Call it alt-country, Americana or No Depression. Or if you really want to get cute, call it y’all-ternative.
There’s an alternative-country movement bubbling up from the underground, coursing its way through rock clubs, record stores and even radio.
Mainstream country radio remains as conservative as ever, the breakthrough of LeAnn Rimes’ gloriously old-fashioned “Blue” notwithstanding. And many alt-country acts are too stridently independent and make music too rough around the edges ever to reach (or even seek) superstar status. But with country sales down 12 percent in 1996, label executives are willing to stomach a little twang as a potential remedy for their post-boom hangovers.
The range of acts under the alt-country big top is a refreshing reminder of country’s diverse history and tradition of rebellion.
There are honky-tonk purists such as Texan Dale Watson and costumed classicists like Nashville’s BR5-49. Genre-bending singer-songwriters such as brooding Californian Richard Buckner and Missouri’s brutally honest Iris DeMent. Bluegrass innovators, including Nashville’s Alison Krauss and Del McCoury, and Bad Livers, out of that capital of country iconoclasm, Austin, Texas.
Son Volt and Wilco - the two outfits that splintered from the hallowed Uncle Tupelo - reside in the roots-rock wing. The same for fellow Midwesterners the Bottle Rockets and Philadelphia’s Rolling Hayseeds. And songsmith Kim Richey heads up a group of promising artists benefiting from a new openness in Music City, thanks to a combination of forward thinking and bottom-line-induced panic.
Texas storytellers Robert Earl Keen and Jimmie Dale Gilmore have found their way to the major labels after years pursuing their own paths. Country-punk veterans Jason & the Scorchers are as rip-roaring as ever, and youngsters such as Dallas’ Old 97’s are poised to bring a sound that’s equal parts punk-rock and Johnny Cash to a new generation.
“There are a lot of great young musicians out there who like a lot of different kinds of music,” says Gilmore, the 51-year-old roots mystic who fronted legendary alt-country band the Flatlanders in the ‘70s.
“Country-folk or country-rock or alternative country,” it doesn’t matter, says Gilmore. “If there’s any country in it, that’s what people call it… . People get tired of hearing the same old thing, and it gets to be time for a change.”
The mellower side of the music is reflected on the “Americana” radio airplay chart compiled by industry weekly the Gavin Report.
The 80 programs and stations whose playlists determine the chart are a motley mix of commercial country, college and public radio stations and specialty shows.
The more rocking representatives of alt-country even have their own magazine: No Depression, a two-year-old bimonthly out of Seattle that grew out of an Uncle Tupelo discussion board on America Online and has a circulation of 9,000. (Its title comes Uncle Tupelo’s 1990 debut album of the same name.)
Recent coverboys: Bad Livers, the Waco Brothers, Jason & the Scorchers and Wilco.
“There are a lot of good bands around that defy description,” says Jon Langford of the Wacos, the Chicago band whose new album on the “insurgent country” Bloodshot label, “Cowboy in Flames,” could be described as Roy Acuff meets the Clash.
What they share, says Langford, “is a core understanding of old country music and an anger about the way it’s been neglected. The best treat it with reverence, but drag it into the ‘90s as well.”
Alt-country has many antecedents. The Byrds’ “Sweetheart of the Rodeo” (1968) is one. So are Gram Parson’s “Grievous Angel” (1974), Joe Ely’s “Honky Tonk Masquerade” (1977) and Jason & the Scorchers’ “Fervor” EP (1983), not to mention the achievements of Merle Haggard, George Jones and Patsy Cline, and 1930s country pioneers such as Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family (who have profoundly impacted nouveau Appalachians such as Freakwater and Palace Music).
Much of the music’s current inspiration is drawn from Uncle Tupelo, the Belleville, Ill., band whose punk-twang hybrid in the early ‘90s provided a rallying point for disillusioned rockers. Rhett Miller - the 26-year-old songwriter for Old 97’s, whose terrific “Too Far to Care” comes out in June - describes Uncle Tupelo’s “Anodyne” (1993) as nothing short of life-changing.
(This is a source of embarrassment for former UT member Jay Farrar, now of Son Volt, who says he’s “not entirely comfortable with being placed on some kind of leadership pedestal” and wonders if the band wouldn’t “have gone off in a different musical direction” if it formed now, when alt-country is so hot.)
“There’s a generation of musicians and fans who were into punk-rock and alternative,” says No Depression editor Peter Blackstock, who cites Philadelphia’s Rolling Hayseeds as being among the best of the genre. “And as they get into their 30s, they’re looking for something that’s different, or at least different to them.”
Or, as Eric Babcock, co-founder of the Bloodshot label, explains the progression: “Country and punk - they’re both ‘three chords and spill your guts.”’
The alternative-country bandwagon is crowded with johnny-come-latelies such as Supersuckers, formerly a pop-punk act, and amateurish baby bands such as Moonshine Willy, who prove that sloppy alt-country can be just as dull as slick Top 40 country. But many career Americana and No Depression artists played this music long before it had a name, back when it fell between the rock, folk and country cracks.
Independent labels such as Hightone in Oakland, Calif.; North Carolina’s Sugar Hill, and Rounder in Cambridge, Mass., have long been in the country business. But in recent years, indies such as Houston’s Justice Records (which has released recent CDs by Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings and Billy Joe Shaver) and Nashville’s artist-owned Dead Reckoning have popped up.
And now, with mainstream country sales continuing to fall, the majors are getting in the act. E-squared, which is co-owned by Steve Earle, has a distribution deal with Warner Bros. Forward-thinking companies such as Arista (which has signed BR5-49 and has Keen on its Arista Austin imprint), RCA (Jim Lauderdale, Sara Evans) and Mercury (Kim Richey, Neal Coty), are testing the alt-country waters. And Sony’s Nashville office has started up the Lucky Dog label, devoted specifically to alternative country.
“People are always saying to me ‘Nashville doesn’t like what you do,”’ says Richey, whose excellent sophomore album, “Bitter Sweet,” is one of a number of new major-label efforts out of Nashville that refuse to pander to country radio. “And I say, ‘Yeah, they do.’ There’s a real creative community there, and all kinds of stuff going on.”
With the public souring on the hat acts that set off the country boom in the late ‘80s, many Nashville insiders think the industry is about to enter an especially creative period.
“Every 10 to 12 years, the industry stops bothering with artist development (and) sales fall off. Then people start experimenting,” says Ken Levitan, president of Rising Tide, the MCA-affiliated upstart that services the mainstream and is also going after the alt-country audience with Texans Delbert McClinton and Jack Ingram, whose debut, “Livin’ or Dyin’,” was co-produced by Earle.
“It happened in the ‘70s with Waylon and Willie, and in the ‘80s with Lyle (Lovett) and Nanci (Griffith) and Steve Earle,” said Levitan. “There are a lot of doomsayers around, but to me, it’s an exciting time. This is when you find the stars of tomorrow.”