The Songs That Define Alternative Country
There was a time when alt-country simply didn’t exist. The very idea that there would exist a sub-set of country music set entirely outside the mainstream just wasn’t around. The closest thing to alt-country that existed in the genre’s history were the outlaw movement and the Bakersfield Sound. But both the outlaw movement and the scene in Bakersfield were intent on getting a foothold in Nashville. The artists involved wanted to make an impact, wanted to be heard, and wanted the mainstream to take notice- something they were certainly successful at doing.
The modern alt-country movement, however, doesn’t really care if the country mainstream takes notice. For better or worse, alt-country artists are intent on letting the mainstream do its thing while they do theirs. Alt-country artists stick to their guns and go out on wild limbs, sometimes way out of the parameters of what would make sense for a country artist. It often results in spectacular results. Not shackled by the stringent expectations of record labels or the desperate attempts to achieve radio success, alt-country artists rely on what they see as creating their vision.
Alternative country has gone through a wild, rocking history. The easiest way I can describe it is by calling the sound country punk. By most accounts, Uncle Tupelo’s debut No Depression spawned the movement. Through the 90s, alt-country was more rock-based with lots of open tuning and a heavy influence of traditional country. Today, much of the alt-country sound has become traditionally Americana focused, drawing more from John Prine than Johnny Cash. Much of it too far gone to be considered true alt-country. I myself prefer the classic alt-country sound with loud guitars and in-your-face vocals, but artists like Jason Isbell can still grab my ear with their Americana-centric themes and production.
Think of the following songs as a good primer to get your alt-country experience started. The first several songs are all Uncle Tupelo records. Fitting. They are the most influential and important alt-country band.
This isn’t a total, complete history of the alt-country movement. Rather, it’s a look at the songs that define alt-country from its brilliant inception in the late 1980s to its powerful resurgence today. I may write a piece in the future on the complete history of alt-country. But, for now, here are the songs I consider as defining the movement.
Album: No Depression
The song that launched the alt-country movement. A publication dedicated to the genre was even named after it. Jay Farrar took lead vocals on the song originally composed by AP Carter of The Carter Family. If there is *one* recording that could be sent into the future for folks to one day rediscover alt-country, this would be it. It’s a simple folk song. But it’s styled in more of a fast-paced, almost punk rock fashion.
Album: No Depression
Early alt-country is known for borrowing from both country and punk. But it also borrowed heavily from the themes of heartland rockers like Bruce Springsteen. “Graveyard Shift” is a working-man anthem that blended punk and country seamlessly.
Album: No Depression
Such a simple song. But so down-trodden. So aching with lonesomeness. “Whiskey Bottle” is a perfect example of how alt-country at its core was just trying to get back to the roots of country, but in a different way.
A Tweedy composition, “Acuff-Rose” was driven by fiddle and one of the most traditional type of country songs, Uncle Tupelo would record. It’s a clever recording, referencing the publishing company owned by Fred Rose and Roy Acuff. It’s basic message is wanting to hear a country song- one probably owned by Acuff-Rose.
“Car Wheels on a Gravel Road”
Album: Car Wheels on a Gravel Road
The album, like Lucinda Williams, is one of those records that transcends genre. Blues, rock, bluegrass, country. It’s all there. And the title track is the pick of the bunch. The themes are similar to what Jay Farrar would sing and write about in both Uncle Tupelo and later Son Volt. Lucinda Williams is the Queen of Alternative Country.
When Uncle Tupelo broke up, Jay Farrar formed Son Volt while Jeff Tweedy formed Wilco. At the time, many of the critics thought Farrar would have the better career. It turned out, however, that Tweedy would have more commercial success while still maintaining the critical acclaim that Son Volt received. Count me as someone who still prefers Farrar. Tweedy leans more indie rock and pop while Farrar continued the Uncle Tupelo sound of mixing country and punk with (in my opinion) better songwriting. “Windfall” may be Farrar’s best work. It’s melancholy and wistful with just a hint of lonesomeness. From the first couple notes of the song to the end, Son Volt takes the listener on a journey. “Windfall” would be the center-piece of Trace, one of the sentinel albums of the alt-country movement. Farrar was not done.
Album: Strangers Almanac
Ryan Adams was once the front-man of alt-country outfit Whiskeytown before leaving for a solo career. Songs like “16 Days” foreshadowed the direction Adams would take as a solo artist. Hints of defiance and regret mixed together in one.
Album: Too Far to Car
Old 97’s and its front-man Rhett Miller are one of the coolest bands to come out of the alt-country movement. They’ve adapted their sound some over the years, but they’re still together and always still including songs that hearken back to the alt-country of the 90s. “Barrier Reef” is a fantastic recording that basically takes a look at what happens when even sleeping with a random woman can’t get help a man get over a broken heart. The theme is quite simply, but it’s Miller’s ability to really get to the heart of the human condition that makes “Barrier Reef” stand out.
Album: Too Far to Care
Rhett Miller says he wrote “Broadway” thanks to the band’s experience in New York City while meeting with a major label (Elektra Records). He was amazed at the amount of money the record company was willing to spend just to keep the band in a New York hotel room. Miller was well aware of the contradictions the band was dealing with, and out of the experience came a song that many alt-country artists could relate to.
Album: Most Messed Up
One of my favorite songs. The band rails against the Nashville establishment with a memorable chorus without actually calling out mainstream country by name. The attitude is pure alt-country.
Hank Williams III
Album: Lovesick, Broke and Driftin’
I hesitated to include “Trashville.” Hank III transcends alt-country and when he records an album, it’s either solid traditional country or heavy metal. There’s really no in-between. But “Trashville” has so much attitude, so much country-punk spirit, that I had to include it. It’s one of the best anti-mainstream country songs ever recorded, and it is indeed one of those songs that defines the ethos of alternative country.
Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit
Album: Here We Rest
I don’t want to say this too loud…but…I think Here We Rest is Isbell’s best work. He’s critically acclaimed, and deservedly so, but for some reason I personally relate more to his immediate post- Drive-By-Truckers career. And I think that goes back to something I mentioned at the beginning of this piece. I like alt-country that leans a bit more to that blend of punk and traditional country. And “Alabama Pines” just captures that solitude and lonesomeness that Jay Farrar championed with his work in Uncle Tupelo and Son Volt. Obviously Isbell would successfully follow the path that he wanted, but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t hope he’d continue to play with the sound he found on Here We Rest.
“Lights of Cheyenne”
Album: Live in Aught-Three
It’s impossible to describe the experience of listening to this song. It’s poetry. It’s magic. I can’t possibly write anything well enough to do it justice.
“Sleeping On The Blacktop”
Album: Imaginary Appalachia
Is Colter Wall alt-country? Maybe. Does Colter Wall fit into what alt-country is in 2018? Yes. Songs like “Sleeping On The Blacktop” fit nicely into that early Uncle Tupelo era. Colter Wall isn’t strictly an alt-country artist. But several of his songs do fit into the genre.
Album: King’s Record Shop
Ironically, I’m including this song even though it reached number one on the Billboard country charts, something that can’t really be said for 99% of songs that are classified as alt-country. But the train imagery and the defiant, realistic look at a love gone off the rails combined with Roseanne’s alt-country leanings, make this an easy choice as a song to include.
So there you have it. The songs that define alternative country. Obviously, the alt-country from the 90s are heavily included. There are fewer songs from today, and that’s to be expected. Alternative country today is still around- it’s just broader and less-rocking. The prime of alt-country was one of the most important in the history of country music. It was a rebellion against Music Row in every form. And it was, and continues to be, awesome. Check it out.