No Depression: Instruments Of Change

January 01, 1970

(University
Of Texas Press)

 

www.utexaspress.com

 

 

BY JOHN DWORKIN

 

 

Grant Alden and Peter Blackstock co-founded No Depression magazine back in 1995. Alden spoke in 2008 on NPR about long form music writing
not translating so well to the internet. He wondered whether readers would
bother to turn the ‘virtual page.’ “The problem I have with the Web is it doesn’t
seem like a good home for a 10,000 word story on Little Miss Cornshucks… I don’t
think the reading experience works,” he said. “And I don’t know where that
story gets told if magazines like ours can’t survive.” Whether or not long form
writing “works” on the Web is a debate that won’t have any decisive closure any
time soon. But at the very least, most can acknowledge that reading a 10,000
word piece on the Web at your desktop is a different experience than reading
the same piece sitting on a park bench holding a magazine or book.

 

Or holding a ‘bookazine’ (whatever that is).
Well, “whatever that is” is what Alden and Blackstock call the latest incarnation of No
Depression.
Their old magazine got swallowed up by our currently print-hostile
era. In this modern McWorld where the average music listener’s attention span is
about as long as their most recently downloaded ringtone, the average reader’s attention span
may be following suit. Why read/write 5,000words when you can read/write 500? Somehow, the
idea of “faster/more” has become almost universally equated with “better”
without any consideration beyond theaspects of speed and volume.

 

It seems an offshoot of (dare I say it?) a Capitalist mentality: more
more more. Always be growing and consuming. If you don’t make more this year
than you did last year, you’re a failure. Profit in volume. Don’t give me one
relatively in depth 1,000 word article when I can sell ten 100 word blips for
more profit. Don’t give me one 100 word blip when I can sell ten 10 word
sentences. We have fast food, faster computers, the iPhone has everything ‘now,’
even faster wars (or so the puppet masters would have us believe: “Mission
Accomplished”). And you see it on the nightly network McNews in the shrinking
length of their stories. An “In Depth” report from CBS lasts all of a couple
minutes and their following coverage of the previous day’s annual G8 summit may
last 30 seconds. It’s information kind of – but it’s devoid of any real
context. We are confusing knowing “of” something with really knowing “about”
anything. Brooks Hatlen got it right when he left Shawshank prison observing, “I
can’t believe how fast things move on the outside… The world went and got
itself in a big damn hurry.” It’s no coincidence that Brooks was the prison librarian. 

 

No Depression is the Democracy
Now
of the music magazine industry: information and depth you rarely get
out of most mainstream sources. The latest copy, titled “Instruments Of Change,”
is the 2nd to come in the form of this bi-annual bookazine and is
labeled 77 to show its continuity with their previous magazines. It’s like the
best coffee table magazine you’ve ever seen. Or a small version of Da Capo’s
annual “best of music writing” book anthologies, but dedicated to Americana (or
roots music, bluegrass, new grass, ole’ timey, alt’ country, etc etc etc…).
This issue includes ten pieces on artists/bands, six CD reviews, and one
portfolio of photographs. The artwork, photographs, beautiful design, and
superior writing make it a pleasure to read. And it’s hefty enough to want to
keep as part of your personal library.

 

The centerpiece of the bookazine is its piece on mandolin superhero
Chris Thile by Seth Mnookin (author of Feeding The Monster, Hard
News,
and contributing editor at Vanity Fair). It’s a wide-ranging
piece covering his precocious beginnings, time spent with the popular group
Nickel Creek, marriage and divorce, and more recently his own more adventurous
group The Punch Brothers. There’s also a bit of condensed history on the
evolution of bluegrass.   

 

Thile and his friends Mark O’Connor, Bela Fleck, and Edgar Meyer (among
others) have been steadily amassing an amazing body of work that rather
organically, and at times dizzyingly, combines elements of bluegrass, jazz, and
classical idioms. ‘Fourth Stream’ anyone? Thile would argue that it’s
all one stream really, and he’d be right. You’ll hear traditional bluegrass,
Radiohead, and Steve Reich influences in The Punch Brothers. As is normally the
case, there is a strong resistance to change. From Mnookin’s piece: “During a
show at a folk festival in Scotland, a fan shouted out, “Play some fucking
bluegrass!” in the middle of a particularly quiet section of [Thile‘s original
far-ranging composition] The Blind Leaving The Blind.” This has shades of
Bob Dylan’s hostile reception at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival (and subsequent
shows) as some kind of folk music apostate for not playing the music more ‘purely.’
Chris Thile: Bluegrass Apostate. Mnookin also
rightly draws a line connecting Thile and his fellow Nonesuch labelmate pianist
Brad Mehldau for their eclectic influences (combining pop, classical, and jazz)
and precocious talents.

 

The bookazine’s lead story by Jesse Fox Mayshark is about Dock Boggs’s
banjo. The piece reads like a documentary short with all the drama of a well
made indie. Following the 80 year old instrument’s history through its three
owner’s (Boggs, Garnard Cheldon Kincer, and Mike Seeger) is like a mini history
lesson in depression era America,
the American Dream, and family dynamics. In particular, the lesser known
Garnard Cheldon Kincer’s (was there ever a name more deserving to be written
about?) story of ownership is worth telling: Coal mining, children consistently
waking up to their father’s banjo thrum, and a family’s lost dog being found
through the banjo’s sound. That’s good stuff man.

 

All the stories/reviews are well worth reading. The bookazine’s other
subjects include Phil Ochs, Jason & The Nashville Scorchers, Chris Hillman,
Bob Martin and many others. What’s more is there’s admirably not one
advertisement to be found on the pages of “Instruments Of Change.” This makes
it even more book-like. No Depression separates the wheat from the
chaff.

 

 

[For a review of the previous ND “bookazine” go HERE.]

 

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