As mainstream country floundered in the 90s, a ragged offshoot gave it a much-needed shot in the arm
Adding “alternative” to a genre is nothing new. Alt-rock, alt-pop, alt-facts, that “alt” signifies something that isn’t quite the word it’s modifying but isn’t not it either. Except alt facts. That’s just lies.
Alt-country is no different. Within its broad spectrum is an array of bands that range from very slightly country to almost indistinguishable from the real thing. Sometimes it’s just youth and attitude that makes a band alt-country instead of plain ol’ country, sometimes it’s very noticeably a different kettle of fish.
The early years
Like country rock before it, alt-country started out by taking what was happening elsewhere – namely punk, grunge and indie rock – and folding it into the homespun twang of country music. With glossy, poppy mainstream country at its nadir of coolness, the bands that had grown up on the rougher-hewn stuff started to look further afield, borrowing those genres’ ragged, DIY aesthetic and finding common ground with the likes of Johnny Cash, Gram Parsons, Waylon Jennings, Townes Van Zandt and Steve Earle.
As Neil Young was to grunge, Earle is to alt-country. Parsons, as a pioneer of country rock, also has a role to play. In that regard, Earle’s landmark Copperhead Road, Guilded Palace Of Sin by The Flying Burrito Brothers and The Byrds’ Sweetheart Of The Rodeo (both featuring Parsons) are the very highest tips of the alt-country family tree. Those limbs get thicker in the mid 80s when Jason & The Scorchers, Green On Red, X and The Mekons started chucking liberal amounts of punk into their country rock (or vice versa), giving birth to the cowpunk movement. But the trunk of the tree really comes into view in 1990 with Uncle Tupelo’s No Depression.
Illinois outfit Uncle Tupelo were on twin, opposing, spectacularly talented pillars: taciturn, doom-voiced Jay Farrar and his raspy, scrappy counterweight Jeff Tweedy. Their debut album No Depression only sold 15,000 copies but it launched both a genre and the flagship zine of the same name that would unite all who sailed on her. Alt-country was even widely referred to as ‘No Depression’, such was the album’s overwhelming influence.
Sonically, the album had as much twang as it did massive riffs played on red-lining guitars, a sign of the band’s equal debt to both Gram Parsons and Dinosaur Jr. They even enlisted Sean Slade and Paul Kolderie, producers of Dinosaur Jr’s seminal Bug, to produce. The frequent jumps from distorted Gibson SGs to acoustic guitars and twanging Fender Telecasters became the genre’s calling card, as did the “three chords and the truth” maxim.
Uncle Tupelo soon established a network of like-minded individuals who would become integral players in alt-country’s development. Peter Buck of R.E.M. produced their third album, Gary Louris of The Jayhawks was a regular contributor, as was Brian Henneman of The Bottle Rockets, a band who for a time sold shirts emblazoned with “What the f*ck is alt-country?” We maybe owe him a beer.
In the end, Farrar and Tweedy’s relationship devolved into onstage arguments and rampant bitterness. The band split in two, Farrar founding Son Volt and Tweedy starting anew with Wilco. Both would prove vital in the expansion of alt-country and its rise towards widespread popularity. Uncle Tupelo left behind an indomitable legacy, particularly 1993’s Anodyne, widely regarded to be the best alt-country album of all time.
Putting down roots
When Uncle Tupelo split in 1994, they were the parents divorcing once the kids have left the nest. Alt-country was fending for itself and in rude health. Gary Louris’ Jayhawks had delivered the flawless Hollywood Town Hall in 1992. Another Uncle Tupelo acolyte, Brian Henneman, had launched The Bottle Rockets in 1993, going on to deliver one of the great alt-country records, 1994’s The Brooklyn Side. Bloodshot Records, a label that would make its name as the genre’s incubator, was founded in Chicago, while at the other end of the country, a bar band from Dallas called The Old 97’s were quickly gaining one hell of a reputation off the back of their 1993 debut, Hitchhike To Rome. Their 1997 opus Too Far To Care would show off alt-country’s catchiest self.
In 1995, both Wilco and Son Volt made their debuts with A.M. and Trace, respectively. Both were critically acclaimed, but there was maybe a degree of surprise in how the spotlight favoured the former. Farrar had long been seen as the main creative force in Uncle Tupelo and the one whose post-split output was more eagerly anticipated. The strength of Wilco’s debut showed how quickly Tweedy was growing as a songwriter and perhaps why tensions between the two had become so untenable.
Also, in 1995, a South Carolina group called Whiskeytown made their debut with Faithless Street. Just two years later, their follow-up Stranger’s Almanac proved them to be one of the genre’s brightest lights. Their frontman, David Ryan Adams, would soon become the poster boy for alt-country via his solo debut Heartbreaker. But when it comes to alt-country heartbreakers, nobody comes to close to Damien Jurado, the Portland singer-songwriter with a gift for writing the most unbearably sad songs.
Less widely heralded but still passionately adored were bands like Richmond Fontaine (whose detailed stories foretold lead singer Willy Vlautin’s future career as a hugely successful novelist), Slobberbone, Grand Champeen and Centro-matic. Jason Molina’s wonderful Songs: Ohia and Mark Linkous’ Sparklehorse had many trappings of alt-country but seemed too ethereal and other-worldly for the dirt and dust at its core.
If that all seems incredibly masculine, thank the heavens for Emmylou Harris, one-time collaborator with Gram Parsons himself, who punctured the ‘blokes in check shirts’ vibe with her brilliant revival on 1995’s Wrecking Ball. A new voice was emerging too in the form of Gillian Welch, whose Revival added alt-country rawness to Appalachian folk and bluegrass.
Lucinda Williams wasn’t a new name in country circles by any stretch but her 1997 album Car Wheels On A Gravel Road was one of alt-country’s first mainstream successes. It was also Williams’ biggest hit to date, going Gold and staying on the Billboard 200 for five months. The record wraps its country rock in 90s radio-friendly alt-rock packaging, adding buckets of grit that tip it over into alt-country territory.
By the end of the 20th century, alt-country was growing rapidly towards its demise. Wilco, who had so much input in the genre’s birth, were turning away from it, restlessly exploring new avenues and sonic detours on Being There and even more so on 1999’s Summerteeth. But the end was only beginning.
As the new millennium dawned, new players were emerging. David Ryan Adams, now plain old Ryan Adams, recorded his aforementioned Heartbreaker solo debut with Gillian Welch and David Rawlings and gained extra kudos by drafting in Emmylou Harris for a song. Heartbreaker, maybe the defining alt-country singer/songwriter record, instantly made Adams into a star.
Over the following years, Adams would flit in and out of the genre, abandoning it almost completely on his commercial breakthrough Gold – which had more in common with Laurel Canyon in the 70s. His reputation was scuffed by a level of output that favoured quantity over quality, while personal scandals would inflict more lasting damage.
Southern rockers Drive By Truckers had also been rising rapidly, especially once they recruited exciting young talent Jason Isbell. At their creative peak, Isbell left the band and struck out on his own, becoming a massive deal in his own right with a string of heartfelt albums that eventually outgrew the need to sit under the alt-country brand.
Even the older hands were benefitting. Alt-country had already revitalised Lucinda Williams and Emmylou Harris, but now Johnny Cash was deep into his ‘American’ phase, recording with Rick Rubin and more en vogue than ever. Steve Earle’s Transcendental Blues found the firebrand country rocker more energised than ever. His eternal disdain for flag-waving conservatism polarised audiences in the increasingly patriotic post-9/11 landscape. Leave it to Earle to write a sensitive song about a disaffected young American joining the Taliban (‘John Walker’s Blues’) while bro country stars were singing about how many of them they’d kill if they could.
Really, two things called time on alt-country. One was Cash’s death. The other was Wilco’s rebirth. In death, the mainstream rediscovered and reclaimed the Man in Black resulting in a massive surge in popularity. At the time of writing, four of his songs have over 200 million streams on Spotify.
Suddenly, it was ok to be plain ol’ country again. Rising stars like Margo Price, Nikki Lane, Chris Stapleton and Sturgill Simpson bore more resemblance to classic country than they did the scruffy, raucous brethren of Uncle Tupelo and it didn’t hurt them one bit.
Wilco, meanwhile, had achieved a level of success beyond any expectations. Jeff Tweedy kept pushing the band in new directions, culminating in their tumultuous, experimental masterpiece Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. Initially rejected by their label and elevated to legendary status by the advent of the blogosphere, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot wasn’t country, alt-country or anything else even remotely similar. If anything, it bore more resemblance to the deconstructed indie rock of OK Computer than it did to Uncle Tupelo. Wilco would eventually return to country in 2022 on Cruel Country but it was noteworthy that nobody was using “alt” anywhere near it.
Alt-country now seems like a building block for bands and artists with greater ambitions, either creatively or commercially. The bands that did it well may not have done it for long, but the albums they left behind are more than mere midpoints in their musical development. At their best, they’re real, raw and electrifying. Regardless of anything that came afterwards, playing Anodyne loud is still one of the best things you can do for your ears.