Way Over Yonder In The Minor Key: An Alt-Country Mixtape

Whenever I mention my obsession with “Alt-Country” music, I can easily see an effort by my listener to suppress a raised eyebrow or sneering comment about disliking “twang.” As though anticipating any possible response, I quickly add the following: “… I’m not talking about the type of music you would hear at the CMA Awards.” Hopefully, at this stage, I have grabbed your attention for a sufficient amount of time to spin a tale that goes a little something like the explanation below…

But, actually, before you delve into my less than concise explanation, feel free to start talking the musical trip into the following Alt-Country Mixtape: A Bourbon Companion (listen here) – titled as such because these are songs filled with bittersweet stories: love’s lost, dreams on hold, journeys about to begin, and yearnings for a promise just beyond the horizon. Perhaps the most apt descriptor is the following from Sun Volt‘s “Windfall”:

“Switching it over to A.M. searching for a truer sound, … catching an all night station somewhere in Louisiana, sounds like 1963 but for now it sounds like heaven, may the wind take your troubles away…” – Sun Volt

These tunes take me back to a very specific place and time in my life (as all great songs do) and recall long drives across countless Eastern, Midwestern and Southern roads on the path from being to becoming, a road still being navigated. Hopefully, these songs either evoke memories or become the backdrop for new adventures. Enjoy.

(P.S., I’m sure I’ve omitted several artists that are essential to the story so feel free to comment and disagree (but know that Gillian Welch‘s music was not available hence her glaring absence).)

…The jump…

As with many genres, “Alt-Country”, I would argue, is really a catch-all for a brand of contemporary American music that evolved out of three well-known musical forms: Americana, Folk Rock and Punk Rock. What do these three seemingly disparate traditions have in common?

Punk Rock is an art form of the urban space, of the disillusioned and angry young men and women, of failed promises. In contrast, Americana and Folk are uniquely rural musical forms – one generally associated with the South (Americana) and the other with the Northern and Midwestern industrial sections of America (Folk).  Punk Rock eschews tradition and the past and speaks of the power of ennui, the individual, and anarchy.  Americana is the celebration of the mundane and the minutiae of everyday life, the ability to sit back on warm day with instrument in hand, drink on stool, and celebrate the expanse of this country. Folk is the story of embracing change, challenging the paradigms, the clarion call of the working class.

How the three intertwine makes little sense, right? I beg to differ. At heart, each genre started as and at its core is an “Outisder” art, each begins with the premise and raison d’etre that the writer/artist/band are challenging and bucking convention. Punk gave a voice to the anger and frustration of the post counter-culture 60s youth. But the sound wasn’t the sound of Midwest or the South (the veritable birth-place of Alt-Country) and the these musicians weren’t willing to disregard the past as non-essential, the past was like Joyce’s famed narrator Stephen said of History, “a nightmare from which I’m trying to awake” — if you need an example just read Faulkner. There was something to the Roots of American music that told the struggle of disquiet and injustice, but it too was sonically not aggressive and grating enough. With these competing impulses and influences, “Alt-Country” was born. How else do you explain how a generation of kids raised on Johnny Cash and Merle Haggard who wanted to sound like those hip kids from Detroit (the Stooges), Cleveland (the Dead Boys), and NYC (New York Dolls, the Ramones)?  Nostalgia was not a trap and revolution and anarchy were not the sole answersThe music could both be rooted in tradition and challenge the heretofore accepted conventions of its genre. Heck, just ask Dylan. Folk didn’t confine or define him. He redefined and transcended it – to the disgust and chagrin of some traditionalists. See Newport, 1965.

The quintessential Alt-Country (also known by some as “Insurgent Country“, a term I think is more apropos) band is Uncle Tupelo, whose first album, No Depression, gave a name to the movement (for a number of years “No Depression” magazine has been the print zine of the alt/insurgent country movement). Tupelo hailed from Southern Illinois and recorded four unbelievable records fusing traditional working class folk with a loud, distortion fueled guitar sound. After their major label debut, Jeff Tweedy and Jay Farrar would go to form two different bands: Wilco (perhaps you’ve heard of them) and Sun Volt. Both released brilliant debut records. Tweedy and Wilco are now household names but Farrar’s work with Sun Volt is not to be overlooked. And neither should the wide range of artists on this mix from Neko Case to the Southwestern sounds of Calexico to the Kentucky farmers turned stadium rock stars, My Morning Jacket, or the “bad-boy” of alt-country turned proto-hipster Ryan Adams. Other stellar artists who might be new to your ears include Kelly Hogan, Nora O’Connor, Maria McKee, and Kasey Chambers. Within the “seemingly” narrow genre of Alt/Insurgent country, there is a great deal of musical diversity and influences, unique and profound regional variations and heartwrenchingly beautiful storytelling and singing. Hopefully, you’ll see that this Country is not all twang.

If you like the songs on this mix and want to delve further, might I suggest these albums:

  • Uncle Tupelo’s Anodyne – Of the four fabulous albums Tupelo released, this is the most polished and accessible. As the title suggests, this is a record of soothing and celebratory songs – okay “Give Back the Keys to My Heart” is a little aggressive but quite playful for a story of failed love. Personally, I prefer the darker and louder Still Feel Gone, but this was the first recording I heard and still find a captivating listen.
  • Ryan Adams’ Heartbreaker A classic under any genre. According to the “mythology”, Adams sequestered himself in a room and wrote and recorded this album. The fact that at a very young age a legend like Emylou Harris performs a duet with him is a testament to his skills as a songwriter. “Come Pick Me Up” is the aural equivalent of romantic self-immolation.
  • Sun Volt’s TraceIf Life is a Dream, this would be the ideal soundtrack.
  • Neko Case’s Furnace Room LullabyAlthough you can’t go wrong with any Neko album, this is perhaps the one that best captures her throwback Patsy Cline ballads with more up-tempo folk-rock romps.
  • Gillian Welch’s Time (The Revelator) – Haunting. Revival is every bit as brilliant but Revelator was my first introduction to Gillian’s timeless songwriting.
  • Calexico’s Feast of Wire – Perhaps no band best exemplifies the wide-ranging musical variation of Alt/Insurgent Country then Calexico who adds a French fin de siècle sound along with Mexican-Mariachi infused rhythms and horns.  Also check out the EP they did with Iron and Wine, In the Reins.

Over and out,

a.a.

so many roads left to roam…

4 thoughts on “Way Over Yonder In The Minor Key: An Alt-Country Mixtape

  1. Pingback: Kasey Chambers And Unrequited Musical Love | new adventures in hi-fi

  2. Good entry, and enjoying the playlist–a few observations:

    1) On punk as revolutionary or Outsider art–note that many of the early punk bands were also conservative in the sense that they were clinging to or reviving the pop styles they grew up with, in reaction to the perceived excesses of late 70s music. Just think of The Ramones’ love for the Who and 50s-60s pop and bubblegum, culminating in an album produced by genius/murderer Phil Spector, or The Clash’s various traditional styles (blues, rockabilly, jump blues, reggae (!) etc.) on display on London Calling (and Strummer’s remark that he couldn’t look at a Zeppelin album without wanting to vomit); The Sex Pistols are close to the Kinks or just kids in the 50s playing in garages when the electric guitar and loud amps were new, etc. So a bit counter-revolutionary? Similarly, the alt-countryers or cowpunks embraced Gram Parsons, Hank Williams, old (and late career) Cash [in reaction to what country music had become by the late 80s/early 90s] as much as Neil Young, the Velvet Underground and the English and American punks.

    2) If alt-country is a sound of the South, rather than elsewhere in rural (and importantly, suburban and poor urban) America, it’s a little weird that No Depression came out of Illinois. You have lots of Southwestern/tex-mex/Texas artists represented here too. Gillian Welch is from Los Angeles, Neko Case is from Washington . . . I think “Americana” or “alt-country” is simultaneously a broader and narrower sound, though it’s hard to pin down without including too much for it to be a useful label. In any event, I think it’s an attitude toward melody and lyrics in addition to a performance style, and I think it’s trans-regional, while fusing traditional elements of various American regions.

    3) Welch and Rawlings almost never play electric guitars on her records, Tupelo’s best (in my view) album is all acoustic. So what happens to the punk element that was instrumental to the genre’s beginnings? I like My Morning Jacket a lot, but wouldn’t call the band alt-country, but it’s hard to say precisely why not. Maybe that in addition to the drastic stylistic experimentation, I think their lyrics owe more to Pink Floyd than to gothic Southern literature, early or outlaw country and the spirit of the Depression (I don’t mean this as a compliment).

    4) Is the one common element “twang”?

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