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Alt-Country: Where did it come from and where is it going?

The phrase, coined in the 1990s, can still be found in press kits and album reviews, along with its even more ambiguous synonym, Americana. Alternative country is an abbreviation for music that draws on American folk and country traditions but is distinct from commercial Nashville. However, it has been applied so broadly — to punk rockers playing Hank Williams songs, bluegrass purists, and all manner of singer-songwriters in between — that it has always been difficult to tell whether it means much of anything.

Alt-country, like other country subgenres, arose from a clash of styles. Outlaw country and punk rock were the most prominent influences on alt-country, a story with many disputed beginnings. Outlaw country was one of many subgenres that arose as a reaction to the slick countrypolitan sound that dominated Nashville and the country charts in the 1970s and 1980s. Around the same time, punk was taking hold, with a similar nonconformist philosophy of stripping away production to find the roots. The stark poeticism of outlaw country tent singer-songwriters like Townes Van Zandt, Steve Earle, and Merle Haggard, combined with the abrasive lo-fi sound of punk to form alt-country.

Recent releases by artists once regarded as standard-bearers for the genre have deviated far from anything remotely resembling country music. Jeff Tweedy, for example, got his start in the rootsy band Uncle Tupelo, which he co-founded with singer and guitarist Jay Farrar (who now plays austere heartland rock with Son Volt). Mr. Tweedy’s current band, Wilco, has experimented with hazy, sometimes experimental rock. Ryan Adams, who fronted the neo-honky-tonkers Whiskeytown in the 1990s, has covered a wide range of stylistic ground in his solo work, from punk to U2-style anthemic rock.

Even No Depression, which has served as the niche’s devoted chronicler since 1995, recently dropped its long-running tag line — promising to cover “alt-country (whatever that is)” — in favour of “the past, present, and future of American music.”

Uncle Tupelo’s (and alt- country’s) place in American roots music was finally settled with Uncle Tupelo’s third release, March 16-20, 1992. It was a roots music album of both covers and originals produced by R.E.M. guitarist Peter Buck that sold more copies than the band’s first two releases combined. Following the disbandment of Uncle Tupelo in 1994, drummer Mike Heidorn and guitarist and singer Jay Farrar formed Son Volt, while guitarist/vocalist Jeff Tweedy and the remaining members of Uncle Tupelo formed Wilco. Both bands achieved success in alt-country, with Wilco receiving more mainstream attention.

The alt-country movement did not emerge overnight; it was a sound that had been brewing beneath the surface for some time. The rumblings of alt-country can be traced back to Gram Parsons (The Byrds, The Flying Burrito Brothers) in the 1970s; Jeff Tweedy has been quoted in music journals and magazines citing Parsons as an influence on his early writing. The Mekons are also frequently mentioned by modern alt-country bands as a punk-influenced band known for borrowing elements from country and folk. John Langford, the guitarist for The Mekons, eventually formed The Waco Brothers, a band that fully embraced the alt-country sound.

Emmylou Harris rose to prominence as a gifted folk singer-songwriter, but her 1995 album Wrecking Ball is widely regarded as one of alt-best. Country’s Wrecking Ball was a departure from her previous work, but it earned her a Grammy for Best Contemporary Folk Album.

Though she had been releasing music influenced by blues, folk, and country since the late 1970s, roots icon Lucinda Williams gravitated towards rock as her career progressed. Another top alt-country album is Car Wheels on a Gravel Road, released in 1998 and featuring Steve Earle and Emmylou Harris.

Alt-sound, country’s like that of all American roots music, is constantly evolving. Today, artists such as Jason Isbell, Margo Price, Old 97s, The Avett Brothers, and countless others are propelling the subgenre forward, while many of the genre’s pioneers continue to release music. Here is a list of recommended albums — inspirations, staples, and newcomers — to listen to as you explore alt-country:

The Mekons – Fear and Whiskey

Uncle Tupelo – No Depression

Uncle Tupelo – Still Feel Gone

Uncle Tupelo – March 16-20, 1992

Uncle Tupelo – Anodyne

Son Volt – Trace

Wilco – Being There

Wilco – Yankee Hotel Foxtrot

The Jayhawks – Hollywood Town Hall

Lucinda Williams – Car Wheels on a Gravel Road

Emmylou Harris – Wrecking Ball

Camper Van Beethoven – Telephone Free Landslide Victory

Old 97’s – Too Far to Care

Drive-By Truckers – Decoration Day

The Bottle Rockets – Brooklyn Side

Blue Mountain – Dog Days

Whiskeytown – Strangers Almanac

Gillian Welch – Revival

Alejandro Escovedo – A Man Under the Influence

Dave Alvin – King of California

Lambchop – Nixon

Neko Case – Fox Confessor Brings the Flood

The Sadies – Colder Streams

The Waco Brothers – To the Last Dead Cowboy

Jason Isbell – Southeastern

Pinegrove – Marigold

Margo Price – Strays

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