A Hankerin' for Hank, Buck, Gram And Their Musical Ilk Is Rising Like A Prairie Twister.
By Lisa Weeks
ALT.COUNTRY. NO Depression. Insurgent Country. We've been hearing about the rising popularity of this music for the past six years or so, and although most fans of off-kilter country seem to agree that St. Louis band Uncle Tupelo is the modern progenitor of the movement, corralling insurgent country bands into one distinct genre is a bit like rounding up wild mustangs. The loosely related tribe are an unruly bunch, barely able to conform to neat nomenclature. Journalists have a hard time trying to keep pace with the movement's myriad idiosyncrasies: neo-traditionalists, rootsy barnburners, hillbilly boppers, Americana, cow punks, punkabilly, country folkies...and the list goes on. The new old American music pops up in rock clubs as readily as honkytonks, nestling as easily alongside bluegrass and traditional roots country pickers as they do alternative rockers. Probably because most of them are rock and rollers gone rural.
For a genre born of and still largely confined to humble Midwestern bar rooms, major label interest is warming slowly but steadily to the fact that alt.country is increasingly marketable and salable.
Cult heroes Uncle Tupelo recorded Anodyne for Sire/Reprise, likewise Wilco is also signed to Sire/Reprise while Son Volt records for Warner--even more surprisingly, Richard Buckner is put out by MCA, and Victoria Williams by Atlantic. Despite cross-overs to major labels, the movement remains best interpreted as a growing subculture rather than an immanent pop-culture fad, or an interesting, localized quirk soon to be exploited out of recognition.
Like most hazily defined fringe groups, alt.country has created its own media to satisfy an avid and growing fan base. Fans make good use of the Internet and follow the burgeoning numbers of new and newly discovered old bands in the pages of No Depression magazine.
For all I can tell, the movement is loosely about a return to the roots of American music, and the homespun attitude carries as far as alt.country community recipes posted at the No Depression website, for such succulents as "Amy Rigby's Pork Chop Casserole" and "Kevin Gordon's Cheese Grits." All of which leads to a curious notion of credibility and authenticity. Alt.country is a Heinz 57 backyard breed ambivalent about its pedigree and lack of consistency.
In conversation at SXSW last March with Rhett Miller of the Old '97s (who left alt.country flag-bearer label Bloodshot Records to record Too Far Down to Care for Elektra), the "shift to the majors" was a sensitive point of focus. Miller spoke defensively about the decision, touchy at the idea that the band sold out when they signed to Elektra, that they are press whores, that they effectively joined the dark side of the force. He was quick to point out that the Old '97s are the same band they always were--better, even. And most critics would agree with him. Reviews of their first major label effort have been overwhelmingly favorable.
LEGITIMACY SEEMS TO be an issue for alt.country bands; and because alt.country criteria are so broadly defined, what qualifies as "legitimate" alt.country as opposed to pop or rock music posing as country, or other original traditional music, seems to be decided by consensus rather than rule. It's the same issue that concerns the industry of alternative music at its more experimental edges; namely, that credibility is compromised by too much success. No alt.country player worth his salt would share a stage with the likes of some latterday Conway Twitty.
The corralling, defining process is more of a concern for the labels that market these bands and the journalists who struggle to find coherence in the alt.country panorama. I would argue that access to the alt.country clubhouse is a matter of pith and feel over precise style, musically, artistically and spiritually. You simply know it when you hear it.
The variation between the near-pop Wilco and the back porch pickin' of Son Volt--between Jay Farrar's "a l'il bit country" and Tweedy's "a little bit rock 'n' roll"--is at least in part representative of the range of interpretation that falls within the expansive alt.country spectrum. The further flung ends of the spectrum encompass performers of such wide variety as The Handsom Family, Richard Buckner, The Volebeats, Blue Mountain, The Meat Purveyors, Alejandro Escovedo, Scroat Belly, Killbilly, and Olivia Tremor Control. Some would stretch it to cover Vic Chesnutt and Varnaline.
The movement's oft-cited grandfathers include vintage country artists Hank Williams, Buck Owen, Bill Munroe, Johnny Cash, along with '60s southern rockers Neil Young and of course, Gram Parsons (the Grevious Angels borrowed their name from one of his album titles), Parsons' Flying Burrito Brothers, Creedence Clearwater Revival, among many others. The recent issue of No Depression featured a cover story on bluegrass legend Dr. Ralph Stanley, who's been recording for more than half a century. A Carter Family song "No Depression" titled the Uncle Tupelo album that gave name to the movement, and the magazine.
This is not to say that alt.country is simply a revivalist movement with some rock and roll thrown in for good measure. It's actually more of a deconstructive effort that's revivalist in the idiom and instruments of its expression.
In social terms, the alt.country/No Depression movement, complete with its loving, backward gazes at an Americana of yesteryear, its utilization of traditional and archaic music and instrumentation, and its quest for an antiquated simplicity recast in modern locution, makes perfect sense for an end-of-a-millennium trend. Discontented with the present and fearful of the future, American society is in many aspects rushing towards the past. Retro culture is inescapable. Alt.country is a 20th-century manifestation of fin de siècle culture, a phenomenon of the Victorian Age referencing trends towards world-wearied savoir-faire and the shun of modernization, in favor of a neo-romanticism, an embrace of simpler times.
YOU COULD ALSO argue that many, if not the majority, of the bands of the No Depression movement identify in their music with a working class, often rural, American life, whether they've actually lived it or not. There's an implicit rejection of bourgeoise culture in the informed, romanticized embrace of the Mississippi boatman, the Appalachian coal miner, the antiquated agrarian. Alt.country groups claim this simple integrity as a distinction between themselves and multi-millionaire modern country heroes like Garth Brooks and other glittery creatures of the Nashville star machine.
Bloodshot Records, home to a vast majority of the Midwest's alt.country bands and responsible for coining the phrase "insurgent country," claims its mission is "to keep our steel-toed boots firmly on the throats of the rhinestone encrusted enemies." Bloodshot's Robbie Fulks' "Fuck This Town," found on his widely acclaimed release South Mouth, is an ode to Nashville written in like spirit. Fearing and loathing the rhinestone's glare, alt.country instinctively avoids everything shiny, from patent lyrics and glossy production to new instruments.
Though Uncle Tupelo may be the popular alt.country godhead, they must share the stage of '80s influences with others like the Jayhawks, The Mekons, the Mavericks and even further on the fringe, Camper Van Beethoven. The swelling ranks of bands that either define themselves as alt.country or are lumped in with them are marked by increasingly more widely scattered influences.
Arizona boasts its share of country insurgents including the Grievous Angels, Flathead (with members recently regrouped as D-Liar), The Piersons, Suicide Kings, local twangers Creosote, the much-missed Honey Wagon and of course, Al Perry and the Cattle. As one might expect, it's a pretty short ride from what some may consider alt.country to what others construe as desert rock, and depending on your point of view, Giant Sand, Friends of Dean Martinez, Calexico and Chuck Prophet could also be considered to fit the alt.country bill. Perhaps it's just that mutability that will be alt.country's saving grace in the battle for its credibility and soul.
Tucson celebrates its own foreshortened Twang Fest, with The Grievous Angels from Tempe, Dallas' Slobberbone and Tucson's Creosote on Friday, June 26, at the Club Congress, 311 E. Congress St. Tickets are $4. Call 622-8848 for information.
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