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God Bless Americana/Schmitsville 

Struggling to Strike Roots

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God Bless Americana

In the highways and byways of a relatively new music scene in America, there are minor disagreements about a lot of things. Whether, for example, the music in question is country music that's smart, punk music that's country, or just good music, categories be damned; whether it should be called Americana or no depression, western beat or twangcore. But there's one unfortunate aspect of the music that all parties can agree on. It certainly ain't selling.

The beefy heart of the music is a group of midwestern bands, ranging from the rough and tough Bottle Rockets to a pair of country-saturated Uncle Tupelo offshoots, Wilco and Son Volt, to Minneapolis's poppier, almost countrypolitan Jayhawks. But its reach is much wider, encompassing straight-ahead country acts like Jimmie Dale Gilmore that won't play the Nashville game, renegades like Steve Earle, and indie-rock artists like Freedy Johnston. They have little in common besides a passing rurality, songwriting talent (a must), and a certain level of intelligence.

The Jayhawks' latest record, which cost $1 million to produce, sold a disappointing 100,000 units; Wilco's A.M. is pushing about three-quarters of that, though its commercial life is not over; the Bottle Rockets sold something more than 10,000 on the small Minneapolis label East Side Digital, and have just seen the album rereleased on Atlantic. None of these figures is embarrassing, but they're small in this overheated alternative age. Still, some interesting things are going on behind the scenes. An AOL folder called "No Depression" (after Uncle Tupelo's first album) is busy and contentious; the radio tip sheet called the Gavin Report began an Americana chart this year; and an informal network of critics, fans, and promoters push the music. And now there's a magazine to codify its partisans' passions.

No Depression is a quarterly edited by Peter Blackstock and Grant Alden. The first issue is pretty impressive: something between a magazine and a fanzine, it doesn't refrain from dissing Americana heroes--Blackstock even says he'd like to see more of this. The writing is a lot better than it has to be, particularly since writers weren't paid. You get competently done features on Son Volt and the Bottle Rockets, among other bands, a couple dozen record reviews, and diverting stuff like an amusing history (by Blackstock) of covers of Jimmy Webb's "Wichita Lineman."

Blackstock, the unofficial host of the AOL folder, is one of the key figures in the network. "I used to think that this music was going to be the next big thing," he confesses. "Now I guess it's not going to be, but it may be the next medium-sized thing."

Buoyed by an almost devout belief in the quality of a record like Trace, Son Volt's striking debut, Americana nuts sometimes seem to be willing the music into popular consciousness. Gavin's Americana chart is a case in point. Its genesis wasn't because the music was selling--exactly the opposite, in fact. "The music was getting so much better, and so many more people are involved in it, and country music, the way that it's going these days, I just couldn't stand it any longer," says Rob Bleetstein, the chart's editor. "Some sort of context was necessary to get the bands some attention, prove they're great, and prove that they can sell records."

The chart tabulates the submissions of about 60 stations across the country, a quarter of them noncommercial. While Chicago is a hotbed of critical, fan, and promoter support (notably through Jam's terrific New Country series at Schubas), the music gets little airplay here besides some spins on WXRT. Alternative bellwether stations like Chicago's Q101 and LA's KROQ follow MTV's lead in giving Americana acts a pass, probably because kids don't like anything having to do with rurality.

"Radio programmers get scared when they hear a banjo, a fiddle, or a steel guitar," says Tony Margherita, Chicago-based manager to Wilco, the Bottle Rockets, and Blue Mountain. He notes that the new softer-rock radio format known as AAA has room for adult-oriented, country-tinged music, but has yet to crystallize the music's fan base. "It helps on some level, but at this point AAA doesn't correlate to selling records," he explains. Still, "there will come a day for all of these bands," he predicts. "There will be a song that the Q101s will jump on. It just hasn't happened yet."

Subscriptions to No Depression are $12 for four issues. Send a check to No Depression, PO Box 31332, Seattle 98103. A single issue is $5. The magazine's first 200 subscribers, Blackstock says, get a sampler CD from East Side Digital.

Schmitsville

Greil Marcus's dual role as rock critic and freelance commentator on certain emanations from the fringes of intellectual history no doubt confounds fans of each in turn. Rock fans will accordingly find his new The Dustbin of History a bit hard going. Superficially put, it's about how occasionally we are liberated from our preconceptions about what history is. "And it makes sense," Marcus writes, "that the means to such a liberation are not always where one has been taught to look for them." Accordingly he peeks in strange places: the odd song or collage; John Wayne movies; books like Sexual Personae and The Book of J; and, most spectacularly, in the work of doo-wop songwriter Deborah Chessler. Marcus appears next Wednesday at 7 PM at the Seminary Co-op Bookstore in Hyde Park and Thursday at 7 PM at the Michigan Avenue Borders.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Brad Miller, Marty Perez.

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