What’s wrong with country music today? “Once upon a time, wild-eyed boys, high on home brew and diet pills, ran amok and plowed the occasional luxury sedan into restaurants just off [Nashville’s] Music Row. … The women had big hair, bigger times, truckstop/trailer park chic, and no problem singing songs about the real sexual politic.” This bit of historical camp comes from a recent issue of No Depression, an infectiously enthusiastic Seattle-based magazine that calls itself “The Alternative Country (Whatever That Is) Quarterly.” Most journals about country music are either oriented toward collectors, like the Journal of Country Music, or oriented toward consumers, like any number of Nashville publications about commercial country. But this is a magazine for a new market: young music fans who grasp the absurdism in Dolly Parton’s act, who understand that Merle Haggard is a better singer than Garth Brooks, who see punk-influenced bands like the Waco Brothers and Wilco as a vindication of their idea of country music.
Alternative country is a reaction against the antiseptic safety of mainstream country music. It’s retro by necessity, so as to avoid the anemic white-soul pablum that country became in the 1980s. It is deprogrammed, studiously sloppy, bad-tempered, unfit for commercial country radio, heavy with the down-market embarrassment of country’s hillbilly past, and mostly made by rockers. Its lyrics often caricature old-style country songs; they sound a lot like bad Faulkner (“June went insane by the time she was nine/ killed her brother with a tire iron,” sings one alternative country act, Moonshine Willy). Its instrumentation tends toward authentic-sounding fiddles and steel guitars, but its sources are people like Neil Young–who shows up in Wilco’s and Son Volt’s maundering ballads–and the Byrds, whose country-rock Sweetheart of the Rodeo album appears in nearly everything.
The phrase “alternative country” has become as good as hard cash in the last year, so desperate is the white pop industry for anything new. “The next 10 years are going to be wild,” says Gary Bennett from country band BR5-49. His band was nominated for a Grammy, and country radio is slowly picking up its singles. Wilco has sold 60,000 copies of its new album, Being There; the Old 97’s, another of No Depression’s frequent causes, has just been signed to the major label Elektra.
Alternative country could be prematurely taxonomized as being made up of four kinds of bands. First there are those whose sheer talent makes them appealing to fans. These include the Mavericks, Dwight Yoakam, and strict honky-tonk classicists BR5-49, all of whom strike the difficult balance between professionalism and cool, in the hallowed tradition of Merle Haggard and Willie Nelson.
N ext there are the semilegit crossovers between country and rock or folk–Wilco, the Old 97’s, Son Volt, Iris DeMent–who adorn themselves in the trappings of country but use a studied, shambling rawness to appeal to rock fans. Wilco, the No Depression-approved band with the strongest fan base, swings between down-home sentimentality and rock aggression: The lyrics to a new song, “Misunderstood,” begin with spare piano accompaniment and local color (“You’re back in your old neighborhood/ where the cigarettes taste so good”) and end with feedback and tantrums (“I’d like to thank you all for nothing at all!”).
Then there are the true eccentrics. Catherine Irwin and Janet Beveridge Bean are the singers and songwriters of Freakwater, whose recent album, Old Paint (Thrill Jockey), is “alternative” by process of elimination, not by design. Their songs sound like starched and nasal Appalachian old-time country music, unvarnished to a fault, and their lyrics are anything but mythopoetic cliché. Freakwater’s bad-habit songs “My Old Drunk Friend” and “Smoking Daddy” are about the anxiety and unglamorousness of bad habits, and consequently believable as contemporary songs. They don’t respect religion much, either. On “Gone to Stay,” they sing: “There’s nothing so pure/ as the kindness of an atheist/ a simple act of unselfishness/ that never has to be repaid.” Lambchop, a very quiet 11-piece band fitted out with a trumpet, baritone saxophone, and organ, as well as the standard country setup, has been building a low-budget and slightly surreal version of Billy Sherrill’s string-swept 1970s country productions. Their songs are slow and graceful, with lulling chord cycles, shimmering dynamics, and surreal lyrics delivered just above a whisper (as on a recent full-length album, How I Quit Smoking [Merge]).
Finally, there are the amateur ethnographers from Chicago, Seattle, Austin, Brooklyn, and other centers of bohemia. This fourth group–bands such as Whiskeytown, Moonshine Willy, and the Waco Brothers–uses country as a shock device, a flash of bad taste, and seems to view the genre as an oppressive religion. The cover of Angry Johnny and the Killbillies’ album, Hankenstein, shows Hank Williams drawn like Frankenstein’s monster; the cover of a Bloodshot alternative-country anthology called Hell-Bent parodies a famous photo of a grimacing, emaciated Williams in an Alabama jail. The drawing is by Jon Langford of the Waco Brothers–also a founding member of the Mekons–and it puts arrows through Williams, so that he’s half St. Sebastian, half drunken starveling.
“Alternative” has famously been defined as meaning that at least one of the musicians in the band can’t play. BR5-49 and the Mavericks place out of the genre on those grounds. On BR5-49 (Arista), the band demonstrates a grasp of 1940s and 1950s country, down to the grace notes and details, and invests its songs with so much professionally recycled enthusiasm that a listener can relearn the dynamics of the old stuff. The Mavericks, in Music for All Occasions (MCA), clearly possess enough knowledge of country’s history to feel ambivalent toward it; but it’s such a high-functioning bar band that it can’t be alternative. Freakwater, on the other hand, often leaves you thinking that it would be great if it just sang its harmonies with a modicum of timing.
One thing clearly absent from a lot of alternative country, however, is piety. Traditional country is a sidestepping, roundabout art, fond of coy and cagey divagations. “I’ll believe that you still love me/ when you wear your veil of white,” Williams wrote in 1949. “But you think that you’re above me/ so there’ll be no teardrops tonight.” The educated bohemian atheists behind alternative country, on the other hand, have no shame at all. The hell with piety, they say; they’d rather play up country’s self-destructive side: drinking, cheating, and family crackups.
The problem with all this is that posturing about Southern “truckstop/trailer park chic” can sometimes be little more than that–posturing. A great country singer is someone who’s been around the block but can’t get to the point in mixed company. Being punk-blunt in country music usually yields little more than a cheap lampoon. It’s not as if all this postmodern self-consciousness amounts to anything new. The country-music business has always marketed a certain nostalgia for itself. The earliest “hillbilly” recordings had a sort of present-immediately-becoming-past effect: They purported to be old-timey as soon as they were released. Contrary to the easily caricatured image of country musicians as “the real thing,” many hillbilly artists were as self-conscious as their pop and folk counterparts. In 1936, well before No Depression was launched, the Carter Family recorded a song called “No Depression in Heaven.” A.P. Carter, the family’s patriarch, was certifiably rural; he grew up in southwestern Virginia’s Poor Valley. But he was no primitive. He was a song collector obsessed with the idea of recovering America’s vanishing oral tradition. The Old 97’s take their name from “The Wreck of the Old 97,” a song popularized by Vernon Dalhart in 1924. Dalhart, born Marion Slaughter, was the son of a successful rancher from a Texas port city. He enrolled at the Dallas Conservatory of Music, and sang Gilbert and Sullivan in New York City opera houses before perceiving that there was a market in hillbilly songs.
Not to dismiss this new breed of country rockers altogether. American culture has always fed off half-truths about authenticity, and this is the way in which alternative country is a genuine expression of something: Hipsters with a sense of ironic detachment, like Chicago’s Moonshine Willy, have as much claim to the “real” America as any mule-driver. Where alternative country runs into trouble is its tendency to ignore what’s durable about country in favor of its stereotypical hay-bales-and-whiskey-bottles shtick. At its worst, it’s become a new refuge for the untalented musician, a fact that Ryan Adams from the band Whiskeytown owns up to in the song “Faithless Street”: “I had started this damn country band/ ‘cause punk rock was too hard to sing.”