The Poverty of Alt.Country
Issue #46, December 1999
Among the most interesting responses to the bloated eructations of the corporate culture industry during the course of this decade has been the rise of a nation-wide movement to resurrect the spirit and sound of one of the United States' most revered and maligned musical genres: country. This contemporary movement -- parading under a variety of designations including, "Alternative Country," "y'all-ternative," "Cosmic American Music" -- emerged in direct distinction to the generic, soporific, and formulaic garbage which dominates the country music recorded by subsidiaries of Time Warner and Bertelsmann, heard on hundreds of "New Country" radio stations, and seen on Viacom's newly-acquired Nashville Network.
Alt.Country hails as its icons Graham Parsons, Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys, and Hank Williams, Sr. Its major mouthpieces include "No Depression" magazine published out of Seattle and Bloodshot Records based in Chicago, and some of its better-known artists include Son Volt, Wilco (although with their latest release, Summerteeth, they drift away a bit from the twang associated with alt.country), Blue Mountain, Alejandro Escovedo, and Whiskeytown.
The music generally described as alt.country has a decidedly retroactive predilection. Being defined as "alternative," its mission, on one level, is to defend the tradition and integrity of country music from its inauthentic corporate usurpers, such as Garth Brooks, Vince Gill, and Alan Jackson. Viewing these artists as blow-dried charlatans who shill for Nashville powerbrokers interested solely in maximizing profits, the good alt.country artist rejects the slick, reverb-drenched overdose and the trite, bromidic lyric in favor of a more unalloyed production sound and a thoughtful, somber story.
In its initial stages, the alt.country phenomenon was wildly successful and its efforts at upsetting the corporate grip on "country" were convincing in many quarters. Artists such as the Derailers, Wayne Hancock, and Big Sandy and his Fly-Rite Boys produced albums which embraced the fiddles, pedal steels, and string basses that spoke to a bygone era of AM radio and honky tonks. Alt.country artists wrote songs which speak to the human condition of trying to get by in a complicated world. Many did this soulfully and honestly, producing some great music.
Interestingly, in the retro-obsessed 1990s where huckster swing bands like the Mighty Blue Kings, Royal Crown Review, and the Squirrel Nut Zippers have attracted the attention of major labels by poorly ripping off the pop music of the 1940s and 1950s, it has been notable that the alt.country crowd has largely been shunned by the powers behind commercial country music. Sure, some artists like the Old 97s and Robbie Fulks have made the jump from the alt.country indies to major labels, but they have been portrayed by their A&R people as "alternative" acts rather than "country" acts and their efforts at producing "alternative" records have been largely unconvincing. Thus, as a cultural phenomenon, alt.country has maintained its oppositional stance vis a vis corporate colonization -- unlike the other "alternative" movement of the 1990s whereby the Seattle "grunge" bands spawned a whole new demographic for the major record labels and Viacom's other properties (MTV and VH1) to exploit.
While alt.country has kept the entertainment/marketing complex at bay, it is important to ask how it has preformed culturally. This brings us to the major problem with alt.country: its own formulaic tendencies. Lauded for taking a decidedly antagonistic stance towards the corporate music makers in Nashville, alt.country simultaneously defends its authentic lineage to the country music stars of yesteryear while denying that. those same idols were themselves caught up in the noisome Nashville machine. When we see English punker turned Chicago cowboy Jon Langford and his Waco Brothers singing the songs of the innocuous patsy of the 1940s Nashville establishment, Roy Acuff, we can not help but be skeptical of the recycling of such uninjurious material. Or if current Austin, Texas favorites, the Hot Club of Cowtown, do a blazing version of Bob Wills' "Cherokee Maiden" are we supposed to ignore the problematic ethnic and gender stereotyping in the name of resurrecting a "tradition?"
What alt.country fails to do is to use its reverence of the past as the basis to create something new. Culturally and musically inert, alt.country not only thrives on the continual reproduction of shallow caricatures of discredited clichés (like San Francisco's Red Meat whose hackneyed hillbilly shtick is both stupid and insulting) but also has trouble producing interesting material. What has Wayne Hancock offered on his three recent releases other than a pretty good copy of Hank Williams, Sr.? Have Ray Condo and his Ricochets or Big Sandy and his Fly-Rite Boys advanced the 1950s Western Swing of Tex Williams, Milton Brown, or Bob Wills? On a musical level, these questions must be answered in the negative.
It seems that if alt.country is to be termed a success, this designation must be understood with a nod to its ability to pose as an alternative to the consolidation and corporatization of culture without acting as a positive force against it. The alt.country crowd is not playing by the rules, but they are not trying to change them either. Like any subculture, alt.country has provided many (curiously) urban youth with a style and its accompanying accoutrements. What it has not provided -- which other subcultures like punk rock of the late 1970s placed at the center of their movements -- has been a thorough critique of its own tradition and a commitment to cultural innovation. Failing to understand these important omissions, alt.country will most likely remain socially obscure and musically boring.
Hugh Bartling teaches in the Political Science Department at the University of Kentucky.