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Feature: Anything But Country? The ’90s Alt Country Revolution and ’00s Indie Rock

April 17, 2008

Uncle Tupelo

Feature — Anything But Country? The ’90s Alt Country Revolution and ’00s Indie Rock

By Ellen Heddendorf – KRUI Blog Writer

Ask a few students around campus about their musical tastes (or just check out what’s under “Favorite Music” on their Facebook profiles) and you might hear this common refrain: “Oh, I love music, but I’m not picky. I’ll listen to anything!”

Really, you press them, anything? Anything at all?

“Well,” many students will quickly concede, “anything but country.”

Anything but country. The aversion many otherwise enthusiastic music listeners feel toward anything with the “country” label is easy to understand if you’ve heard more than five minutes of a country radio station. Apologies to any country radio fans whom I am about to offend, but the dearth of creativity and musical innovation in mainstream country music isn’t hard to notice. Too many songs sound like generic, cookie-cutter copies of each other; most are plagued by cheesy, uninspired lyrics. Musically, the tunes heard on the radio tend to be schmaltzy, overproduced affairs characterized by perfunctory-sounding guitars and strings. No wonder so many music listeners shun the very name of the genre.

But spend a while listening to KRUI – or any indie music source – and you’ll start to notice something: for a lot of alternative musicians, country isn’t such a bad word after all. In fact, country music – of the rootsy, traditional, Americana-based kind – is becoming an inspiration for indie rock bands from the Shins to Rilo Kiley, and many more. It’s not the mainstream country genre they’re drawing inspiration from, but a different brand of country altogether.

Commercial country of the mainstream radio variety barely sounds like a relation to the earthy, hard-edged twang of the genre commonly known as alternative country. With its influences entrenched in genres like bluegrass, folk, and rock’n’roll (often with a punk sensibility), alt country eschews the glossy pop-styled production of its mainstream industry cousin. Established in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the “alt country” name is a big umbrella covering a variety of artists from many different sub-genres, but a common tie is often a lo-fi sound with a rock influence, paired with grim or woebegone lyrics far removed from the usual Nashville syrup.

According to Wikipedia’s entry (an informative one, check it out if you’re interested in learning more) on the alternative country genre, Neil Young “could be considered ‘The Godfather of Alt Country’” – listen to his 1972 album Harvest for an example of traditional American country sounds blended with rock’n’roll. But the band that essentially kicked off the alt country genre was Uncle Tupelo, whose 1990 album No Depression was so influential that its title became synonymous with the alternative country movement. (You can read a great 1993 article about Uncle Tupelo and early alt country here, including a very telling line from Jeff Tweedy: “There’s something very wrong when Garth Brooks lists one of his major inspirations as Journey.”)

Uncle Tupelo’s breakup in 1994 resulted in the birth of two bands: frontman Jay Farrar started Son Volt (try their song “Creosote” for a taste of how good country can be when steel guitar is involved), and the rest of the band formed indie rock favorite Wilco, a big player on the country stage before they became known for their more experimental works (you can still hear some hints at their country roots on their latest album, 2007’s Sky Blue Sky).

Meanwhile, there were plenty of other bands establishing the alt country genre around the same time as Uncle Tupelo and its offshoots. Personally, I’m a big fan of the Jayhawks, whose mournful harmonies and rock-edged arrangements are wonderfully displayed on albums like 1992’s Hollywood Town Hall and 1995’s Tomorrow the Green Grass (seriously, check them out – songs like Tomorrow’s “Pray For Me” and Hollywood’s “Take Me With You (When You Go)” are a fantastic place to start).

Another great band when it comes to mixing rock’n’roll with a country sound is the Old 97’s, who are still recording and have a new album due on May 13. Songs like “Four Leaf Clover” from their 1997 album Too Far To Care demonstrate alternative country’s punk attitude (“I’m still a drunk, I’m still a loser,” Rhett Miller snarls remorselessly, “living in a lousy neighborhood”), while later releases like Fight Songs and Satellite Rides move toward a more polished, straightforward rock/pop sound while keeping the heartbroken twang of the band’s country roots (leave it to alt country to comment on the death of a rural American town by wailing in bleak harmony, “Do you wanna mess around?”).

Of course, these bands are just a few of the major names in alt country – if you’re interested in the genre, there are many more bands and artists worth looking into (try a list like this one to get an idea of how much is out there). And while the movement’s heyday may have been in the ‘90s, there are still plenty of musicians under the alt country banner today: Bright Eyes, Iron & Wine, and My Morning Jacket are among the alt country or alt country-influenced bands whose names will be familiar to indie listeners.

What’s more, though, the alt country sound has stretched beyond one genre of music, influencing many bands and artists who are prominent on the current alternative rock scene and might not typically be associated with the country genre. Here’s a list of a few of the big-name indie rockers who have drawn on the alt country movement for musical inspiration:

• The Magnetic Fields

In 1994, then-fledgling indie-pop group the Magnetic Fields took a nod from the alt country movement for their album The Charm of the Highway Strip. Although the music isn’t country in terms of instrumentation and production, the album’s musical style and its travel-obsessed lyrics suggest a country influence. “Lonely Highway” and “Born On a Train” are hymns to wanderlust and the open road, while “Two Characters In Search of a Country Song” invokes western icons: “You were Calamity Jane, I was Wild Bill.”

• Neko Case

When she’s not singing with indie rock supergroup the New Pornographers, Neko Case’s solo work has cemented her name in alternative country fame. Her booming, soulful voice is put to good use on her most recent solo album, Fox Confessor Brings the Flood, which blends traditional country/folk sounds with unexpected rhythms and melodies.

• The Shins

Although the Shins’ 2003 release Chutes Too Narrow is a terrific album all the way through, there’s nothing else on the record that anticipates the turn toward flat-out country on the second-to-last song, “Gone For Good.” Steel guitar wails over acoustic strumming as lead singer James Mercer admits to spending “twelve long months on the lam” with a girl who needs to “get used to the lonesome.”

• Jenny Lewis

Although she is best known as the frontwoman of the band Rilo Kiley, Jenny Lewis’s 2006 solo effort Rabbit Fur Coat garnered huge accolades while flaunting an unabashedly country sound. Lewis’s hymn-like harmonies with the Watson Twins on songs like “The Big Guns” and “Rise Up With Fists!!” are soulful and gorgeous.

• Band of Horses

Band of Horses’ lead singer, Ben Bridwell, told Pitchfork that his band’s 2007 release Cease To Begin would include some “country-ish leanings” and a “down-home” feeling. He kept his promise on tracks like “Marry Song,” a slow, melancholy ballad featuring a lonesome whine of a vocal evocative (especially in its harmonies) of the Jayhawks’ best.

…And, of course, there are many more. Different musicians, albums, and songs display varying degrees of alt country style or influence – and then, the question of who is or isn’t described by the alt country label has been in dispute since the genre’s inception. But as tricky as alternative country can be to quantify and categorize, it’s easy to hear it coming through – whether in the form of lyrics or melodies, instrumentation or ragged mournful harmonies – in the music of artists across the indie rock map.

If you’re in the “anything but country” camp of music listeners, consider putting your preconceptions aside and exploring the hard-edged, heartbroken sound of a form of country unlike anything you’d hear on mainstream radio. From the groundbreaking albums of alternative country’s 1990s roots to current musicians drawing inspiration from the sounds of Americana and southern rock, the alt country movement gave birth to some incredible music – and it’s still working its influence on alternative music today.

So give it a try. Spin it, love it, sing along with it. It’s time to take country back.

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