Dust to Dust

The frayed ends of insurgent country: Sweetheart of the Rodeo and No Depression

"Life in Prison," a Merle Haggard cover, highlights Mr. Okie from Muskogee's abilities to sympathize with the condemned (as opposed to bait the liberals or display his racial "insensitivities"). The balance of the material is similarly borrowed, including two lonesome Nashville country standards, two de-jangled Bob Dylan basement tape tunes, and a "vintage"-style traditional by Hillman and McGuinn. "Hickory Wind" and "One Hundred Years From Now," the only "original" material on this album, were penned by Parsons himself. The former -- with its reduced instrumentation, plaintive minor-key steel, and Parsons' thin (at times frail) baritone -- highlights what country can do so much better than rock: render a nostalgia as fierce as the loneliness that causes it. In fact, when I listen to Parsons sing, here and even more so on his later work, I often become worried that he's going break into tears midtune, that the song will collapse and he'll be even more shamed and forlorn than he was when he started. "One Hundred Years From Now" still fosters an odd tension when it asks: "One hundred years from this day, will anybody change their mind and find out one thing or two about life?" The damned-to-hell soul of hillbilly finally squares off against rock's exuberant opportunism -- one of the reasons this album remains superior to so many "insurgent country" recordings that have come in its wake.

Thus it should come as no surprise then that No Depression lays claim to Gram Parsons as its "unholy ghost" and to Sweetheart of the Rodeo as an originary alternacountry moment. Cut through the hero worship and it's essentially right. What's troubling is that No Depression seems incapable of doing anything but cheerleading. And often poorly so. (Read the "stream-of-consciousness" review of Richard Buckner in issue No. 8 if you don't believe me.) Indeed, something we might describe as "insurgent country" is afoot: from Uncle Tupelo to OP8 to Freakwater to Palace. But where in the hell is the accompanying critical voice? Isn't this the reason for starting a fanzine in the first place? To create a space for an uncompromised defense of a contemporary art form, or the intelligent critique of an offering that is hackneyed, revivalist, dead? A space not only to promote a "movement," but to develop its aesthetics? (Or, at the very least, declare a moratorium on bar-rock boogie?) Father Parsons, the "unholy ghost," certainly attempted as much in his day.

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