The development of alt.country comes from two angles, the emergence of a type of music and the coalescence of an audience. There have been, since the 1960s and '70s, country artists like Guy Clark, Townes Van Zandt, and Nanci Griffith who never existed comfortably within the mainstream of country; they created a kind of high-brow country, combining the country musical tradition with the more literate lyrics of the folk tradition. This folk sensibility, with its political implications, put them at odds with the escapist entertainment of the mainstream, but they still are thought of as Country and have never really challenged their place within the Country world. Alt.country, while allying themselves with these performers over the more mainstream acts, has consciously rejected a place within Country. Also there have been rock acts like the Eagles who have mined country and folk sources; however, they too remained in their established commercial niche. Alt.country while drawing from all these liminal styles defies categorization; it is consciously neither rock or country. Both the artists and audience recognize that this is something different. Alt.country began to emerge in the very late '80s and early '90s. Every fan can probably point to what they see as the pivotal moment, but I believe the emergence of two bands signaled the beginning of this new category.
In 1988, the Cowboy Junkies released their album Trinity Sessions. The songs are sparse and beautiful country-folk with elements of the blues and jazz and pay homage to Hank Williams, Patsy Cline, Elvis Presley, and traditional music. Its significance lies not so much in the music itself but in its marketing and the fans it attracted. The album was stocked not in country sections of stores, but with "rock" or "alternative" music; the grainy, high contrast black and white photo on the cover does not resemble the packaging of popular country music. The Junkies' publicity came not from country magazines and radio but from rock magazines like Rolling Stone and VH1 cable TV. Their name too both references and cuts against the symbology of "Country." Obviously the cowboy is an important symbol in the mythology of country music, yet the association with junkies stands against that mythological image suggesting a seamy underside to the American archetype. Heroin too has strong ties with punk culture, and the juxtaposition may also allude to the process of creating a new "tradition." That is, if country music can produce a new thing- the singing cowboy in the '30s- it can produce a cowboy junkie too- a new thing for a new era. The Junkies were clearly cultivating an audience that did not include traditional country fans.
Cowboy Junkies, Hank William's "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry"
Musically the Junkies reintroduced "traditional" styles, and updated them, to a new audience. Country and blues were not unknown to educated younger Americans, but the minimalist interpretation of these styles may have been the first "acceptable" country album to enter many people's collections. The stylistic changes made to many of the older songs brought them out of the past, establishing the band as a link between the past and present, rather than the cultural tourism approach of much of country music, where the past is something to be viewed but remains inaccessible. "Blue Moon (Song for Elvis)" revives Elvis's classic hit but also serves as an eulogy to his presence, if not to the man himself. The Junkies inclusion of "Sweet Jane" also signaled that they existed outside the mainstream of country. Most music critics considered the Velvet Underground, who originally recorded the song, the source of an "alternative" stream of popular music, and they serve as a signifier of a type of musical literacy to which the "ignorant masses" do not have access.
The second pivotal moment was Uncle Tupelo's debut No Depression in 1990. Most alt.country fans will agree that Uncle Tupelo found the perfect marriage of punk and country, mixing country's flat picking style with heavy electric guitars and rhythm section. The band's and the album's names give a sense of time and place that is reinforced by the music and the two traditions from which it draws. The opening song "Graveyard Shift" sets the tone for alt.country. The music begins with a country-ish lick that explodes into fuzzed guitars of garage punk- moving from the past to the present and connecting the two. The lyrics establish the connectivity between the Reagan era heartland and the Depression dustbowl; "Some say land of paradise/ Some say land of pain/ Well which side are you looking from" challenges the perception of the present as a time of prosperity for all. Most of the lyrics are buried in the music, but that music creates a mood of the dead-end life that working on the graveyard shift implies.
The Carter Family's version of "No Depression" was an anthem, a rallying point against the despair of a nation based on African-American spirituals which masked social unrest in Christian ideology. Uncle Tupelo's version appeared at a time when a generation was facing similar circumstances, yet much of the nation remained unimpacted. Uncle Tupelo then twists the original's intent, casting off the conventional wisdom that there is no depression, that this is a time of prosperity. As "Life Worth Livin'" shows, the Carter Family's original spirit does still exist in the Uncle Tupelo's work, but it is tempered by a need to document the new depression. "Life Worth Livin'" opens with the verse "This song is sung for anyone that's listening/ This song is for the broken spirited man..." attempting to create the type of community to which early country music aspired, but much of the album remains a wake up call, illustrating the unseen failures and offering snapshots of the hidden depression, images drawn from the F.S.A photography of the 1930s. "Life Worth Livin'" concludes with the statement that "it's still mostly down around here," indicating that the music and a sense of community alone will not affect the situation, that documenting the crisis is not sufficient.
Uncle Tupelo's "Life Worth Livin'"
Uncle Tupelo's first two albums employed this mixture of country of punk establishing their place outside of Country music, but on their third album March 16-20, 1992 (1992) they moved to a completely acoustic sound and mixed traditional folk songs and original songs that were virtually indistinguishable from each other. The album opens with "Grindstone," which like many of the songs on No Depression, documents the hidden despair. The lyrics catalogue the ignominies of the new depression, ". . . tired of taking your place at the end of the line/ 'Son, we'll get to you one by one'/. . . Handcuffs hurt worse when you've done nothing wrong." The latter and the assertion tat "there's plenty of dissent from those rungs below" suggest a transformation from this documentation to the kind of politicized art of Steinbeck. On the album "Grindstone" is immediately followed by "Coalminers," a traditional protest song, reinforcing this new position. The last verse, "Coalminers won't you organize wherever you may be/ And make this a land of freedom for workers like you and me/ I am a coalminer and I'm sure I wish you well/ Let's sink this capitalist system to the darkest pits of hell," stands in stark contrast to the seeming malaise of their earlier work and reveals that Uncle Tupelo did not borrow just the images of the depression but adopted the radical ideology of the period too.