In 1936 the founding family of country music, The Carter Family, recorded a song called No Depression in Heaven. The song deftly spoke about the Great Depression and the mental state of depression interchangeably, referring to the human condition on earth as depression.
I’m going where there’s no depression,
To the lovely land that’s free from care.
I’ll leave this world of toil and trouble
My home’s in Heaven, I’m going there.
Fifty-four years later, Uncle Tupelo covered the song and named its seminal alt-country album ‘No Depression.’ Thirty years after that, I spend a lot of my days listening to music that can trace its roots back to No Depression, feeling something that most people would describe as very depressed.
The word ‘depressed’ is ridiculously complicated. Not that any word in any language means just one thing, but few words mean more things than depression. Everything from measurable chemical imbalances to tropical storm systems to underperforming stock markets can lead to depression. And so, too, can a series of circumstances that combines to make a person feel incredibly low. Feeling true love slip through your fingers, losing a job, losing a dog, watching bad things happen to good people and finally accepting that the world is fundamentally cruel and chaotic. Not unlike the perfect storm, a set of factors can align and knock a person down, regardless of their body’s ability to create serotonin. Maybe all states of depression are more related than we realize.
The definition of alt-country music is equally complicated. It’s this, but not that. It sounds like these bands and takes its inspiration from these other musicians, its production style is one way, its themes and mindset are another. It’s music for everyone, but only a few people appreciate it. It’s country music, but not the bad kind. It listens to Johnny Cash instead of name dropping him. And so on.
No Depression has become a synecdoche for alt-country music, because the album and its namesake both laid the foundation for everything that would follow. No depression is a mantra that I should learn to repeat, like “No bad days” but a bit more on the nose. While I do not believe that one can simply decide whether a day is good or bad, I do believe that there is merit to reminding oneself that days don’t have to be bad. We have feet, wheels, an illusion of freewill. We can change our surroundings and our circumstances, even when it feels faraway or impossible. We can choose to be punishingly prudent or to dream big and enjoy the exhilarating rush of the first big step. Whether our foot finds solid ground or a plummeting abyss, the stepping motion is enough to transform how we feel. Alt-country music transforms how I feel because the music and lyrics combine to make disappointment feel poetic, the tearing of my soul between the places that are home and the places that feel like home feel poignant instead of agonizing. In the songs, the suffering is worthwhile. It’s not trucks and full arenas, it’s empty barrooms and getting the shit kicked out of you for being an artist in a Cowtown. It’s knowing that there are people who listen and feel the same way, somewhere just within reach of an FM radio wave.
I feel most depressed when the undefined longings of my soul war with the very-defined realities of my surroundings. It may be a person who isn’t near, or who doesn’t feel the same way as I do. It may be the burning need for wild open spaces while the sound of interstate traffic whirs outside the window. Indeed, it could be the cowboy’s lonesome desire to work hard until oblivion wrestling with the soul of someone who will never eat a cow and who views the body as a vain temple deserving of punishment through exercise, not red meat and Marlboro Reds. It leaves me with nothing to belong to and the gnawing feeling that I could get hit by another car one day and bleed from the inside out with money in my bank account and a long list of dreams that never came true. All while my ears ring and my hip bone digs into the gritty pebbles in the asphalt.
No Depression is something I can visualize, but it isn’t something I have experienced for long. It’s music I listen to while I shop for properties in places I like to think I’d rather be, while I pass through places that make me feel alive but I’ll never hang my hat in. Maybe I was meant to be a musician, sleeping alone in a new place every night, singing my songs to people who know me, whose names I will never know. But I long ago replaced the cathartic release of guitar with the tantric release of riding bikes until the energy is gone. I plowed through the starving artist phase with corporate gigs and just enough comforts to make it to the purgatory chapter of life, too old to feel young but too young to start acting old. Some people start a family, some people make career progress. Some of us spend a lot of extra time seeking, learning, piecing together truths while our biology betrays us.
Why then, do the tears sometimes fall so heavily but reluctantly? Is it because we don’t feel worthy of enjoying this life, or because we fear we are utterly incapable of it? Have we passed judgment on our own joy, deciding that whatever it was that once made us smile is so frivolous that the only indulgence we have left is watching the dog’s tail wag, listening to the sound of our own footsteps as we walk with the hound that demonstrates what unfiltered joy looks like? And what of the problematic world of dog food, the fact that our best friends rely on heinously procured animal products to survive? Maybe this joy thing isn’t so simple after all.
Sometimes the tears fall because the way a plant’s shadow falls on the ground is so beautiful that it feels like a gift to behold. Because dogs exist, and because they live so fully that their lives are unfairly shorter than ours. Because for all our yearning to be fully known, it is also the most terrifying endeavor in this mysterious life. Maybe admitting we are not so good will set us free, or maybe it will make us realize that we are no better than everything we strive to overcome.