Is alt.country Country?

Country has over the last seventy years become one of the most popular of the popular musics in America. When Polk Brockman and Ralph Peer first recorded it in the 1920s, they assumed that only a narrow market, newly urban whites, would purchase it. The "old-time" music was to be a commodified symbol of a fondly remembered past and place, only recently left behind. The music underwent a series of changes in content, style, and image before it became "Country and Western" and then just "Country," changes which divorced the music from its regional origins and allowed it to become a national language. Today there are several general categories, representing different interpretations of what Country means: mainstream Nashville; folk-bluegrass-New Grass; alt.country. These categories are not impermeable, and they suggest an audience as much as any single style.

Nashville country denotes major label acts, or aspirants, who rely on commercial radio, country cable stations, and mainstream distribution (via Wal-Mart or chain retail stores). Nashville country is thematically the least cohesive of the categories; it is aimed at the largest possible audience and identifies itself as part of the national character. It claims the whole country as its audience, and therefore must constantly reinvent itself for a contemporary audience while maintaining enough of a connection with its past to seem traditional. Folk, bluegrass, and New Grass are products of the counter-culture's revival of acoustic and "traditional" music. These acts tend to be distributed on more niche oriented labels, like Rounder Records, and are more likely to be given airplay on NPR, community radio stations, or PBS's Austin City Limits than on commercial stations; their audience is more white collar fans than Nashville music whose primary audience is working class and middle class, these musically literate fans of bluegrass, etc. are also more likely to listen to Hank Williams and other classic, older stars than contemporary stars. Bluegrass, folk, and other like-minded variants maintain a more literal view of the past. While these forms have evolved in the last seventy years, they are perceived as traditional, having been preserved by the performers and fans. Because they are "artifacts," they also have been granted a legitimacy that the cornier, sentimental country styles have been denied. These genres also emphasize musical virtuosity and lyrical literacy. Alt.country is the least visible of the categories, receiving little national exposure. The bands tend to be distributed by small independent labels and rely on touring, word of mouth (especially via the Internet), fanzines, and local scenes for exposure. Alt.country designates primarily younger bands who have melded pieces of country, folk, and bluegrass with styles that are typically considered antithetical to the country tradition, like punk, indie, or garage rock. Alt.country has added an aggressive attitude and an anti-establishment spirit from these forms to the nostalgic reverence associated with country. It also includes artists who have worked within country or roots-rock but who have been branded as outlaws or pariahs for ideological, political, or social decisions (i.e. public and unrepentant drug abuse, refusal to conform to current trends in Nashville, etc.).

These categories are all fluid, Emmylou Harris, Bill Monroe, or Johnny Cash might very well be seen as fitting into certain criteria of all three, but none of this clarifies what alt.country is. It does draw from a number of of rock and country influences creating a hybrid sound that is neither country or rock. To understand it fully, its influences, liminal artists from a wide spectrum of popular styles, need to be examined: Country artists like Johnny Cash or Willy Nelson who border on rock and/or folk; rock stars like REM and Bruce Springsteen that border on country-folk; punk bands like the Replacements or X who border on roots-rock.


Country

Alt.country is obviously indebted to the tradition of country music, from Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family in the 1920s and '30s through contemporary artists like Steve Earle, Guy Clark, and Emmylou Harris. There is, however, country music and country music. As Richard Peterson characterizes it in Creating Country Music, there is a dialectic within Country between "hard-core" and "soft-shell." In practical terms that translates into a tension between the traditional rural elements and popular elements, between an image that stands against the modern world and one which "chronicles the country. . . [and which] the country will buy." As Peterson documents it, trends in commercial country cycle between the reinvigoration of hard-core artists who "return country to its roots" ideologically, while adding new musical elements. The clearest example of this is Hank Williams who brought the blues to Country in the 1950s. These innovations are then absorbed into Country and popularized by soft-shell artists, thus sparking a new wave of innovation.

Peterson establishes these polarities of hard core and soft shell based on a series of criteria- speech, singing style, lyrics, songwriting, instrumentation, instrumental style, singer's origin, stage presentation, personal life, appearance, and career longevity. In examining alt.country, the personal categories actually fit neither model but tend to point to another antecedent- punk and post-punk music. For the other categories which define musical style, the tendency in alt.country is to fit the hard core model: Singing- untrained voice, personal involvement with the song, rough harmonies, raw emotions; Lyrics- concrete situations, evoking personal experiences; Songwriting- compose their own material about their own (real or imagined) life experiences; Instruments- stringed instruments played in a rough, energized manner, strong rhythm section, references an earlier style. These categories of hard-core and soft-shell are not exclusive to country music but apply to a more generalized view of contemporary music. Popular stylings seek the greatest possible audience, and subgenres, whether heavy metal, hip-hop, or punk, appeal to or represent a smaller, particular audience, one which usually defines itself against the mainstream, and alt.country draws primarily from these hard-core categories including Country..

REAL Country Music
Ad from No Depression, 1998

Alt.country artists have covered songs by Bill Monroe, the Carter Family, Willie Nelson, Hank Williams, and countless others, at one point or another invoking almost the whole country pantheon of hard core artists. In addition to covering earlier songs, alt.country has borrowed the musical styles of their predecessors. Freakwater, Hazeldine, and others adopted the vocal harmonies of the Carter Family, Robbie Fulks the honky-tonk of Hank Williams, and Bill Monroe's banjo and Roy Acuff's fiddle are both featured prominently in alt.country. Steel guitars, Maybelle Carter's flat-picking style, the dobro, and other "old-time" string instruments all emphasize Country's influence. It is not just Country that is adapted; the social activism of folk singers like Woody Guthrie and the Weavers, who came from the same musical tradition as early country stars, has also been incorporated along with the murder ballads, work songs, etc. that they discovered and composed. Hard-core country (or folkie) is not just a style but also an image. Whether it is the anachronistic hillbilly of the '20s and '30s (Roy Acuff), the hard drinking outlaw kicked out of the Grand Ole Opry (Hank Williams), the rambling ne'er do well do-gooder (Woody Guthrie), or just the tough redneck (Johnny Cash) being hard-core has meant not adjusting well to social constraints. Alt.country's punk attitudes then play into this established image of the hard-core artists. While these artists were essential to the development of Country music, they no longer have the widespread audience within Country music that they once had; they have not been forgotten but often remain unheard. Alt.country draws on them as a source of authenticity, borrowing from the originals rather than current "watered down" sounds.

Drawing from the early sounds of country: Robbie Fulk's new "old-sounding" "South Richmond Girl"


Punk and Post-punk

Punk, like country, was originally a blue collar form of expression, although more overtly rebellious. Like early Country music, punk demanded an adherence to authenticity and cherished its unrefined sound, and although it always included an artier side, early pioneers like the Ramones or Johnny Thunders were expressing boredom and anger at a world that sucked and was only getting worse. The music was simply three chord rock and roll straight from the fifties, just sped up and played louder and louder. As punk spread from L.A. and New York to middle America, it produced a number of new strains, some of which laid the groundwork for alt.country. Punk never really broke out of the underground until the 1990s, and so, especially, in the earlier eighties, local scenes maintained distinct flavors. Musically these groups began to interact with their landscape replacing the crowded "urban" sound originating from N.Y. and L.A. with a more expansive sound, reflecting the kind of regionalism upon which country's appeal rests. X, in L.A. began to play "punkabilly," hopped up rockabilly; bands like Rank and File or Mojo Nixon began to morph punk into "cowpunk" either from a genuine interest in country's heritage or from the obnoxious joy of cultivating a trailer-trash aesthetic. Midwest garage punk bands like the Replacements and Husker Du never developed a country sound (although the Replacements were fond of covering country songs to raise the ire of their fans), but as they mellowed and the ideology of "harder, faster, louder" lost some of its luster their auditory assault gave way to a greater emphasis on songwriting. Teenage rage began to be replaced by songs of guilt, remorse, and despair that certainly had an affinity with hard core country themes.

In the wake of punk's attack on popular music rose a second wave- post-punk. Like most of the labels used here, it is an open category signifying only that it was music that had felt the impact of punk rock, and more often ideologically than musically. This is, in fact, post-punk's greatest contribution, especially in tracing the development of alt.country; it showed that "punk" was not a sound but the idea behind any number of styles, many of which were not as obviously abrasive. Singer-songwriters like Billy Bragg and Jonathan Richman renewed a focus on lyrics (never punk's forte) acknowledging not just their punk roots but a heritage which extended back to Woody Guthrie. More pop-oriented artists like 10,000 Maniacs and REM began to reference, lyrically and musically, earlier liminal artists like the Byrds. Punk and post-punk's contributions to alt.country have not just been an inherited ideology; many former punks have made the transition to alt.country too- members of the Nuns, Plimsouls, Zeros, Mekons, and Stray Cats have all been associated with alt.country bands, and punkabilly bands like the Rev. Horton Heat and the Supersuckers have been playing for over a decade, continuing an (ir)reverence for that tradition.

The Rev. Horton Heat (1990)

Early punkabilly from X, "Beyond and Back"

 

 

 

 

 


Indie Rock

Indie ("independent") rock is an ambiguous term defining the method of creation and production of art as much as any one musical style. Indie rock came out of the punk DIY (do it yourself) aesthetic, preferring its smaller, loyal fan base and less polished production values over the pressure of major labels' bottom line values. At its earliest stages, punk was recorded and distributed by local, independent labels until the major labels saw a profit in it and signed many of the more prominent acts. The explosion of post-punk followed a similar trajectory except that there were more and more bands and less profits to be made. From this gap rose a system of distribution and marketing that existed outside of and against the major labels. Major labels put up large amounts of money for recording, marketing, etc. against the sales of an album so that bands must sell huge quantities before they (not the record company) sees any profit; the independent method invests much less money money in recording, etc. and so can break even selling a fraction of the number of copies the majors must sell. For example, major label releases that go gold, selling 500,000 are considered successful (although the band would probably make very little off that release); on an independent label even the biggest sellers rarely top 50,000 copies sold and selling as few as 5000 or 10,000 can be considered a success. A band might not be able to support themselves from these profits, but they can afford to keep releasing material without a nationwide mainstream audience. This allows for a greater flexibility in the types of music released and encourages experimentation, and indie music has subsequently mutated into a myriad of styles. The indie world's anti-establishment ideology produced, among many of things, a reinterest in pre-rock styles. Acts like the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, Railroad Jerk, Palace Music, and the Folk Implosion have all mined the past and reinvented older forms within the context of post-punk music, paving the way for alt.country (especially Will Oldham of Palace). The anti-authoritarian stance of indie has also produced "post-rock," a style which eschews the hegemony of the standard guitar-bass-drums line-up while continuing the experimentation of post-punk, providing another source for the emergence of alt.country.

The indie scene has flourished in the '80s and '90s, and many of the younger alt.country artists have stood by that scene. One way in which alt.country has broken with mainstream country is its refusal to enter the Nashville industry; they have not move to Nashville, sold their songs to mainstream artists, or struck deals with major labels, remaining on indie labels and relying on fanzines and independent press for publicity, and creating country fans from a non-country audience.