No Depression's Bull Market
As the music industry tries to scramble out of its perceived slump, one of the footholds it's eyeing is Americana, a nascent radio format for roots music other than commercial country. And at the 11th annual South by Southwest music conference last weekend in Austin, the strain of this sudden attention was already evident among the writers, performers, fans, and entrepreneurs who make up the No Depression community--so called for the successful alternative country fanzine, which is in turn named for Uncle Tupelo's 1990 debut.
The three Chicagoans who run the independent Bloodshot record label--Eric Babcock, Rob Miller, and Nan Warshaw--found themselves near the center of both the buzz and the controversy at the festival: Bloodshot's contribution to Americana has been "insurgent country," in which traditional country tropes are infused with punk-rock attitude. Several Bloodshot artists, including fellow Chicagoans the Waco Brothers and Robbie Fulks, made strong showings in the clubs, and Warshaw sat on a well-attended panel called "Alt.Country: The State of the Twang." But she said very little there, because the discussion was largely about Americana's prospects for mainstream success, a topic in which she and her partners have almost no interest--despite the fact that two of their acts, the Old 97's and Fulks, are in the process of signing with Elektra and Geffen, respectively. "We know that bands are going to use us as a stepping-stone to the next level, if that's in fact their goal," Babcock says.
Not so long ago, most such acts wouldn't have dared to assume there was a next level; in fact, it was in Austin just four years ago that Warshaw (then a publicist for Old 97's predecessor Killbilly) and Miller got inspired to lay the foundation. The two had met not long before the festival while spinning country and punk records at the Lincoln Avenue watering hole Crash Palace (now Delilah's). Both were interested in the variety of country-influenced bands in Chicago, and the like-minded groups they caught at SXSW galvanized them further. In the summer of 1994, with the help of Babcock, who was working for the now-defunct Flying Fish folk label, Bloodshot stepped out with For a Life of Sin: A Compilation of Insurgent Chicago Country. Miller claims the release was intended as a one-off "goof," but it didn't take long for the label to gain momentum.
"What kicked us up a couple of levels was the fact that it really seemed to resonate with all of these different people all over the country," says Babcock. "They wrote us and said there was something like this in their towns. We decided to connect all of these dots." The following year, on the compilation Hell-Bent, Chicago faves like the Wacos and the Riptones were joined by acts from San Francisco (Richard Buckner), New York (the World Famous Blue Jays), Arizona (Earl C. Whitehead & the Grievous Angels), and even country's tarnished capital, Nashville (Gwil Owen). Bloodshot has subsequently upped the pace, releasing a third comp, Nashville: The Other Side of the Alley, which highlights underground Nashville bands, and several full-length albums, ranging from the Wacos' terrific new Cowboy in Flames to Scroat Belly's terrible Daddy's Farm.
Within the Americana scene, which can be claustrophobically boosterish, Bloodshot is a bit of a square peg. Like Uncle Tupelo cofounder Jeff Tweedy, who was criticized at the SXSW panel for trying to dislodge his current band, Wilco, from the No Depression niche, Warshaw, Miller, and Babcock are less concerned with ensuring alternative country's survival as a genre than they are with promoting their own tastes and meeting their own moderate goals. "If one of our records sells 5,000 copies," says Miller, "we're tripping over bags of money in the office."
Warshaw, the label's publicist, admits that her job's been easier since Americana became a recognizable entity, but also notes, "I don't think I'd like going to the Aragon to see the bands I like." Miller is more bluntly cynical about the benefits of a larger audience: "I didn't get into this music as a reaction against bad country music," he says, "but against bad rock music. Stuff like Brooks & Dunn and Shania Twain never bothered me because it didn't appear on my radar. I was reacting to Stone Temple Pilots taking over the airwaves. The anti-Nashville thing has come about because I've been forced to be-come aware of it."
"There are artists working in mainstream country that I find acceptable," Babcock chimes in, "and these two"--he motions to Warshaw and Miller--"clearly do not. But we're more country than country radio is. However fucked-up and twisted these takes on the old forms are, they're still more true to what's fundamentally important about country music than anything that's getting played."
On Saturday Lounge Ax hosts a CD release party for the sound track of Dutch Harbor: Where the Sea Breaks Its Back, a documentary about life in Alaska's remote Aleutian Islands. The event will include solo and group performances by David Grubbs, Rick Rizzo, David Pavkovic, Charles Kim, Michael Krassner, Doug McCombs, and Joseph Ferguson (all of whom appear on the gorgeously oblique, largely improvised recording), as well as Tatsu Aoki, Edith Frost, and the David Boykin Trio. The film, by Laura Moya and Chicagoan Braden King, premieres April 27 at the First Chicago Center.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Rob Miller, Nan Warshaw, Eric Babcock photo by Grant Alden.