Country Before Hillbillies and Singing Cowboys
New Old-Timers: One of the Few alt.country acts to Adopt Country Garb

 

Although alt.country may sound nearly identical to country at times there are tremendous differences in the two. Breaking down musical allusions is a difficult task, but in country music it is further complicated by the universal references to its own past. Nearly all country artists have cited Hank Williams, Patsy Cline, etc. in their works; this process, as described by Richard Peterson, is an essential component of establishing authenticity in Country.

Album Art for an alt.country Collection (1997)
Detail: Artifacts from the Past

Country music emerged as a commercial form in the twenties and thirties as another wave of urban migration heightened a sense of absence in the national landscape. The old ways of understanding community and identity were transformed, and traditional sounding music and its trappings (the radio barn dance, the costuming) offered one way of reinterpreting the new social systems using images that seemed familiar and which were firmly grounded in the old places. These types of music offered reassurances that better, simpler ways of life existed by combining the conveniences of modernity with the values of an agrarian past. Country music and all its variants (folk, bluegrass, etc.) rely on an implied connection to the past, more nostalgia than history, to convey their themes. As Peterson shows in Creating Country Music, this process involves a constant reinvention of country music, taking current popular elements, both musical and social, and adding them to the older styles so that the music and the image of "Country" remain current while retaining some links with the past. As soft shell country increases in popularity in the 1990s, "the past" has become less clear and further removed from that sense of place and more connected to an individual past, while the more high-brow country of bluegrass favors a more "accurate" capturing of the past, acting as a preservationist force for artifacts which otherwise would vanish in the modern world. The net effect is the same though; Country becomes a form of tourism where the past may be viewed but not actually accessed.

In alt.country the past is not distinct and forever gone but is intricately connected with the present. Alt.country's link to the heritage of country music relies less on the comforting visual images that many mainstream artists employ and more on the actual musical tradition, since visually their allegiances often lie outside of Country. This then establishes a link with that heritage but also signals that it differs from the Nashville products. Alt.country undermines this reverence by pairing these allusions with allusions to its punk and post-punk heritage. While this process may suggest an attempt to tear down the country tradition, alt.country artists are still able to maintain a serious reverence while recognizing the irony of their compositions. Their love of Hank Williams, the Carter Family, or other honored country artists serve to ally the new movement with authentic voices from the past rather than the carefully groomed, sanitized products of Nashville, because these older artists stand for an intensity of emotion and a hard scrabble sensibility that is white washed out of the corporate country world.

The Waco Brothers' version of "Nine Pound Hammer"

 

 

 

 


Punk music and country music have always had more in common than most people gave them credit for. They both were rooted in working class anxiety about the modern world. The former was rebellious, nihilistic, and leftist, and the latter was nostalgic, centered around communities (whether real or imagined), and cherished a sense of conservatism or even reactionaryism. Despite the nihilism of punk, it too sought to create communities of like-minded people. Both genres embrace concepts of authenticity, originality, and adherence to its roots. Alt.country, I believe bridges the gap between these two genres for its audience. If, as I believe, alt.country is in part a reaction to the contemporary political and social landscape then it uses the Depression-era elements of Country to contextualize the world experienced through punk and its heirs. Punk raged against and laughed at a world of closing opportunities and then poked holes in the hypocrisy of Reagan-era optimism. However, the promise of prosperity which flourished during the early and mid-80s had by the end of the decade dried up again for many. Part of the power of "old-time" music was its responsiveness to the Depression. The gospel and work songs and the plaintive ballads all expressed the overwhelming impact of the Depression, particularily on rural areas, but the act of creating or participating in Country music was a symbolic fight against the hopelessness and loss presented in the songs. Alt.country combines these two forms of symbolic revolt in response to the economic failings of a new era, creating an empathetic bond between the Dust Bowl Refugees, the actual victims of Reaganomics, and alt.country's audience, who at the very least perceive themselves as facing economic repercussions stemming from the eighties. It also serves to highlight these problems in a time when much of the population is unaware that they exist.

 

alt.country Festival as Barn Dance:Advertisement from No Depression magazine, 1998
Barnstorming in the Early Years of Country, about 1942

 


No Depression?: The Present as the Past

Alt.county alludes to a variety of pasts, yet one of the most prominent and persistent is the Depression. Outside of Hank Williams, the most frequently quoted musical forms in alt.country are those of early pioneers like the Carter Family, Roy Acuff, Bill Monroe, and Woody Guthrie who helped define the genres of Country from the late twenties through the mid forties. Alt.country ostensibly began with the release of Uncle Tupelo's album No Depression (1990), which borrowed both its title and title song from the Carter Family original "No Depression in Heaven." That album, which also included a version of Ledbetter's "John Hardy," established this link between the Depression era and the contemporary post-Reagan world. Featuring songs like "Factory Belt" and "Graveyard Shift," Uncle Tupelo illustrated a world that had inherited no positive effects from trickle down economics. The album is filled with vignettes that could easily apply to either era, and only the garage punk influences break the nostalgia and ground the album in the present. That album also provided the name for the fanzine which documents the alt.country scene, a magazine filled with black and white images that reflect a sense of photography derived from the Farm Security Administration archives.

Scroat Belly's Modern "Break-Down" on "Why Don't You Haul Off and Love Me"

 

Gillian Welch Revival (1996)

Lyrically these connections are drawn by a number of artists, both young and old, within the realm of alt.country. Uncle Tupelo's third album was comprised of both original songs and mostly traditional work and rural songs that reflected the radicalism of Woody Guthrie; Steve Earle on "Hometown Blues" paid his thanks to the singer Doc Watson and to Thomas Wolfe. Earle's "Christmastime in Washington," the first track on El Corazon (1997) begins with a blurring of the past and present, of Pres. Clinton with FDR and literally invokes the spirit of Guthrie in its chorus. The first verse give no clear indication of the time; "the Democrats rehearsed/ Gettin' into gear for four more years/ Of things not gettin' worse. . ./Republicans. . .Said he cannot seek another term/ There'll be no more FDRs," but the lyrics are slurred and sound like "no more FDR." Not until the chorus, "So come back Woody Guthrie/ Come back to us now/ Tear your eyes from paradise/ And rise again somehow," does the song clarify that this is after the Depression (since Guthrie died in the 1960s). This establishes the present as an analogous time to that Depression; however, like Uncle Tupelo, Earle's song is an attempt to bring attention to a crisis being ignored. "The unions have been busted/ The proud red banners torn/ To listen to the radio you'd think all was well/ But you and me and Cisco know it's going to hell."

 


Bruce Springsteen and the Ghosts of John Steinbeck

On The Ghost of Tom Joad (1995) Bruce Springsteen repositions himself in the Southwest, and as the album title suggests merges the past and present. While the title evokes Steinbeck's socially conscious fiction, it also separates this modern work from its predecessor. This is the ghost of Tom Joad, indicating an awareness of what he stands for but in a time in which he does not or cannot exist. This world of Vietnamese boat people, illegal aliens, etc. experiences a set of problems similar to those of the Depression, but the album eschews some of the moral certitude that Steinbeck had. The Joads were good, hard-working folk faced with an economic situation beyond their control; these modern refugees are impoverished in a time of general prosperity, and many are illegal aliens. They are prostitutes and drug runners; they cook methamphetimine. The Anglos, the Tom Joads, on the album are murderers, members of the Klan, yet they are not the obvious villians of The Grapes of Wrath either. They are being pushed out of work by a changing economy and are as lost as the aliens, lashing out at whatever seems to be responsible for their problems. Steinbeck's novel offered easy heroes, while this album exists in a world after the old heroes have died; these new heroes are shadows of the older ones, but their spirit is transient, present because of how they face adversity rather than their success against the odds.

California 1939, Dorothea Lange
Bruce Springsteen The Ghost of Tom Joad, 1995

All the songs are original, and the sparse musical accompaniment of guitar, slide guitar, harmonica, and light percussion suggest a older style although he is actually returning to a style he created earlier in his career. Many of the songs are sung from the point of view of illegal Hispanic immigrants, allying their plight with that of the Dust Bowl refugees who scoured the West for a subsistence. Springsteen's connections to the past are not used lightly on this album; the pathos in his voice stresses the hardships that he sings about, and the album credits include references to scholarly works on poverty in the Southwest.

Lines provide one of the dominant images on the album, appearing prominently in over half the songs; Springsteen situates much of the album in the Southwest, and many of the references are to the Mexican borderline. Lines also designate the point between clean and criminal on "Straight Time," the transient love captured as "dry lightening on the horizon" in "Dry Lightening," or racial boundaries as in "Galveston Bay." The border line establishes the language of the line, a division of good and bad, or in this case poverty and abundance; however, as "Sinola Cowboys" warns "everything the north gives it exacts a price in return." In these songs catastrophe never strikes south of the border; "Across the Border" shows the north exists as a promise of renewal and prosperity, yet all the other tracks expose the realities of life as an illegal alien- AIDS and drugs for the "border boys," attacks by the KKK, illegal crystal meth labs in the desert.

Lines denote not just the physical passage from Mexico to the U.S., but also figurative lines, the limits that desperation pushes one toward and the poverty line which all these characters tred; the other major theme, connected with the lines, is descent. The INS push the illegals back down into Mexico in "The Line;" the narrator of "Straight Time" goes down to the basement to retrieve his gun before going back to crime, and the narrator of "Youngstown" feels himself "sinkin' down" after the steel works close. The blurring of the physical and figurative landscapes ally Mexico with poverty, a line that nearly all the characters balance, yet the U.S. takes on a spiritual, and economic, impoverishment that is as oppressive as that south of the border. Springsteen's vocals serve to bring the audience into this equation too; the music is mixed so low that at times it is almost inaudible while the vocals are clear, strong, and emotive. The audience then is immersed in the lives that the album depicts.

The album opens like El Corazon invoking a kindred spirit from the Depression. The verses of "The Ghost of Tom Joad" offer images of a lost underclass derived from F.S.A. photography, "men walking 'long the railroad track," "families sleepin' in their cars in the Southwest" and "shelter line[s] stretchin 'round the corner," but Springsteen's allusions to the "new world order" and police helicopters remove the song from the past and place the F.S.A. icons in a contemporary setting. The song begins as a desperate plea for recognition that the modern world is more like the past then we want to think, but it needs a radical spirit that figures like Steinbeck or his creation Tom Joad brought to the Thirties. By the end of the song when Springsteen sings that he is now with the ghost of Tom Joad, he has assumed that role, and the album becomes a modern interpretation of the kind of radical art that Steinbeck produced.

Because Springsteen, traditionally a denizen of industrial New Jersey, assumes the identity of his characters, he draws lines of empathy between himself and his characters emphasizing that these are not the only victims. "Youngstown" is the only track on the album that moves outside the Southwest, returning Springsteen to the Northeastern industrial towns from where he came and drawing a connection between the unemployed industrial workers and the western migrants that populate the album. The song indicts the profiteers whom these people "have made rich enough. . . to forget my name" and who have downsized because "the world's changed." Springsteen also addresses the moral aftermath of an industry where "taconite, coke, and limestone/ Fed my children and made my pay/ Them beautiful smokestacks reachin like the arms of God/ Into a beautiful sky of soot and clay." Both the environment and the people have been used and cast off. "The Line" explicitly draws a connection between audience, artist, and the Tejano characters that act as contemporary analogues to the Okies. "The Line" narrates an INS officer's fall from grace after helping "his Louisa" into the U.S.. Like most of the tracks, Springsteen sings in the first person; it opens with the narrator searching for a "way back whole" while he drives the illegals back into Mexico. The last verse draws Springsteen and his narrator, and implicitly the audience, into the equation of Tejanos and Okies; after losing Louisa the night he lets her in the narrator leaves the INS and drifts through the work camps looking for her. He has created such a strong empathy with her and her plight that he becomes a transient taking "what work I could find/ [and] At nights I searched the local bars."