Various Artists

No Depression: What It Sounds Like (Vol. 1) (Dualtone)

Mar 31, 2004 at 4:00 am
In recent decades the redneck, right-wing, cornball country sound -- favored by trashy fake blondes and SUV-driving he-men -- has dominated country music. But plenty of folks enamored of the twang remain unable to comprehend the popularity of Tim McGraw or Shania Twain. So was born the alt-country scene, championed in the '90s by the still-active Seattle-based magazine No Depression, which, like the outlaw-country movement of the '70s, was conceived as an antidote to Nashville slicksters.

However, the songs selected by No Depression's editors for this overview comp perfectly explain why the movement has yet to live up to its potential. Sure, when Lucinda Williams' weathered voice appears on Kevin Gordon's "Down to the Well," all is right with the world. Buddy Miller and Kasey Chambers fare equally well. But more often than not, alt-country is marred by singers with the thinnest of voices, who fall back on singer-songwriter clichés rather than the redneck clichés of mainstream country music. The melodies can be very basic, the guitar licks hackneyed, the accents sometimes phony.

Thus Whiskeytown's contribution, 1995's "Faithless Street," tries too hard to be poignant and comes off as overly precious. The pure cheese of Doug Sahm's "Cowboy Peyton Place" is even worse. Then there's Johnny Cash paired with a grunge backing band that includes members of Soundgarden and Nirvana, wanking away on the Willie Nelson tune "The Time of the Preacher." Cash's stately, oak tree-like voice demands simple instrumentation and doesn't mesh at all with rock bombast.

The best song here is the Carter Family's "No Depression in Heaven" -- the very essence of country music, still sounding as though it was recorded around a campfire. Its real, old-timey feel is a stark contrast to this comp's usual fare: hipsters in cowboy hats trying to replicate Hank Williams.