Where did alt-country come from?

by Patty Templeton

The year was 1990 and good music knocked elbows all over the ether. It was the year of Depeche Mode’s “Violater,” of “Fear of a Black Planet,” by Public Enemy, and the sound storm of Sonic Youth’s “Goo.” America had begun to deal with Saddam Hussein in Iraq, “The Simpsons” went on air, a cuppa coffee cost 75 cents, the U.S. was in the middle of a recession, and Wilson Phillips’ “Hold On” was Billboard’s hottest song of the year.

Under all that, a weird stew brewed. Punk kids and rock ’n’ rollers found country music and Uncle Tupelo put out their first album, “No Depression.”

What is altcountry?“I think most people would probably trace the creation of alternative country to Uncle Tupelo, which was essentially a marrying of the punk rock ethos with music that had a little twang to it,” said Jon Lynch, program director for KDUR. “They sped it up, put an edge to it, and I think, as always, that name ‘alternative country’ probably came about from some A&R person needing a way to classify it.”

There had been country genre blends before Uncle Tupelo, like Gram Parsons’ cosmic American music in the band The Flying Burrito Brothers or the country-rock of Steve Earle and Gene Clark. Uncle Tupelo took the standard folk and classic country influences like Woody Guthrie and the Carter Family, and put them into a modern, lo-fi setting that appealed to Generation X. So much so, that the album “No Depression” sold over 15,000 copies in its first year and spawned the genesis of “No Depression,” the magazine.

By 1994, Uncle Tupelo split up, but bands that formed out of the members ended up further shaping not only alt-country but Americana music for the next two decades. Brian Henneman joined the Bottle Rockets, Jay Farrar started Son Volt, and Jeff Tweedy began Wilco.

“Those iconic people, like Ryan Adams and Jeff Tweedy and Jay Farrar, what they were creating was revolutionary,” said Caitlin Cannon, lead singer and songwriter of the Durango Americana band The Cannondolls. I think of it as a ’90s thing that is a specific lo-fi sound with a bunch of weird pedals that no one knows what they are doing. There is a groove … If you are going to play alt-country, you need loud, screaming guitars but without those guitars turning it into country rock. It’s a specific sound that is magic and not easy to reproduce.”

As Uncle Tupelo was breaking up, Bloodshot Records, a new indie record label out of Chicago, released the compilation “For a Life of Sin: Insurgent Chicago Country.” The comp featured alternative country acts like Freakwater and Moonshine Willie, with album art by Jon Langford. (Langford was a co-founder of punk band The Mekons and of the alt-country ensemble The Waco Brothers.) Hillybilly punk, cowpunk, alternative country, or whatever the hell it was, worked for Bloodshot Records. To this day, they specialize in roots-infused indie rock, punk rock, and alternative country.

“In those early Bloodshot showcases, back in the day, suits and ties were swarming in the tent to snatch up bands and make alternative country ‘the new sound,’” Lynch said. Bands like Robbie Fulks, Ryan Adams, and Old 97’s, who started on Bloodshot Records.

A subgenre was born.

Does alt country exist anymore?Twenty-five years ago, the plethora of music that exist now, didn’t. There was country, rock, metal, punk, jazz, classical, reggae, and alternative. Sure, there were sub/other genres, and it’s not like you could fit all of music into those seven words, but music was not as blended as it has become. Alternative country was a label that differentiated bands that, though influenced by country, held onto a DIY ethic and didn’t identify with the slick Nashville sound.

Now, almost everything that was labeled “alt-country” could be labeled Americana. It’s the vogue word for roots-infused music. Lynch said, “I think of the term alt-country, now, more as a genre identifier. More than anything, it might be a touchstone for a certain kind of sonic compliment, but music stylistically blends anymore to the point of dissolving strict tags.”

Does alternative country exist? Hell yes, it does. Old 97’s were alternative country and still are alternative country. But they’re also loud folk, roots rock, and Americana. “People used to call music alternative country or alt-c because there was no ‘Americana’ term yet,” Cannon said. “Americana became this umbrella that encapsulated everything, that sound and all the other off-shoots of folk, some blues, roots, country, neo-country, all of it.”

Interviews have been edited and condensed for clarity.

Patty TempletonDGO Staff Writer

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