 1995, as little more than fanboy hero-worship of Jay Farrar (then of Son Volt) and Jeff Tweedy (then, as now, of Wilco), the founders of Uncle Tupelo. Since 1996, No Depression has consistently provided reasonably good coverage of all aspects of non-mainstream country and roots music, or if you prefer, as No Depression does, "alt-country (whatever that is)." In their own words, this means "link(ing) the Carter Family to Gram Parsons ... Woody Guthrie to Townes Van Zandt ... Patsy Cline to Neko Case," etc.

No Depression very quickly found its niche, in part because there was an abundance of high-quality music being ignored by Nashville that merely needed an auspice under which to fall: dear, beloved "alt-country." And "niche" this market remained, until a certain pair of carpetbagging Minnesotans compiled a fairly average soundtrack that was merely incidental to their fairly average film, which in turn did something an army of Steve Earles and Jeff Tweedys and Alejandro Escovedos could never have done: O Brother! Where Art Thou? made Nashville blink.

It was then realized: There's gold in them thar alt-country hills. Both sides (alt- and Nash-country) scurried to capitalize on this seeming good fortune. Nashville did much the same thing that rock labels did after the success of Nevermind, never mind learning the lesson that it's impossible to capitalize on what you've heretofore ignored. And alt-country, and its flagship No Depression, sought ways to capitalize right back. Which leads us to the shameless provocation that is No Depression Radio.

The radio branch of the burgeoning No Depression empire has evidently been around awhile, and was probably extant before the crushing success of O Brother. But Arbitron is an insatiable mistress, so a partnership was formed between ND and the NBG Radio Network, a syndicator best known for its "Big Snoop Dogg" program, which airs locally on Hot 98.3. Presumably they sought the purview of the syndicator because they "know what they're doing," etc. Another consequence, intended or not, is that NDR is heard on exactly the kind of stations that would never play anything from the general ND milieu, like its local host KOYT 92.9 (10 p.m. on Sunday), aka "Coyote Country" (especially cute since it's a Clear Channel station. Synergies, like idiots, rule). The irony runs thicker'n hoedown barbecue sauce here, because conglomerates like Clear Channel are instrumental in denying most of the No Depression artists any significant radio play (or other exposure like large concerts, because Clear Channel has monopolized those as well).

The webmaster of ND's site, at least, prepared for objections to this approach from independent-minded readers with this "FAQ" and reply:

Q: Why commercial radio, rather than public or community stations?

A: The show is not, at this point (emphasis mine), designed for noncommercial radio because it is our strong belief that the noncom community already does, in general, a fine job playing the music we cover ... Rather than preaching to the converted, we're seeking to reach listeners who haven't heard most of this music, but might well like it if they did.

Translation? "We, like the loathsome country industry we provide an 'alternative' to, don't want to miss out the next time an O Brother gravy train pulls up." And the emphasis on the "not at this point" is another way of saying "my ass" to any implied suggestion the intent of the show might somehow change.

As for the show itself, what more needs to be said than the bland radio-ism that begins this article? That gives all the hint you could need. Based on the enclosed copy of the Jan. 27 show and the cue lists from other episodes, it's bait-and-switch city, buddy. Sure, there're a coupla interesting artists hidden between Brad Paisley and George Strait cuts, and a few intriguing tidbits from your host. Everything else caters to the (nearly) lowest common denominator--even the description of the show on the demo disc incongruously acknowledges the plentitude of mainstream country you'll hear on the alt-country radio show. And as to the official No Depression talking points about why this show isn't contrary to their alleged ethos, pray tell: What listeners on mainstream country stations haven't heard Willie Nelson? Vince Gill? ALAN FREAKING JACKSON? They'd have you believe that including such artists is merely a way to get those close-minded Brooks and Dunn fans to listen at all. Hornswoggle. Why are they concerning themselves with "listeners who haven't heard most of this music" anyway? Isn't the publication of an "alternative" journal and its corresponding radio show by definition NOT FOR THE MAINSTREAM? Will No Depression make up its mind?

Further evidence of this type of pandering can be found in the media kit accompanying the sample programs. They use glowing quotes, most of which happen to be dated (corresponding roughly to the time that ND first seemed to matter--early '97 or so) that speak of an influence far beyond the meager circulation (sub-10,000 until recently) but each of those quotes has an editorial correction "(note: Circulation is now 23,000)" accompanying it. We want to be accepted by you, mainstream, but please don't corrupt us! The real agenda at work is audience delivery, as can be gleaned from NBG's website touting the show, ostensibly to potential buyers:

[No Depression Radio is] a great way to reach the savvy male crowd that is passionate and supportive of alternative country music:

· He's college educated, in management or a professional occupation, and makes over $50,000 per year.

· He's a savvy consumer with money to spend.

· He's extremely brand loyal.

· He scopes out independent retailers to find the cutting-edge country music he really craves.

The use of "he," by the way, is no accident, as evidenced by No Depression's in-house reader research, which reveals that approximately 81 percent of their readership is male, an embarrassment to alt-men, who are loath to acknowledge the geekiness of the boy's club that is this music.

The only place you'd find fewer women than your average rock/alt-country club is an oil rig or a monastery.

Perhaps the arrival of the radio show finally explains their titular ambivalence--the "(whatever that is)" disclaimer that has appeared on the cover of every issue of the magazine. Perhaps ND never wanted to make that commitment to its girlfriend, Altacountry, because if her hot and easy (but somewhat thick and plastic) sister Nashacountry suddenly became available, well, perhaps No Depression was never really "tied down" either. Whatever the case, the No Depression Radio endeavor has hastened the publication over the flagstones of good intention on the way to alt-Hell (whatever that is).