Archive for February, 2008

No Depression to end publication with next issue

Posted in News with tags on February 28, 2008 by takecountryback


No Depression, the bimonthly magazine covering a broad range of American roots music since 1995, will bring to an end its print publication with its 75th issue in May-June 2008.

Plans to expand the publication’s website ( with additional content will move forward, though it will in no way replace the print edition.

The magazine’s March-April issue, currently en route to subscribers and stores, includes the following note from publishers Grant Alden, Peter Blackstock and Kyla Fairchild as its Page 2 “Hello Stranger” column:

Barring the intercession of unknown angels, you hold in your hands the next-to-the-last edition of No Depression we will publish. It is difficult even to type those words, so please know that we have not come lightly to this decision.

In the thirteen years since we began plotting and publishing No Depression, we have taken pride not only in the quality of the work we were able to offer our readers, but in the way we insisted upon doing business. We have never inflated our numbers; we have always paid our bills (and, especially, our freelancers) on time. And we have always tried our best to tell the truth.

First things, then: If you have a subscription to ND, please know that we will do our very best to take care of you. We will be negotiating with a handful of magazines who may be interested in fulfulling your subscription. That is the best we can do under the circumstances.

Those circumstances are both complicated and painfully simple. The simple answer is that advertising revenue in this issue is 64% of what it was for our March- April issue just two years ago. We expect that number to continue to decline.

The longer answer involves not simply the well-documented and industrywide reduction in print advertising, but the precipitous fall of the music industry. As a niche publication, ND is well insulated from reductions in, say, GM’s print advertising budget; our size meant they weren’t going to buy space in our pages, regardless.

On the other hand, because we’re a niche title we are dependent upon advertisers who have a specific reason to reach our audience. That is: record labels. We, like many of our friends and competitors, are dependent upon advertising from the community we serve.

That community is, as they say, in transition. 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.

The decline of brick and mortar music retail means we have fewer newsstands on which to sell our magazine, and small labels have fewer venues that might embrace and hand-sell their music. Ditto for independent bookstores. Paper manufacturers have consolidated and begun closing mills to cut production; we’ve been told to expect three price increases in 2008. Last year there was a shift in postal regulations, written by and for big publishers, which shifted costs down to smaller publishers whose economies of scale are unable to take advantage of advanced sorting techniques.

Then there’s the economy… The cumulative toll of those forces makes it increasingly difficult for all small magazines to survive. Whatever the potentials of the web, it cannot be good for our democracy to see independent voices further marginalized. But that’s what’s happening. The big money on the web is being made, not surprisingly, primarily by big businesses.

ND has never been a big business. It was started with a $2,000 loan from Peter’s savings account (the only monetary investment ever provided, or sought by, the magazine). We have five more or less full-time employees, including we three who own the magazine. We have always worked from spare bedrooms and drawn what seemed modest salaries.

What makes this especially painful and particularly frustrating is that our readership has not significantly declined, our newsstand sell-through remains among the best in our portion of the industry, and our passion for and pleasure in the music has in no way diminished. We still have shelves full of first-rate music we’d love to tell you about.And we have taken great pride in being one of the last bastions of the long-form article, despite the received wisdom throughout publishing that shorter is better. We were particularly gratified to be nominated for our third Utne award last year.

Our cards are now on the table.Though we will do this at greater length next issue, we should like particularly to thank the advertisers who have stuck with us these many years; the writers, illustrators, and photographers who have worked for far less than they’re worth; and our readers: You.

Thank you all. It has been our great joy to serve you.


No Depression published its first issue in September 1995 (with Son Volt on
the cover) and continued quarterly for its first year, switching to
bimonthly in September 1996. ND received an Utne Magazine Award for Arts &
Literature Coverage in 2001 and has been nominated for the award several
times (including in 2007). The Chicago Tribune ranked No Depression #20 in
its 2004 list of the nation’s Top 50 magazines of any kind.

Artists who have appeared on the cover of No Depression over the years
include Johnny Cash (2002), Wilco (1996), Willie Nelson (2004), Ryan Adams’
seminal band Whiskeytown (1997), the Drive-By Truckers (2003), Ralph Stanley
(1998), Elvis Costello & Allen Toussaint (2006), Gillian Welch (2001), Lyle
Lovett (2003), Porter Wagoner (2007), and Alejandro Escovedo (1998, as
Artist of the Decade).

Was Townes Van Zandt better than Dylan?

Posted in Artists with tags , on February 26, 2008 by takecountryback

His own life often seemed like the saddest ballad, but the late songwriter was the true voice of American country music

Townes Van Zandt
‘The best songwriter in the world’? Townes Van Zandt. Photograph: Corbis

By all accounts the life of Townes Van Zandt was high southern gothic made real. The briefest of biographies on this musician puts you in mind of the fractured lives imagined by Tennessee Williams. It’s a narrative rife with confounded expectations and hounding demons from which, by dint of talent and endurance, astonishing beauty was extracted.

From roots in Texan nobility to debilitating shock therapy and alcoholic decline, Van Zandt’s life seems a crisply complete ballad in the saddest tradition. For a musician who lives in the awesome shadow of Hank Williams, one might take Van Zandt’s history lightly. Any good country singer needs stories of whisky-soaked heartbreak. Why abandon a trusted script? But when you listen to Van Zandt’s strikingly uneven but incomparable recordings, the notion of any script goes out the window. “Townes Van Zandt is the best songwriter in the world and I’ll stand on Bob Dylan’s coffee table in my cowboy boots and say that,” said Steve Earle.

Certainly, the first fix of Van Zandt’s records can put the listener in mind of Dylan. The lyrics often waltz out loaded images and dream-sense connections in a manner that suggests an effort to out-Dylan the man himself. These early records were dated by their production, and Van Zandt could have easily been considered another pretender to Dylan’s throne at a time when there surely was no shortage of those. That was the first impression I had of the studio albums. Returning to his eponymous album and Our Mother the Mountain, however, this impression was shown to be false. The more these records are revisited, the more the strings, the flutes, the witty and sentimental lyrics and the twee sheen seem incidental to something distant and not forthcoming in the music. You develop a sense of these records as frustratingly incomplete and muddled pictures. There are devastating songs here but they are just out of reach.

However, Kathleen and Tecumseh Valley come closer to bursting through. Kathleen paints a leaden melancholy without collapsing into pity. Poetic imagery is grounded by plain speaking: “Maybe I’ll go insane. I have to kill this pain.” Rare also is the evocation of the usual unfortunate characters (gamblers, prostitutes) without any accompanying narcissism. Tecumseh Valley articulates the unravelling of someone else’s life with restraint and empathy. It’s enough to put you in mind of an old-time song like Roscoe Holcomb’s Combs Hotel Burned Down.

Having heard these dimensions in the music, you want to tear the flutes and strings away and hear what Townes Van Zandt is really about. This is exactly what happens on Live at the Old Quarter, a record justifiably considered his finest. This is where the songs you heard a whisper of bloom into all their unique and heady splendour. It is suddenly clear that Van Zandt’s music is so charged that it needs to be heard as a solo performance. This recorded show opens the entire landscape up in front of you. Songs that half suffocated in the studio now stretch out as part of a remarkable terrain. Taking it in you get an impression of someone balancing between dangerous extremes: there are songs of exultation and freedom – White Freight Liner Blues, To Live is to Fly – and songs of desolate sadness – For the Sake of the Song, Awaiting Around to Die. Van Zandt sounds as though he is rolling steadily between soaring mountains and sinking slums, taking it all in raw and unmediated.

Not all is sadness, however. Though not immediately discernible, there is also rich humour here that recalls Texas blues master Lightnin’ Hopkins. It was Hopkin’s bittersweet style that inspired Van Zandt to pursue music, and Lightnin’ numbers frequently crop up on the live recordings. If you follow Live at The Old Quarter with Road Songs and Abnormal, an unusual development can be heard. While his vocals and musicianship are increasingly frayed by relentless hard living, Van Zandt’s songs only grow in force. For example, it would be difficult to find a more unflinching portrayal of American poverty than Marie. While many singers are credited with the ability to become the characters they depict, few could do so with this sensitivity. The song is like an urban update of Hank William’s Pictures from Life’s Other Side with the doomed protagonist staring into your eyes as he unfolds his wretched story. The narrative ends with a freight train vanishing into the distance. As it does so, you are left wondering whether even Dylan could have evoked the spirit of the blues to such fearful effect.

At the helm: The rebirth of a legend

Posted in Artists with tags on February 18, 2008 by takecountryback

Woodstock’s Levon Helm wins Grammy Awards and celebrates the birth of a grandson while keeping up with his popular Garage Rambles.
When Levon Helm walked onstage to the cheers of fans at a “Gramble Ramble” party in his home last Sunday, his legendary smile stretched just a bit farther, and with good reason. Minutes earlier, in the kitchen, he learned of his Grammy win.
“Isn’t that a blessing?” he said, days later in a voice left raspy from the crush of well-wishers and the media. “All of my wishes have just about come true this last week.”

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In addition to his Grammy for the album “Dirt Farmer,” Helm, 67, won a Lifetime Achievement Award as an original member of The Band, Bob Dylan’s former backup group, whose living bandmates also include Garth Hudson of Woodstock, and fellow Canadian Robbie Robertson. In the 1960s, the men recorded and hung out with Dylan at a house called Big Pink, in Saugerties.

Then, the day before Helm won the Grammy, daughter Amy Helm, also on the winning album, gave birth sooner than expected to a boy, Lavon, her father’s given middle name.

“He wanted to get here early for the Grammy,” Helm said, with his familiar warm laugh.

Helm’s good fortune is in tune with a belief he knows from experience: “Miracles can happen.” He has needed them. In 1991, his home was destroyed by fire. Five years later he was diagnosed with throat cancer. His home was rebuilt, a barn-shaped structure that also houses a studio as well as a space for the series of concerts or “rambles” he started four years ago.

As for the cancer, he appears to have conquered it.

“Those people down at (Memorial) Sloan-Kettering (Cancer Center), they really did save my bacon for me,” he said.

The task included nearly 30 radiation treatments, however, that initially left him dragging. He continued drumming, but his voice became a whisper, bringing into question the vocal component of his career. Attendees at Helm’s festive Grammy party last Sunday, however, were witnesses of his hard-fought reclamation. Barry Samuels, co-owner of the Golden Notebook bookstore in Woodstock, said recognition for the musician and singer was “long overdue” for his current work as well as earlier efforts.

“I think he’s at the top of his game right now,” Samuels said, after the show. “I think when people think of ‘The Band,’ they think of Levon.”

Neighbor Sam Magarelli called Helm a “town treasure.”

Of course he is known way beyond Woodstock, and not just for his music. Helm has appeared in a string of movies, including “Coal Miner’s Daughter,” “The Dollmaker,” and “The Right Stuff,” so he’s used to cameras. It’s a good thing, because a television crew from RFD-TV was in his face at his Grammy party. He didn’t mind, though. That means people with access, including DirecTV, DISH Network and some cable systems can, in a couple of weeks, hear and judge Helm’s musical merit for themselves.

The Grammy people did for the traditional folk category, and they chose Helms’ first solo studio recording in 25 years. He put it together with encouragement from his daughter, Amy, who produced the album along with Larry Campbell, a former Dylan sideman. Campbell, who wielded his fiddle, guitar and mandolin to great appreciation at the Sunday celebration, said he was “thrilled” to win a Grammy with Helm.

“There’s nothing more complete and satisfying than to play with Levon,” he said. “It’s all about the joy of music, nothing else. That’s as pure as it gets. There’s no trip, no agenda.”

Sharing that pure joy were band members Jimmy Vivino, Mike Merritt, Steve Bernstein, Erik Lawrence and Grammy-album participants Brian Mitchell and Campbell’s wife, Teresa Williams.

Blues artist Little Sammy Davis sat in as well as Phoebe Snow, the dynamic clear-voiced singer whose 1974 chart-hitting song “Poetry Man” only hinted at her depth, height and facility of range.

“She tore the roof off the place,” Helm said. “It’s just amazing how much power she has.”

Snow also is Amy Helm’s godmother. So she’s like family, and family means a lot to Helm. It shows on his “Dirt Farmer” album, dedicated to his mother and father, Nell and Diamond Helm, and filled with music that is near and dear. A favorite is “Little Birds.”

“That’s one of the first songs my parents taught me,” he said, “and it was one of the first songs where I became conscious of where to place harmony parts. ”

Helm started listening and absorbing roots music as a country boy born in Elaine, Ark., a tiny community southeast of Little Rock. He spoke fondly of “singings” at church while he was grade-school age.

“They used to have a wonderful thing called an all-day singing with dinner on the ground,” he said. “Everybody would make picnic baskets and bring them to the church. They’d get out a big meal at dinner time. They’d lay out bed sheets and put the food out … all lined up, a row of bed sheets and a big tub of lemon-aide down at the end. It was great.”

Helm’s rambles are similar to those good times, he said, in a spiritual sense.

“You know, music is supposed to have that kind of effect,” he said. “It’s supposed to take you out of these troubles and misfortunate times.”

Helm said he has been wanting to do a Gospel Sunday event at one of his rambles, and in March that is scheduled to happen. The Ulster County Community Outreach Choir, with The Rev. Dennis Washington, will take part.

As for the future?

“We’re gonna try to keep on truck’n,'” Helm said, largely his attitude even before challenges like cancer. He hasn’t made a lot of life changes since the diagnosis, he said, but there are some.

“I don’t want to waste a lot of time,” he said. “I’m more conscious of that. I enjoy playing a lot more than I did, because I had it taken away from me for awhile. But I think my attitude is just mainly to let the professionals call the shots, and try and work my program. By giving it your all, they do the same thing.”

For now, Helm plans to concentrate on promoting “Dirt Farmer” through concerts and shows. Also, he, his daughter, Campbell, Williams and Davis want to do some recording. Friends from Ireland will be stopping by to work on an album as well. A group from Findland already has come and gone.

“They like that rustic sound we’ve got,” Helm said, with the hint of a chuckle.

Last Sunday’s party had that touch as well. A fireplace warmed guests in the back row during the packed show, while others absorbed the rising heat as they leaned over a railing one level above the stage. Not so rustic was the state-of-the art equipment used by the RFD-TV camera crew, and the vibe was electric.

Helm said his home-spun celebration felt right. It allowed him to play special songs, including “Tears of Rage,” in honor of former Band members including two who died, Rick Danko and Richard Manuel. Helm said he was aware that others in the crowd were thinking, also, of the men who helped shape rock favorites like “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” and “The Weight.”

“I knew these were the people who loved Rick and Richard, too,” he said, “and I knew they were pulling for me.”

In the midst of such camaraderie, Helm took a big gulp of something he calls good medicine – music. Why would he travel to Los Angeles, where others were featured and he could not partake?

“If I can’t perform, they don’t really need me out there,” he said, “just to kind of sit there and wave at the camera.

“It just felt more for real and less phony to have our own Woodstock celebration.”

Meanwhile the calls have been coming in. The first was from Helm buddy Jeff Hanna, guitarist and vocalist for the Grammy-winning Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. Another of the firsts came from Steve Buckingham, an executive at Vanguard Records, the “Dirt Farmer” label.

The highly prestigious awards for Helm’s work and accompanying accolades, a big party to celebrate and a new grandson to love, all have lifted him a bit above his grounded country roots. Has he come down to earth yet?

“No, I haven’t. I haven’t come down at all,” he said. “I’m still just kind of sitt’n’ around. With that stunned kind of grin on my face.”

Ten essential Willie Nelson songs

Posted in Artists with tags on February 17, 2008 by takecountryback

  1. “Blue Eyes Crying In the Rain” (1975) Willie’s first number one single and the reason why “The Red Headed Stranger” is often considered his masterpiece.
  2. “Angel Flying Too Close To the Ground” (1980) Perhaps the great one’s greatest lyrics, this live staple (from “Honeysuckle Rose”) also inspires his most expressionist guitar playing. This is the song that made Amy Irving fall for Willie.
  3. “Georgia On My Mind” (1978) Only Willie would take this kind of chance- recording an album of standards when he’s finally climbed to the top of country music. And only Willie would come out of it with his best-selling album ever. “Georgia” was a smash from “Stardust.”
  4. “Always On My Mind” (1982) Nelson wraps a red bandanna around this song and makes it his own.
  5. “On the Road Again” (1980) Willie’s philosophy set to music.
  6. “Mammas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up To Be Cowboys” (1977) In a coin flip with “Good-Hearted Woman” from Willie’s mid-70s heyday.
  7. “In God’s Eyes” (1973) Representing both Willie’s spiritual side and the brilliant concept LP “Yesterday’s Wine,” the precursor to “Red Headed Stranger.”
  8. “The Party’s Over” (1967) Immortalized as Don Meredith’s version of “Na Na Hey Hey Goodbye” during the glory years of “Monday Night Football.”
  9. “You Don’t Know Me” (2004) The standout track of Willie’s Cindy Walker tribute album also pays homage to his old friend Ray Charles.
  10. “Night Life” (1965) Ray Price did the definitive version of Willie’s cowboy blues classic (which bombed on the charts), but it’s always great to hear it from the man who wrote it.

Canadian folk singer Willie P. Bennett dead

Posted in Artists, RIP with tags , on February 17, 2008 by takecountryback
Canwest News Service
Published: Saturday, February 16, 2008

Canadian folk singer Willie P. Bennett has died, his family said Saturday night.

Bennett, 56, passed away from natural causes Friday at his home in Peterborough, Ont., according to his family and agent.

The revered singer-songwriter was an integral part of this country’s folk music scene, starting in the 1970s, as he played at festivals across the country.

Willie P. Bennett performs at Market Hall, Peterborough.

Willie P. Bennett performs at Market Hall, Peterborough.

His songs, an emotional mix of country, blues and folk, were later recorded by numerous artists, including Prairie Oyster.

He gained renewed fame in the late 1990s, when the band Blackie and The Rodeo Kings formed to do a tribute album to him. The band itself was named after one of Bennett’s songs.

Bennett won a Juno award for Best Roots and Traditional Solo Album for his 1998 album Heartstrings.

In recent years, he had toured North America playing mandolin and harmonica for singer-songwriter Fred Eaglesmith.

“He was a mentor,” said Bennett’s agent, Robin   MacIntyre of Mac’s Music.

“So many people were inspired and wanted to emulate him. . . . his style of singing, his ability to turn a good phrase.

“The songs that he wrote in his late teenage years and early 20s that were on (the albums) Tryin’ to Start Out Clean and Hobo’s Taunt, they were anthems for the generation.”

Bennett suffered a heart attack last year, according to his website.

His sister, Esther Bennett, said her brother had been in good health recently and had been planning to do more touring.

RIP Willie P. Bennett

Posted in RIP with tags , on February 17, 2008 by takecountryback

Canadian troubadour Willie P. Bennett has passed away. Willie P. was an artist extradordinaire in his own right in addition to being a long time sideman of Fred Eaglesmith. He will be missed as a musician but more importantly as a kind and generous human being.

Doug Lang of Better Days Radio has a musicial tribute to Willie P. on his page….

Fellow Canadian Scot Nolan was a wonderful tribute to the spirit of Willie P. in a song he wrote titled: Drive Day. You can find the song on Scott’s myspace page:

We’ll miss you Willie P. but we will never forget.

AUDIO: George Strait – I Saw God Today

Posted in Artists, Audio with tags on February 16, 2008 by takecountryback
The Top Twenty Debut of ‘I Saw God Today’ Marks the Hit-Maker’s Highest Ever 

AUDIO | “I Saw God Today”

Nashville, TN (February 12, 2008) — For years George Strait has been known as the ‘King of Country’ and ‘The Texas Troubadour.’ Exemplary titles such as these don’t come easy and with twenty plus years experience under his belt, the country superstar continues to break records – including his own.

‘I Saw God Today’ is the highest single debut of George Strait’s illustrious career. This brand new song debuted at #19 on the R&R and Billboard radio charts this week. When contacted with this news, George said, ‘Wow, let me just say a huge thank you to country radio! I love you guys.’

Royce Risser, Sr. VP of National Promotion at Universal Music Group commented on the single’s immediate success, ‘At this point, I don’t know how you call any single from George a ‘Career Record’ but I have heard more unsolicited praise for this song than any since I have been at the label. I have said this before, but we will never witness another artist like this in our lifetime…simply amazing.’

On Monday, Feb. 4 at 12:01am, the single was made available to radio stations across the country for download. A mere fourteen hours later it was the most added song at country radio. In seven days time, the single had 131 adds.

The upcoming CD, appropriately entitled, Troubadour, will be released on April 1st. It brings about some notable collaborations including a duet with the great Patty Loveless, and long time songwriting partner, Dean Dillon. Distinguished songwriter Leslie Satcher also lends her songwriting expertise to a good number of the twelve tracks.

Since his debut in 1981, Strait has sold more than 62 million records and counting. With 32 different platinum or multi-platinum albums, he’s earned the second most certifications of any artist in any genre, following only Elvis Presley. George Strait has received more than 50 major entertainment industry awards and countless nominations. Strait has 70 Country Music Association nominations, was the CMA ‘Vocalist of the Year’ five times and the only artist in history to be so honored in two different decades. He recently took home the CMA Album of the Year award for It Just Comes Natural.