In the early 1990s I, like so many grunge refugees, rediscovered our country roots through what was then called alt.country. This was an odd, misfit genre full of what some now call “Americana” or “roots music”…but also included grunge, cowpunk, (or even metal) influenced bands that had a certain earthiness or twang. Many eschewed the increasingly high production values and pop outlook of the Nashville-dominated industry for a more lo-fi sound, frequently infused with a strong punk and rock & roll aesthetic. Lyrics could be bleak, gothic, or socially aware, but also more heartfelt and less-often followed the clichés sometimes used by mainstream country musicians. In other respects, the musical styles of artists that fell within this genre often have little in common, ranging from traditional American folk music and bluegrass, through rockabilly and honky-tonk, to music that is indistinguishable from mainstream rock or country. The flagship magazine of the movement, No Depression, pointed out the problematic nature of the category when the said (on their bi-line) “covering alternative country (whatever that is).”
My alt.country journey began with Uncle Tupelo, the Jayhawks and Michelle Shocked…which lead to a steady diet of Gram Parsons, Steve Earle, Townes Van Zandt, The Old 97s, The Drive-By-Truckers…this was further re-enforced when I moved to Austin, Texas–ground zero for many alt.country acts.
But as I’m going through a major change in my life, I also feel that musically, my alt.country era is coming to and end. I don’t mean that I’ll stop listening to the genre (Gram Parsons will always be near to my heart)…but that I think alt.country is drifting out of my major musical focus…I’m not quite fully sure where I’m drifting yet…but I am clearly drifting.
Uncle Tupelo’s 1990 LP No Depression is widely credited as being the first “alt.country” album…but the band broke up in 1994, with Jay Farrar forming Son Volt and others following Jeff Tweedy to form Wilco…Son Volt still sounds a lot like Uncle Tupelo (but sometimes with different production aesthetics)…But Wilco has moved to cover all new territory…By 2002 Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot established the band as both experimental and “1970s-influenced power-pop”…and the pop trend has been reinforced through A Ghost is Born, Sky Blue Sky and Wilco (The Album). and side projects like Minus 5’s Down With Wilco. Not only are bands like Wilco heading out of the alt.country fold…but now even the magazine-version of No Depression is no more (although an on-line community is still thriving).
I have found myself drifting along with Wilco into power-pop/songwriter territory. Unfortunately, some reviewers have dubbed this genre “Dad Rock.” A title that is not meant to be flattering, but might bear some truth…especially as other, older bands now showing up on my recent playlists include Nike Lowe, Todd Rungren, Big Star, Bad Finger, the Cars, and ELO. But other, newer, pop/rock (and poppy singer songwriter) bands have also crept into heavy rotation on my ipod: The White Stripes, Bishop Allen, Fiest, The Raconteurs, Regina Spektor, Sufjan Stephens, Vic Chestnutt, Clem Snide and Neko Case…even when I do buy new alt.country, it has a pop feel also …like Back Yard Tire Fire.
I’m even sympathetic with Shooter Jennings’ much maligned, new progressive rock-influenced album Black Ribbons (He’s also turning a bit away from his alt.country roots).
I’m still not sure what eventual form this shift will take…nor do I fully understand why my taste are shifting…but, one thing is clear…a new era is dawning in my life in more than one sense…and my music is changing along with it.