The death of No Depression, which drops its last issue in May, shouldn’t come as any surprise: Both print media and the music industry at large are choking to death like dinosaurs caked in volcanic ash. But there’s more to this story. What the magazine has championed since the mid-’90s—that stuff known as alt-country—has become more oppressively predictable and boring than even country’s perennially vacuous mainstream. The differences between the two camps have faded over the last several years. Whether it’s Ryan Adams or the Drive-By Truckers or Miranda Lambert or Big & Rich or some other drone, it’s all prefab suburban-development blah.
So in order to get back to the country, as Neil sang on 1985’s Old Ways, we now need an alternative to the alternative. And that’s the reason I’m at Fette Sau, a Williamsburg BBQ joint, knocking back tumblers of 10-year-old something-or-another with this super-tall dude by the name of Dave Shuford, who just released the excellent After Hours, his sophomore album and debut for Black Dirt Records.
Going by the stage name D. Charles Speer (a play on family names), Shuford and his backing group, the Helix, are the most unlikely Americana types you could imagine. (But so were Uncle Tupelo, once.) For the last dozen or so years, both he and bassist/producer Jason Meagher have had their heads stuck in the stars, exploring the far outer reaches of music (formless noise, free jazz, electronics, experimental folk) with the No-Neck Blues Band, a fixture of the New York avant-garde for the last two decades.
Then, about four years ago, Shuford locked himself in his Harlem pad and started writing actual tunes full of cryptic biblical references and intricately picked twang. “I still don’t know how I ended up with that,” he wonders aloud, while “Southern Man” fills a room stinking of cooked pig. “It was very natural, I think. I have my obsessions, and I follow them.”
One of those obsessions involves reconciling a Southern upbringing (Shuford was born and raised in Atlanta) with all the freaky sounds he’s adopted since relocating to the big city. “When I was young, I reacted against this music,” he admits while talking about icons like Webb Pierce and Flatt & Scruggs. “I didn’t like certain things about the culture. My dad used to play Bill Monroe when I was young, but it didn’t come to me as a conscious thing until much later.”
Shuford’s status as a Southerner-in-exile, so to speak, has allowed him to redefine country—and play around with its mythology—as a renegade outsider. Where his 2006 debut, Some Forgotten Country, is a low-key fusion of country-folk and Indian raga (not that far removed from, uh, “New Weird America”), his new album is a rockin’ slab of cosmic country boogie that makes Commander Cody sound like Brad Paisley. It’s dense, fuzzy, and dripping in an ominously psychedelic reverb reminiscent of “Jesus Shooting Heroin”–era Flaming Lips. With childhood friend Hans Chew tickling the ivories (“You don’t hear a lot of full-sounding keyboard these days,” Shuford notes), the Helix’s rootsy chops and ability to jam harks back to the outlaw ’70s. On “Guns in the Hills,” for example, Shuford’s basso profundo is a mouth full of marbles muttering about revolution, paranoia, and some dude called “Cheese Frog.” The Helix then burst onto the scene and take their leader for a ride. The whole thing only lasts about six minutes, but damn, it’s the kind of rural rocker that could last for days.
Of course, D. Charles Speer and the Helix would never make the cover of a magazine like No Depression, but fuck it. Time for some new country.
D. Charles Speer plays Monkeytown with Jack Rose April 19, monkeytownhq.com.