Alternative Country Music
Alternative Country Music
Alternative country, also referred to as "Americana," "Cowpunk," "Y'alternative," "No Depression," and "Insurgent Country," is a catch-all term describing a diverse musical genre that combines forms of traditional country music, such as twang, swing, rockabilly, and bluegrass, with the ethos and sound of punk rock. While a definition of "alt.country" may be difficult to pin down, what it is not remains clear: it is not the "Hot Country" music of commercial Nashville, which is seen as homogenous and lacking a sense of tradition. Gram Parsons, generally considered the godfather of alt.country, noted in 1972 to Frank Murphy, "Yeah, my music is still country—but my feeling is there is no boundary between 'types' of music." His words forecast the diversity of a genre that would follow the trail he had blazed.
As with any genre, the exact origin of alt.country is open to debate. Ben Fong-Torres, Parsons' biographer, has noted, "Parsons wasn't the first to conceive country-rock, but he was perhaps the most passionate about bringing country music into the increasingly rock 'n' roll world of the 1960s." His brief collaboration with the Byrds led to the seminal country-rock album Sweetheart of the Rodeo (1968), which brought together the sounds and attitudes of rock and country. Prophetically, when the Byrds played at the Grand Ole Opry, Parsons substituted his own material for the traditional songs the band had planned to play, angering his band-mates, especially Roger McGuinn. Such an act foreshadows what would become the attitude of alt.country.
Later, Parsons extended his country-rock sound, first with the Flying Burrito Brothers and then as a solo artist on GP (1973) and Grievous Angel (1974), with then unheard of singer Emmylou Harris providing perfect harmonies. After Parsons' death in 1973, Harris went on to forge her own successful career, keeping his musical memory alive while experimenting in the tradition of her mentor with albums from the bluegrass Roses in the Snow to the alternative-influenced Wrecking Ball. Harris herself has noted, "I always tried to fight against categories."
The 1970s saw other bands exploring the possibilities of country-rock. The Flatlanders, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, New Riders of the Purple Sage, the Grateful Dead, and Asleep at the Wheel all revised traditional country music, while the Eagles and Poco generated a radio-friendly sound that proved commercially successful. Another important voice of the 1970s was that of the Outlaws, a group whose members included Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, Kris Kristofferson, and Johnny Cash. These artists left the constrictions of Nashville's "progressive country" to explore music on their own terms.
In the late 1970s and early 1980s, a change in the country-rock aesthetic took place with the arrival of "cow-punk" bands like Jason and the Scorchers, the Long Ryders, Rank and File, and the Mekons. Musicians such as these took Parsons' hybrid one step further by bringing the punk attitude of bands like Hüsker Dü, X, and the Replacements into the mix. Although the melding of these genres had initially seemed impossible, they actually blended beautifully, effectively re-invigorating both, as seen on the Scorchers' debut Reckless Country Soul (1982) and on albums like the Mekons' Fear and Whiskey (1985), which features punk music played with traditional country and bluegrass instruments. Meanwhile, musicians like Joe Ely and Lone Justice, while not punk per say, furthered Parsons' country-rock vision.
The late 1980s and early 1990s saw country-rock becoming increasingly experimental as artists like Steve Earle, Lucinda Williams, Lyle Lovett, k.d. lang, and the Jayhawks emerged. While marginally successful commercially, musicians such as these received critical acclaim and continued to explore the possibilities of country music, each focusing on a different feature of country-rock. From Earle's traditionalism to lang's gender explorations and Lovett's parody, each performer paid tribute to the genre while showing its diversity.
But 1987 marked a watershed year with the emergence of alt.country icons Uncle Tupelo whose debut, No Depression (1990), signaled a new era in the genre. Fronted by Jay Farrar and Jeff Tweedy, who loved punk as well as traditional country, the band played Carter Family songs as well as their own rock material. Although the band broke up in 1994, with Farrar and Tweedy pursuing their differing musical tastes, in Son Volt and Wilco, respectively, their mark has been a lasting one.
Since Uncle Tupelo, alt.country has continued to grow and explore new areas. Billboard's Chet Flippo suggests four categories that are helpful in classifying this disparate genre, though it is important to bear in mind that such categories are subjective and that few of these artists confine themselves to one type of music. First are the "Hot-eyed Rockers" who are grounded in punk but respect country's emotion and musicianship as well as its history. While Flippo places Son Volt and Wilco in this category, bands such as Whiskeytown, the Backsliders, the Bad Livers, and the Bottle Rockets work under a similar ethos. Second are the "Purist/Traditionalists." BR5-49 fits into this category as do Kelly Willis, Jack Ingram, Robert Earl Keen, the Derailers, Freakwater, Junior Brown, and any number of progressive bluegrass musicians like Laurie Lewis or Béla Fleck. Next are the "Traditionalists," those who have been in country music for years but whose talents and contributions tend to be ignored by "Hot Country." This includes artists like Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, Loretta Lynn, Guy Clark, Merle Haggard, and Don Walser. Many bluegrass performers, for instance Del McCoury and Peter Rowan, also fall into this category. The last of Flippo's classifications is the "Folkies," those drawn to the songs of alt.country. Examples here are Townes Van Zandt, Nanci Griffith, Patti Griffin, James McMurtry, Richard Buckner, Gillian Welch, and Rosie Flores.
Alt.country continues to gain momentum. In 1995, Peter Blackstock and Grant Alden began publishing No Depression: The Alternative Country (Whatever That Is) Bi-Monthly, named for an Uncle Tupelo cover of a Carter Family original, which serves as the ex-officio magazine of alt.country. Moreover, a number of independent record labels are devoted primarily to alt.country artists; Bloodshot, Watermelon, and Black Dog along with Steve Earle's E-Squared make the material of lesser-known alt.country artists available.
While alt.country has strong fan bases in Chicago, Raleigh, and Austin in addition to regular music festivals, the Internet has played a tremendous role in its growth. America On-line's "No Depression" folder generates substantial material and led to the establishment of two central alt.country electronic mailing lists: Postcard and Postcard II. Postcard discusses primarily the work of Uncle Tupelo and itsoffspring bands, while its companion, Postcard II, was designed to cover other alt.country bands. Both listservs provide a network of support for alt.country music and artists. Clearly, Gram Parsons' vision continues to be realized.
—S. Renee Dechert
Alden, Grant, and Peter Blackstock, editors. No Depression: An Introduction to Alternative Country Music. Whatever That Is. Nashville, Dowling, 1998.
Flippo, Chet. "The Genre-Bustin' Rise of Insurgent Country."Billboard. December 28, 1996, 5-9.
Fong-Torres, Ben. Hickory Wind: The Life and Times of Gram Parsons. New York, St. Martin's Griffin, 1991.
Goodman, David. Modern Twang: An Alternative Country Music Guide and Directory. 2nd edition. Nashville, Dowling, 1999.
Kingsbury, Paul, editor. The Encyclopedia of Country Music: The Ultimate Guide to the Music. New York, Oxford University Press, 1998.
Weisbard, Eric, and Craig Marks, editors. Spin Alternative Record Guide. New York, Vintage-Random, 1995.