No Depression

Uncle Tupelo

Rockville Records, 1990

REVIEW BY: Sean McCarthy


Contrary to popular belief, No Depression didn't give birth to the alt-country movement. No more than did Nevermind start the grunge movement. But the album, created by three bushy-haired, beer-drinking kids raised on punk with a deep appreciation of authentic country music, was good enough to have a magazine named after it.

The term 'alt country' (or the more amusing 'y'allternative') is about as vague as 'alternative.' Some define it was 'roots' music, or country music without the synthesizers or gloss that defined mainstream country music in the '90s. Others define 'alt-country' as music that's too country to get played on alternative radio and too rough to be played on mainstream country music stations.my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

Fortunately, No Depression is so good that neither definition comes into play. The album just simply…rocks. The opening track, "Graveyard Shift" has a chugging, pulverizing guitar riff that Jay Farrar bounces around like a tennis ball against the side of a garage. Farrar's returns have been diminishing over the past few years. And unfortunately, he never sounded as urgent and ragged as he did on this album. Bassist Jeff Tweedy has had much better luck sustaining his artistic relevance with Wilco, but after listening to A Ghost Is Born, it's welcoming to hear him more concerned with rocking out than making 12-minute arty statements of fuzzy noise.

Farrar did the majority of the songwriting on No Depression. Much of the album deals with Nebraska-era Springsteen tales of small town desperation, empty bottles and factory jobs. Tweedy takes songwriting credits for the longing "That Year," but his major coup comes with "Screen Door." The song focuses on a group of friends in a town where escape seems impossible. At first, it sounds like a testament of small town values, but the chorus "We don't care what happens outside the screen door" is hardly an endorsement for rural isolation.

No Depression features two expert covers from their idols: A.P. Carter's "No Depression" and Leadbelly's "John Hardy." The songs fit perfectly into the album, which is a testament of the songwriting talents of Farrar and Tweedy. The rockabilly punch in the middle of "John Hardy" is one of the most perfect marriages of punk and country.

The band would get more ambitions on Anodyne, which would also result in the ugly split between Tweedy and Farrar. And while Anodyne may arguably be the superior album, it doesn't contain near the joy and spontaneity of No Depression. As chaotic as a night of whisky drinking and as idealistic as a pipe dream, No Depression is a landmark album with a very human heart.

Rating: A

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