Alt. Country Week: An Introduction
It's been a dramatic year for the Artists Problematically Known as Alt Country - Bonnie Billy's self-proclaimed "big" record, new albums from Wilco (their new album is out this week), Bill (Smog) Callahan, Magnolia Electric Co, Handsome Family, and even a follow-up to Nick Cave's classic novel And the Ass Saw the Angel. Following on from our reappraisals of Shoegaze and Slowcore, DiS takes a look at Alt Country.
It’s an odd fish, is Alt. Country. The orthodox account has it that (Wilco forebears) Uncle Tupelo kicked it all off in 1990 with their album No Depression, named for a Carter Family song from the 1920s, which was taken up as the name of one of the first independent music websites, its print magazine (running from ’95–’08), and – for many fans – the genre itself. Kurt Wolff, writing in All Music Guide (2003) re-tells this story to explain how the term came about, but then echoes the sleevenotes of Rough Trade Shops’ compilation Country, Volume One (also 2003) by pointing out that X, The Mekons, and Souled American were around well before they were tagged Alt Country, and many of those who appeared since have disowned the tag on the grounds they’re from a Rock or Punk background. (Check out Uncle Tupelo's version of The Stooges' 'I Wanna Be Your Dog' for starters...)
Still, the term "Alt Country" has become a little too convenient to be done with, and within the so-broad-as-to-be-meaningless parameters of “Rock”, it’s disingenuous not to mention when bands use some combination of Country instrumentation, lyrical motifs, and traditional tunes... especially if that’s not all they’re throwing into the mix. (See the follow-up article "Just what is Country Music Anyway?" for more info...) Provocatively, Wolff also notes that “Alt. Country” hints at ‘the role the Internet has played in the growth and publicity of the music itself’. Huh…! So the genre’s about doing a CTRL+ALT+DEL on musical history, is it? Suddenly, it seems all the more appropriate for DiS to be wading into the debate…
Alt Country, Phase Two...?
Some while after No Depression was founded, and in a Malcolm MacLaren-like feat of appropriation, one of the UK’s monthly magazines assembled a compilation it called Sounds of the New West, and proclaimed that 1998 was Year Zero. Maybe it was: Sparklehorse (on Parlophone) had consolidated the promise of the first album with the endearingly rickety Good Morning Spider, whilst Will Oldham (as Bonnie Prince Billy) made his career peak, I See a Darkness (on Drag City / Domino). Slightly in the background, the emergence of artists like Songs:Ohia (Secretly Canadian), suggested this might be a movement, straddling the indie/major divide. In fact, if you check out the credits on …Spider (David Lowery of Cracker / Camper Van Beethoven, Vic Chestnutt, Daniel Johnston, Mazzy Star, Radiohead, Tom Waits) you can see how much of a lineage Alt. Country had to draw on, and (at the same time) how much high-profile interest, as a conduit from the past to the present, the experimental to the popular. Similarly, Oldham’s guitarist on …Darkness was Dave Pajo of Slint, then dabbling in post-rock, and soon to “go country” as Papa M.
Alt. Country (Phase Two) could just have been cooked up by a bunch of former NME and Melody Maker journalists, feeling themselves sidelined by the youthful (but already waning) Britpop, and prospecting for a new kind of punk – a musically simple, sonically lo-fi, lyrically perverse genre. With or without their aid, "Alt Country" (often overlapping with Freak-Folk and Pholk) became much more than that. A new generation of listeners, previously oblivious to anything left of Dylan, found dark humour, spirituality, sensuality (of a grubby, sticky kind), and inventive uses for pedal steel, slide, banjos, fiddles… as well as dirty guitars building to “post-rock” climaxes that probably owed as much to the Velvets as they did to GYBE! or Dirty 3. None of the records made by the artists mentioned above is “full-on” Country – you might want to fish out Red Apple Falls (1997), by Smog, or the first two Willard Grant Conspiracy albums (3AM Sunday, at Fortune Otto’s and Flying Low, both 1998) to get closer to the spirit of things… but nor are they Indie or Rock.
Does it still sound like a movement? For many late-90s American artists being called “Alt. Country” (but no longer “No Depression”) the genre either didn’t exist, or was only recognisable when an artist steers so far away from the mainstream that they might as well be doing what any artist does: Sparklehorse and Grandaddy doing country-electronica (as a natural reflection of their nostalgic lyrics and postmodern sensibility that all our newfangled machines will be oldfangled in time); Will Oldham and Bill Callahan twisting country, folk, and rock to match the grotesques of their lyrics… and show us the humanity and familiarity in each. Alt.Country can’t just be about dark humour, because that was always there in Redneck songs with titles like ‘I’d rather have a bottle in front of me, than a frontal lobotomy’. So…
Was there always an “Alt. Country”, in the 60s, 70s, 80s?
Sure… why not? Like any broad-church, "Country" spawns new heresies from time to time, as it reaches out to other genres and technologies. You might also point out that every genre has its “alternative” artists, at any given time, which often means anyone upcoming, even if they’ve since become canonical, like Elvis Presley (starting out with country-blues), Johnny Cash, or Willie Nelson. In the early 70s, Gram Parsons called his new/old style Cosmic American Music, was denounced as “pop” by Merle Haggard, as a “longhair” by everyone else, and caused as much of a ruckus with the traditionalists as Dylan going electric, did for folk. Luckily for Gram Parsons, he had famous friends in The Rolling Stones, and the rest is (Rock? Country? Alt Country?) history.
Looking back, you could say that many of the 80s & 90s country-tinged rock bands lumped together as Alt. Country – the ones who DON’T have a makeshift mythology like Oldham, Callahan, Molina, and J. Merritt, or the experimentalism of Linkous, Lytle, S. Merritt and so on – are basically taking their template from the Velvet Underground, Gram Parsons, Exile on Main Street Stones, Nashville Skyline Dylan, and running with that. The Days of Wine & Roses by Steve Wynn’s Dream Syndicate (not John Cale’s…) is a Velvets-tribute album in almost every respect.
Plus, we keep coming back to Punk. It’s telling that Punk (whether in the UK or the US) didn’t banish Country... in fact, it went out of its way to mess with its parochialism and bigotry, putting gay cowboys on a notorious T-shirt available from Sex, on the King’s Road. In a sense the (imagined) narrowmindedness of "cowboys" reflected the (imagined) openmindedness of punks, making Country fertile for more or less ironic appropriations. In the late-70s / early-80s, providing The Mekons and The Birthday Party (later The Bad Seeds) with a model for authentic / exotic music that didn’t necessarily involve pilfering the styles of other races. The Mekons effectively pioneered Alt.Country in as unlikely a place as Leeds, Yorkshire, but they’re going strong – guesting on Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy’s latest album (Beware), and Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds…? Say no more – they’ve been around so long, Nick had to re-discover Stooges-style hard-rock in middle-age, with Grinderman, having started his career messing with country…! From the Class of ’98, Mark Linkous, Jason Molina, Dave Pajo (currently touring with Yeah Yeah Yeahs), and dozens of others all grew up with hard-rock, punk, and hardcore, before discovering the grittiness of Country – in which you could actually hear the humour and the stories and the spiritual yearning.
The great thing about Alt.Country – for any wilfully perverse artist – is that as soon as you seem to be in step with the times, all you have to do is go back to your roots on the Country side, or the Punk side. Take Geraldine Fibbers – Carla Bozulich’s chronicles of abusive relationships, heroin-addiction, and prostitution (literally, living with the Devil) were soundtracked the only way they could be, on Lost Somewhere Between the Earth and My Home (1995) but by the time everyone from Mogwai to Arcade Fire was making a racket with violins and guitars (leaving aside WGC, BPB, Dirty 3), Carla was making a Willie Nelson tribute album, before drifting into pure, formless noise.
Some Other Variants
Anyone remember Snakefarm? No...? It’s probably for the best. Still, where do black humourists like The Handsome Family fit into all this? What about Oxford’s own Broken Family Band, or The Mountain Goats? (Is a history of suicide-attempts, depression, and heroin-addiction integral to all of the above? Is that what led them to their respective approaches to confessionalism with a heavy dose of irony, when it comes to their choice of genres to pilfer?) Are more serious-minded artists like Bright Eyes "Alt. Country" ...or Wilco's Jeff Tweedy, and Ryan Adams (previously with Uncle Tupelo, and Whiskeytown, respectively)?
Was Bruce Springsteen Alt. Country when he made Nebraska (1982), and if so, how about The Ghost of Tom Joad (1996), a kind of sequel, partly inspired by Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath (1939)? Is Nebraska the seminal Alt. Country album… or is the startpoint Steinbeck’s modernist literary sensibility as one of the first great American writers to travel from coast to coast, to embrace the culture of hoboes, and live the high-life of a celebrity? Hey, Oldham’s Palace Brothers were named after Steinbeck’s Palace Flophouse, in his visionary novel Cannery Row from 1945. This begs the question whether we need to situate the emergence of the genre in broader social history (i.e. as a consequence of American social change), or assume it's ahistoric - an artistic reaction to a rootless and fad-plagued present. Emerging as a Great American Novelist, Steinbeck looked to the Depression and the Dustbowl just in time to suggest a link between these historic disasters and their long-term fall-out (WWII); his shorter novel, was a back-from-Europe homage to the charm, perversity, and humour of the American spirit, even in its most abject quarters. Springsteen, however, was reacting against the contradictions of his Great American Songwriter status – he’d just made his cheese-fest double-album The River (1980), and made a very personal decision to sack the band, and re-locate the less glamorous side of America hinted at in (Arguably-the-Greatest-Song-of-All-Time) ‘The River’. (Come to think of it, if you want to draw up a roster of Alt. Country artists, look no further than the line-up who played on the Nebraska tribute album.)
Obviously, every genre has multiple points of origin, just as every artist has multiple lines of influence – see the “Introduction to Slowcore Week” for a similar story. The IDEA of Country music – not the actual tradition – is what draws former Heavy-Metal fans like Bret and Rennie Sparks (i.e. The Handsome Family) to make fun, kitschy music, in which they can talk candidly about “why people OD on pills” (the answer? “…anything, to feel weightless, again”) without being pegged as craggly, beard-stroking archaeologists. For its use of absurd humour to talk about suicidal despair, see also: The Charm of the Highway Strip (1993) by Magnetic Fields, singled out later this week as another possible Year Zero album, alongside Palace Brothers’ There Is No One What Will Take Care of You (1993). On the other hand, buried beneath the signifiers of authentic, traditionally American music – Bright Eyes, Ryan Adams – is the impulse to play anthems and ballads, like Bruce Springsteen, or Elton John… oh, and if possible to get Gram’s old flame, Emmylou Harris, to sing with you. Man…! Emmylou Harris…! I haven’t even mentioned how important she is, to all this, since she started writing the bulk of her own material, at an age when most female artists’ careers are dead and buried. Now, there’s an important precedent, and a sign of how refreshingly UN-sexist Alt. Country can be, despite all the lyrics – or perhaps because it takes gender stereotypes so lightly. Shame the genre isn’t quite so racially miscegenated…
Finally, when it comes to Alt Country, no-one’s ever specified whether we’re talking about artists (like Gram Parsons) reaching TOWARDS rock music from the kind they grew up with, or whether it’s equally populated by rock/indie/punk bands reaching towards Country. Do we need terms for the two trajectories, from genre to genre, or is this all just Western chordal music feeding on Western chordal music? In the Comments, below, feel free to rant about it from a purist perspective… or consider it as a way of opening the genre to newcomers. Is Alt.Country a way for indie-kids to fetishize the Old, and declare war on the Urban? Who did we miss…? Who are you looking forward to…?
FURTHER READING & LISTENING
Sleevenotes to Gram Parsons’ GP / Return of the Grievous Angel (Spotify)
Uncut, Sounds of the New West (1998)
Uncut, Americana 2000: More Sounds of the New West (2000)
Rough Trade Shops Country Vol. 1 (Rough Trade and Mute, 2003)
Kurt Wolff, “Alternative Country”, p. 992, in All Music Guide (2003), ed. Vladimir Bogdanov, Chris Woodstra, and Stephen Thomas Erlewine.
The DrownedInSound Alt Country Playlist on Spotify
If you missed our previous genre-orientated weeks, you can find Slowcore week here and Showgaze week is here. You'll be able to find all of our Alt Country week content here, if you'd like to bookmark the address.