Wednesday, August 17, 2005

Alt Country

This is an entry i first put on my "other" blog (my Yahoo 360 page). I've updated it a bit in light of some new bands i've found.

My musical tastes tend to fixate on one particular genre for a period of time until i suck all the flavor out of it and then i move on. Over the years this has included everything from speed metal, to baroque music, to rock en espaƱol. My latest obsession is the alternative country genre, whose best known exemplar is probably Wilco. Alt country is a vaguely defined genre, so it covers a lot of ground from very folkish to nearly punkish. On the other hand, it's one of those "you know it when you hear it" genres. If i had to describe alt country, i'd say that it is any type of music with identifiable traces of roots music, but with lyrics that are more interesting than the typical c+w song. As a disclaimer i should mention that i've always had a fondness for country music in general. If you don't recognize the essential genius of Hank Williams, Patsy Cline, or Flatt and Scruggs, then i can't guarantee that you'll dig alt. country.

One of the benefits of working for an on-line music service is that you have reason to cull through craploads of music metadata as part of fixing a problem or adding a feature. Since i have an overactive sarcasm gland, i tend to pick out amusing and/or silly band or album names (they're just more fun to test). Sometimes, i make an effort to listen to these oddly named bands or albums just for kicks, and more often than not i find that the band name was the first and last clever idea that the band had.

One notable exception in my opinion is Drive-By Truckers, who have become one of my favorite bands. DBT is somewhere in the southern rock, country rock, alt. country mixture of genres, but with a noticeable punk component (i hear shades of Social Distortion). They're a bit of an acquired taste if you have no previous attraction to southern or country music (if you had a Molly Hatchet album when you were in high school, you'll probably love DBT, you old son of a bitch).

I'd been listening to Wilco quite a lot before i found DBT, but as of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, they'd ceased to be an alt country band. It was my interest in DBT that really got me to explore Wilco's predecessor bands, offshoots, and similar bands. This is my list of interesting stuff in this musical space, which ranges from fairly country to pretty much alternative, but since it's my freakin' list i'll put whatever i want on it.

  • Drive-By Truckers. 'Nuff said already.
  • Wilco. OK, you gotta have Wilco on the list but listen to the first 3 albums (AM, Being There, Summerteeth)
  • Uncle Tupelo. The key members of Uncle Tupelo were Jeff Tweedy, who went on to form Wilco, and Jay Farrar, who went on to form Son Volt. These guys are sometimes credited with inventing the alt country genre, but i think that's a bit of a stretch.
  • Son Volt. After DBT, this is probably my favorite alt country band. Much of their material will remind you of early REM, especially Reckoning. Jay Farrar has a perfect voice for this genre. Farrar recently reformed the band with new players and released the album Okemah and the Melody of Riot, a very good album with some overtly political material.
  • Lucinda Williams. Pretty country, but with an attitude. She's got a great voice. If you like Lucinda, you might also like Mary Gauthier.
  • Slobberbone. Another band on the same label as DBT. Fun.
  • Magnolia Electric Co. A new band formed from the ashes of previous bands. They've got a new album (What Comes After the Blues) that sounds sort of Neal Young-ish.
  • Whiskeytown. Ryan Adams's old band. Adams is now doing solo material that i'd classify as more rock than alt country, but it's still good stuff.
  • Tift Merrit. More country than rock, but some interesting songs. She performed live here at the San Diego office about a year ago.
  • Vic Chesnutt. Sort of folk, but with a southern/country feel. Sui generis.
  • The Jayhawks. I really love the Jayhawks except when i find them annoying. It's a mood thing.
  • Steve Earle. You gotta respect Earle, if only because he looks rode hard and put up wet.
  • Richmond Fontaine. This oddly named band made one of the best alt country albums, Post to Wire, which contains a song of the same name that is one of the best alt country songs ever made.
  • Damnations (aka Damnations TX). This band appears to still exist, although they don't seem to have release an album since 2002. One of the members of this band (Deborah Kelly) sings on the Richmond Fontaine's song Post to Wire, which is how i found out about them. Their 1999 album Half Moon Mad is one of those obscure gems that you only find a few times in your life. It's a great album.
There are dozens of other artists in this general area. There are some more straight country stuff i'd check out if any of this appeals to you, like early Waylon Jennings, Hank Williams, Lyle Lovett, Sugarland, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Nickel Creek, even the Dixie Chicks. There's also plenty of older music out there to which alt country owes a debt: Gram Parsons, Neil Young, Johnny Cash, The Grateful Dead, etc., and the entire universe of bluegrass and roots music. I also highly recommend the web site, a site dedicated to alt country in all of its glorious cheesiness.

1 comment:

Postmodern Sass said...

Patsy Cline, one of my heros. And not only is she a genius, but what she does with her voice... she makes it sound so easy, and then you try it and, well, it ends up sounding like this:

Still, everyone ought to give it a try if they're ever in Memphis. It's such a thrill being in the studio where Elvis sang.