Friday, April 03, 2009

The Great Alt-Country Post

With the recent death (last year's) of the great No Depression magazine, I felt it was certainly a ripe time to bring forth "The Great Alt-Country Post," basically to tip my hat to such an influential and amazing genre. I will take you through the birth of my personal alt-country beginning and welcome you to share with the readers your experience as well.

Notwithstanding that I felt the death of the genre was inevitable, I believe it is still alive and kicking today. Maybe not with the prowess it once had, but certainly with a significant amount of dignity to the pioneers of it. I aim to tell you something you don't already know about alt-country and more importantly introduce you to some new tunes.

The only place I know where to start is the birth of the one and only Uncle Tupelo. The band started with the "divine" meeting of Jay Farrar and Jeff Tweedy in Belleville, Illinois, a quaint little town, I visited around three years ago. The name sprang from a cartoon a buddy drew of a fat Elvis, born in Tupelo, MS, sitting on a chair. As Greg Kot writes in the masterpiece Wilco: Learning How to Die, the name was further confirmed by two nouns, one being Elvis' birthplace, on a page that sounded great together. At the outset, I would highly recommend this book. Go here to buy it for a mere $11.20.

The band released the monumental album No Depression in 1990, which combined the country twang of Johnny Cash juxtaposed with the head-bobbing punk of the Ramones. The back porch favorite "Screen Door," and brutally honest "Whiskey Bottle" would bloom into a sub-culture uncharted previously. The band would go on the release three more official albums.
Still Feel Gone
in 1991 with gems like the beautiful "Still Be Around," the clever "Gun," and class song-esque "Looking For a Way Out."
March 16-20 i
n 1992 with folkies like speak-for-itself "Moonshiner," moving yet puzzling "Black Eye," and gorgeous protest song "Criminals."
The band's last album Anodyne in 1993 contained tightened tracks like legend nodding "Acuff Rose," masterpiece "Fifteen Keys," and violin induced "Slate."

As certain as death and taxes is the inevitable break-up of an epic band, especially one with more than one lead vocalist. Both bands, Son Volt and Wilco, continued with their created genre. With the first release, Son Volt won the true to life underground battle of the bands. Son Volt's Trace was the beginning point for me. I would venture to say probably my most influential album. Banjo, lap steel, and fiddle made up the release. Jeff Tweedy and Wilco's first album, although a great album, certainly did not have the effect Trace did on UT beloved followers. However, with each release, the respective bands shied away from their creation - the alt-country genre. Slowly each twangy instrument disappeared. Son Volt would release Trace (1995) with gems like "Windfall," "Drown," and "Tear-Stained Eye", and Straightaways (1997) with high points "No More Parades," "Back Into Your World," and "Last Minute Shakedown", by the band's third release the country in alt-country was diminished to more of a form of rock. With Wilco, AM brought sounds of banjo, lap steel, and fiddle with banjo kicking (a song I love but apparently Tweedy hates)"I Thought I Held You," almost comical but catchy "Passenger Side," and "I Must be High." With Wilco's sophomore release Being There, the band had begun its ascent out of alt-country. BT did show a few dying calls of the genre with classics like banjo doused "Forget the Flowers," steel guitar whining "Far, Far Away," and "What's the World Got in Store." By the band's next release, any country hints were under the bridge.

On the cusp of Uncle Tupelo's belligerent break-up, North Carolina's Ryan Adams and Caitlin Cary formed the band Whiskeytown. WT released Faithless Street in 1995 which included such stout tracks as "Midway Park," "Black Arrow, Bleeding Heart," and "If He Can't Have You." Two years later brought WT's first major label debut Stranger's Almanac which, in my opinion, is their most important and enthralling work. With the first pluck of the guitar on opening track "Inn Town," I was hooked. The song then slowly winds through your whole soul, somehow evoking a familiar relation to you and each perfect-timed instrument and harmony. Of course, number two blasts out the gate with banjo, steel, and fiddle with the catchy "Excuse Me if I Break My Own Heart." Other notes are gut-wrenching "Houses on the Hill," sing-a-long "16-days," and "Dancing with the Women."
Adams and Cary next released their swan song Pnuemonia that some claim is their masterpiece. Although I thoroughly enjoy the album, I still have to side with SA. Notable tracks are "Ballad of Carol Ann," "Bar Lights," and "Sit and Listen to the Rain." All good things must come an end, and, you guessed it, she gone. Ryan Adams would go on to record Heartbreaker and Demolition with classics "Come Pick Me Up," and "Hallejuah," respectively. Although he did release a couple hundred more albums, some with hints of country, personally, my interest was lost.

Also, a band that did not receive much spotlight also help pioneer the genre. That band is Blue Mountain. Starting out as The Hilltops, Cary Hudson and John Stirratt started a rockabilly band in the hills around Oxford, MS, and released one album Big Black River (which is available on emusic!). BBR features a few gems like "Broke Down and Busted" and "Mary Jane." Thereafter, John's sister Laurie formed Blue Mountain with Hudson, and drummer Frank Coutch. Blue Mountain released classic Dog Days in 1995; Homegrown in 1997; Tales of a Traveler in 1999; and Roots in 2001. Again, they broke up, but unlike most relationships that end, Blue Mountain reformed in 2007. Midnight in Mississippi was released in 2008 and proved they are far from done or washed up. Songs like "Blue Canoe," "Soul Sister," "Jimmy Carter," "Wink," and "Lakeside" shaped alt-country in the most prominent ways.

Singer/songwriter Richard Buckner emptied his gut-wrenching unique voice upon me around 1998 when I first heard Since. Buckner's collection is loaded with trophies. I would recommend the albums Since, Devotion & Doubt, The Hill, Bloomed, & his self titled album. Songs I would direct you to are: "Faithful Shooter," "Ten Day Room," "Blue & Wonder," "Lil Wallet Picture," "Roll," "Lucky Buzz," "Goner with a Souvenir."

--If you like Buckner, check out Damien Jurado's On My Way to Absence.

Disclaimer: Old 97's obviously should get a mention. However, I have never listened to much of them.

Also, The Jayhawks are also work a mention. I love tunes like "Save It for a Rainy Day," "Blue," and "Waitin for the Sun." See also: Golden Smog (which is a fusing of Soul Asylum, Wilco, and Jayhawks members).

The Bottle Rockets, under the reigns of Brian Henneman (who played in Uncle Tupelo), also shaped alt-country with their half-serious swayers. See "Wave that Flag," "Early in the Morning," and "Get Down River."

Hepatitis C survivor Alejandro Escovedo also assisted in the sculpting of the genre. In all candor, I am not the biggest fan. However, the man is adored by many. I own Gravity, which is a pretty good album. Real Animal, his latest release, sounds promising. Check out "Sister Lost Soul."

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A lull certainly formed, at least in my collection, between the years, but another alt-country legendary band was raising hell in the dark corners of Northwestern Alabama. Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley formed the Drive-By Truckers and immediately stamped their spot in the blue collar, hard-working alt-country scene. Certainly, David Alan Coe must have shown his ten teeth when he popped in Pizza Deliverance for the first time. It all started for your narrator with Southern Rock Opera. "Women without Whiskey," "Zip City," and "Let There Be Rock" perked up my ears. Then, I was privileged enough to see them live and I was hooked when I heard the mecca of all alt-country songs "Outfit." Decoration Day is chock full of southern fried alt-country such as Blue Mountain-esque "My Sweet Annette," Skynard-esque "Marry Me," and Cash-esque "When the Pin Hits the Shell." Such brutally honest songs can't help but make one want to ride backroads with a bowling pin beer between your legs. The Dirty South, in my humble opinion is their finest. I cannot help but obsess over Carl Perkins Cadillac," "Where the Devil Don't Stay," "Danko/Manuel," and "Tornadoes." (CHECK SPELLINGS). The Truckers got high-centered on their next release A Blessing And a Curse which, in my opinion, was sub-par and quite a let-down. "World of Hurt" and "Wednesday" shine through as the only rays of sanity. However, with the departure of their finest vocalist Jason Isbell, the Truckers wenched out of the rut that was Blessing, and bullseyed with Brighter Than Creation's Dark. Ole Stroker Ace is Adam's apple and shoulders above the rest on BTCD. Outlaw country songs like "Three Dimes Down," "Self-Destructive Zones," and "Ghost to Most" prove why Cooley should get more air-play on the albums. Hood brings back the banjo on my personal favorite "Two Daughters and a Beautiful Wife." Other highlights include "Righteous Path" and "Daddy Needs a Drink." DBT is no doubt headed in the right direction.

Jason Isbell, departed vocalist of DBT, produced his first solo album, Sirens in the Ditch, while he was still with DBT. Rest assured, the next solo album will be a classic. Now that he has time to produce his own material, Isbell will surely produce more classics like "The Magician," and "Dress Blues."

Deer Tick's debut War Elephant has alt-country written all over it. Reared out of Providence, Rhode Island, Deer Tick is mind-blowing good twang. Check out: "Dirty Dishes," "Ashamed," "Art Isn't Real - aka city of sin" and "Long Time."

Cleotis is a hard to find disc. I am not even sure they had a label or not. These hell-raising boys are the definition of rockabilly. Songs like "Looking Thru a Bottle" are classic. Honestly, I wish I would have discovered these cats in college. Also, "Lord, Have Mercy on the Whiskey" speaks for itself. If you see this at an Arkansas record store, let me know. Subsequently, singer Lance Lamberth formed the band Wooden Stares.

Langhorne Slim somehow juxtaposes his white trash sound with a tiny bit of class. Songs like "Rebel Side of Heaven" and "Restless" are instant classics. Jewels in the rough such as "Collette" and "She's Gone" are great finds after the initial impact of the album. This hill country sounding artist is definitely a genre crosser.

Clem Snide is another alt-country staple. See End of Love album.

Sun Kil Moon, Mark Koselek, or Red House Painters. My personal favorite is Sun Kil Moon's Ghosts of the Great Highway. People swear by Mark Koselek's solo material, and the Red House Painters, but I find them boring. However, SKM's Ghosts is not a bit boring. "Carry Me Ohio," "Glenn Tipton," and "Salvador Sanchez" are ravers. Great, great album. SKM also released April of which I am not a fan. I do enjoy a few rousers on the Modest Mouse cover album, Tiny Cities. See "Neverending Math Equation."

The Avett Brothers bring the torque of rock to bluegrass. Fans have coined them "slamgrass." However, the Brothers can belt out a beautiful harmonic melody on about one half of their collection. Buy any of their albums. Steer away from EP's at first. Favs like "Left on Laura, Left on Lisa," "Go to Sleep," and "Talk on Indolence" will leave you sweating, while "Weight of Lies," "If Its the Beaches," and "Shame" will leave you teary-eyed.

Old Crow Medicine Show - Wagon Wheel and the new album, Tennessee Pusher bring the house with some fearless bluegrass.

Trampled by Turtles - harmonies, banjo's, and happiness. Buy Duluth and fall in love.

Dan Bern fuses Bob Dylan with alt-country. I am not a huge fan of Bern's non-serious songs, but his serious songs are unreal. "Breathe," "Sweetness," "Trudy," and "God Said No" will immediately hook. Great singer/songwriter.

The Tallest Man on Earth - Shallow Grave. Another strange-voiced dude who can yelp with a banjo. See "The Blizzzard's Never Seen the Desert," "I Won't Be Found," and "Shallow Grave."

The Felice Brothers have been praised enough on this blog. They also fuse Dylan with alt country with a dash of Tom Waits. If you haven't discovered them by now its not my fault. See "Frankie's Gun," "Radio Song," and "Whiskey in my Whiskey."

Backyard Tire Fire recently poked their noses in the alt-country scene. BYTF adds a handful of The Band to their alt country smoothie. BYTF sounds a lot like the beginning days of Wilco. Check out "A Better Day," "I Don't Know What To Do," and "Everybody's Down."

Wrinkled Neck Mules are a bit more country than alt, but good nonetheless. I would begin with "Minor Enough" and "Big Dipper."

The Be Good Tanyas. This is one of the few female bands that I absolutely love. These girls can rock out a harmony and a banjo. Blue Horse is a classic. Check out: "Lakes of Ponchatrain," "Rain and Snow," "Littlest Birds."

American Altitude is another hard-to-find album, but a gem nonetheless. AA is more on the mellow side of the tracks, but has delightful melodies such as "A Mountain and a Missile," and "Hung Like a Woman."

Also on the mellow side, Great Lake Swimmers brings the rocking chair tunes of North Carolina. Concentrate on "Your Rocky Spine," and "I Am Part of a Large Family."

Horse Feathers is another slow -tempoed alt-country ditty. However, the Applachain melodies work. See "Dustbowl."

Eric Bachmann. I recently discovered this singer/songwriter and immediately was floored. Like those aforementioned, Bachmann brings a little Dylan to the card game. See "Man O War."

Giant Bear - Nashville alt-country bumpkins GB opened the eyes of many with "Nashville" and "Jim Barton."

Jason Collett - Broken Social Scenester surprised listeners with laid back Idols of Exile. Check out "We All Lose One Another," "Hangover Days," and "Fire."

Josh Ritter - Last year, I was blown away by this artist. JR is an incredible song writer. I am enamored with The Animal Years and The Historical Conquests of Josh Ritter. See tunes "Wolves," "Girl in a War," "Good Man," and "Empty Hearts."

These next two came essentially before the genre but nonetheless should appeal to lovers of it.

Robert Earl Keen. I could go on and on. Texas country to be confused with alt-country at its finest. Check out No. 2 Live Dinner, and Walking Distance. Specifically, press repeat on "The Road Goes on Forever," "Gringo Honeymoon," "Coming Home," "Feeling Good Again."

John Prine. Quirky, clever vocals emit from born songwriter John Prine to produce a backroad feel of alt-country. Check out songs, "Illegal Smile," "Please Don't Bury Me," "Souvenirs," "Paradise," the list goes on and on. Prine is a true legend.

Joe Pug - "Hymn 101" should do it for you.

Steve Earle - Check our Transcendental Blues as a start.

Lucero is a Memphis based husky alt-country acts that has been compared to the like of the Boss. If you like DBT, you will enjoy Lucero. Check out "That Much Further West," "Tears Don't Matter Much," and "I Can Get Us Out of Here Tonight."

Magnolia Electric Co. and Songs: Ohia. is slower alt-country. See "Lonesome Valley," "Memphis Moon."

Mason Jennings: the older stuff. MJ also brings the Dylan element and along with his harmonica. See album Use Your Voice.

Sam Baker - Vocally unique Singer/songwriter Sam Baker throws a little twang in his folky rootsy tunes like "Truale," "Waves," and "Orphan."

16 Horsepower. I recently discovered this band while scouring emusic. 16 Horsepower is somewhat of a gothic folk alt-country. Not quite as haunting as Grizzly Bear, but much more listenable and twangy. Hallowing vocals and plucky banjos create a nice mix of alt-country. Check out: "Outlaw Song" and "Single Girl" on Folklore.

Don Chambers and Goat. I recently discovery DC+G as they opened for Drive-By Truckers. I must admit their live show surpassed their studio material. However, I have not purchased their newest cd. Reminds me of a rocking Tom Waits. Check out "Cain" "South" and "Only a Fool."

Peter Bruntnell. Obscure alt-country artist from back in the day, Bruntnell recorded Normal For Bridgewater with Bruntnell's band, along with Eric Heywood and Dave Boquist from Son Volt. He has released four more albums since that 1999 jewel which include: Ends of the Earth, Played Out, Ghost in a Spitfire, and his latest, Peter and the Murder of Crows. Check out: "N.F.B." and "By the Time My Head Gets to Phoenix."

Stretches: Below are albums that have somewhat of an alt-country dash.

Fleet Foxes. Although pigeonholed as "indie," Fleet Foxes no doubt have a mountain background which hints at alt-country or old MMJ. See "Myokonos," "Your Protector," "Blue Ridge Mountains."

My Morning Jacket: The early stuff. Such as "At Dawn," "Just Because I Do," "Dancefloors," "Easy Morning Rebel," "Evelyn Is Not Real," and "The Bear."

The Mountain Goats - nasal indie artist John Darnielle, no doubt, draws a few comparisons to the genre. See "This Year," "Up the Wolves," and "First Few Desperate Hours."

Bright Eyes and Conor Oberst - Indie hearthrob has certainly headed in the right direction, towards alt-country that is. See "Four Winds," "I Must Belong Somewhere," "At the Bottom of Everything" better yet: the I'm Wide Awake It's Morning album, "Make War." Under Conor Oberst & the Mystic Valley Band, see "Get Well Cards," "Sausalito," "I Don't Want to Die (in the hospital)," etc.

Band of Horses clearly echoes remnants of alt-country. See "General Specific," "Monsters," and "Weed Party."

Kings of Leon: Youth & Youth Manhood. Rockabilly tracks like "Joe's Head," "Talihini Sky," and
"Tranny" most definitely have a little Tennessee backcountry between the lines.

Chatham County Line - have a few of these guy's tunes. I need to purchase more. Slam packed with banjo pickin'. CCL borderline on bluegrass.

Bon Iver is labeled as "indie" but undoubtedly has a woodsy sound. See the whole album of For Emma, Forever Ago. I must note that it is very mellow.

Iron & Wine - Sam Beam most definitely has the aforementioned mountain sound. See albums The Creek Drank the Cradle and Our Endless Number of Days. This one also gets a mellow tag.

Bonnie Prince Billy - Rope him in the the above two. See albums I See a Darkness, Superwolf, and Lie Down in the Light.

Okkervil River is another pigeonholed "indie" act. However, tunes like "Singer Songwriter," "Songs of Our So Called Friends," "Calling and Not Calling My Ex" and "Okkervil River Song" are clearly within the genre.

Bands I don't know much about but are nonetheless roped in the genre:

M. Ward - people love this guy, its just a little slow for me. I hear Post-War is the classic.
Marah - See "Dishwasher's Dream"
The Greenhornes
Jenny Lewis
Rilo Kiley
Neko Case
Ola Podrida
Paul Curreri
Radio Nationals
The Gourds
Kathleen Edwards
Scud Mountain Boys

Well, that about does it. Please feel free to add to this list. I love checking out some new alt-country.


Unknown said...

Wow what a post. It covered everything. Thanks for the artists that I will have to check out.


Anonymous said...

Wow thanks for the work you've done. You're covering my genre. I would add YOnder Mountain String Band to the list. Alt-Country bluegrass with a comical twist.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for the great post! I was glad to see that you mentioned Okkervil River(the Stage Names is a classic). I was really surprised that you mentioned Cleotis. They were a southern version of the Replacements. I was fortunate enough to see one of their shows and was blown away by their raw power(and jagermeister tolerance).
Do you know much about them?

Ethnic Mike said...

New reader here, just found your blog on a random indie banjo Google search. That was a huge great list of names for me to sort through. I like any alternative suggestions to the stream of crap they call country on the radio.

I'd like to add Bobby Bare Jr. and Volebeats to the list.

Django said...

Checkout the .357 String Band!!!
Some badaaaassss bluegrass!

grifftrain said...

I'm not sure how old this post is, but it is a great look at my favorite era of music. Some of the article feels like you were reading my mind and scanning my cd collection, and other parts of the article has given me an assignment. That being to check out the bands I don't know about. Great job, friend