On "No Depression" Bands

On the "No Depression" phenomimon:
from Exclaim Magazine, Canada, 1999

"During the '80s, you'd have these bad new wave bands wearing country hats and bolo ties," recalls Bad Livers bass and tuba-player Mark Rubin with distaste. "I'd hate to think we had anything to do with that." Rubin still rankles at how Bad Livers were saddled with the country-punk tag, despite the diversity of their influences, ranging from Western swing and bluegrass to punk and klezmer.

"When we first started playing," Rubin explains, "we didn't have a lot of original material and had acoustic instruments, and the only way you could play was in clubs where you'd play from 9 to 2 a.m., so we needed a lot of covers. We played Mississippi Fred McDowell and [Thelonious] Monk, and we'd also play stuff from our collective memory, like Roky Erickson. Then people from the punk scene started seeing what was happening, and journalists, being a lazy bunch, they'd fasten on to the one Motörhead or Stooges song, not the Art Tatum or Charlie Poole or Son House. It's true that we were drawn to punk, but more because of our anarchic disposition and the punk DIY ethic, but to call us a country-punk group is just lazy."
"It's easier to sell to a scene than to sell quality," says a caustic Mark Rubin. "If a label has a band that doesn't belong to a scene, they have a conundrum. I mean, we've been taken to task because we weren't playing to a reviewer's scene. I think this alt-country stuff runs counter to punk rock. The spirit of punk rock was do your own thing, don't suck off on mine, and now, all alt-country is concerned with is appealing to an audience, not making music. The musicians are continually told they're this that that, and now they're expected to reference this thing they have nothing to do with. The Uncle Tupelo guys were embarrassed by being tagged with bluegrass and No Depression labels. If the guys in Wilco or Son Volt died in a car wreck, they'd be eulogised as alt-country; [Bad Livers would] be eulogised as punk-bluegrass. But they had nothing to do with that crap then, and they want nothing to do with it now, and neither should anyone who's just interested in good music."


On the Subject of "Bluegrass"

From the Austin Chronicle, 1999

Mark Rubin, bass and tuba player for Bad Livers, has this advice:

"Anyone who sets off on that path has to be aware of the fact that there is only a certain amount of economic recompense. The people I know who are the happiest at this stuff do it as part of a familial tradition, or a cultural tradition. That's where it's rewarding."

According to Rubin, unreasonable expectations are what lead many practitioners to fret at the state of bluegrass in today's popular music market.

"The bluegrass music industry is in a state of operative denial," states Rubin. "The operative denial that's in place is that bluegrass is a commercial music. The fact of the matter is it's not. It hasn't been since the mid-Sixties when Flatt & Scruggs stopped having hits with Bob Dylan covers. Like many musics that are based in traditional forms, at one time it was a commercial entity."

When contemporary artists discover these old forms of music and are so inspired by them that they attempt to copy or revive them, the resurgence of artistic interest, combined with the lack of a commercial interest, brings the music into the realm of the folkloric. For example, bluegrass is a folkloric art, while swing jazz is not. With respect to bluegrass, many of the form's originators and first wave of practitioners are still around, offering tips and wisdom to those looking to keep the music alive. But, with bluegrass, it doesn't come easy.

"Bluegrass music requires the study of a lifetime," says Rubin. "That's the problem. You end up trying to commercialize all this effort and you run into a brick wall. So, within the bluegrass music scene is the attempt to somehow improve bluegrass -- the catch phrases are 'Expand its horizons' or 'Push the tradition.' A friend of mine calls that rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.

"I think that's exceptionally misguided, because you have to be awake with the modern age and understand that once you're in the study of bluegrass music it's akin to the Civil War recreation or the Society for Creative Anachronism. It's only going to be a hobby. Tom Ludwick and [Leon Valley Bluegrass] epitomize what bluegrass music is today. They are people who are music fans who got turned on to this particular art form and then devoted themselves to it as an all-consuming hobby, which then becomes a lifestyle."

Leon Valley Bluegrass
Rubin's own band, Bad Livers, is often referred to as a bluegrass band, a title Rubin and bandmate Danny Barnes -- a banjo player and guitarist of extraordinary skill -- flat-out deny. "I have far too much love and respect and admiration for bluegrass to have ever chipped away at its reputation by assigning our dumb asses to it," says Rubin.

Rather, both Rubin and Barnes were well-versed in bluegrass and went on to develop their own style of music, which was based as much in the ethos of punk rock as it was in the style or instrumentation of bluegrass. While it's tempting to relate banjo music to bluegrass as a means of discussing the music of Bad Livers, the weight and focus carried by the bluegrass tradition makes its title something to be taken more seriously than a word like, say, "rock."

"It's like the word 'folk,'" continues Rubin. "Folk now includes these pathetic singer-songwriters telling you all about their girlfriend. The whole detestable singer-songwriter phenomenon now goes under the moniker 'folk.' I think Big Bill Broonzy is a folk artist, not this stuff. Just because the whole situation today is jive doesn't mean the terminology has to follow it too."