A Beginner’s Guide To Alt. Country & Americana

Screen Shot 2013-03-06 at 12.20.06Joe Whyte has put together a top ten guide by way of an introduction to the vast amount of music known as alt. country / insurgent country / Americana / cow punk. He previously did a similar feature focussing on reggae, an article which generated a huge amount of debate, rancour, omissions and disagreement. He’s hoping this one will do likewise.

Americana, country rock, alt.country, call it what you will, it’s a huge style of music over several decades of releases.

As way of an introduction, I’ve put together a little taster list of my personal “crucial” records from the genre.

As I’ve mentioned, there’s enough music in this genre (and its many sub genres) to carpet the continent which birthed it in record sleeves, so please do not take this as any kind of definitive guide!

What is and isn’t Americana and where it began is questionable. Some aficionados cite the “outlaw country” of Waylon Jennings and latterly Steve Earle et al as ground zero, others go as far back as Johnny Cash and Elvis as progenitors of the basic American roots music that defines the sound. One can’t ignore Gram Parsons, The Band and The Byrds as crucial influences either.

For the purposes of this article (and brevity) I’m (mostly) focusing on the “No Depression” era artists, for want of another term. This is a group of singers and groups that mostly came out of punk and hardcore in the USA, were fans of country, folk and roots music and became attached to No Depression (the magazine) as a loosely associated “scene”.

So, in no particular order –

reissues-jayhawks-cover1. The Jayhawks –Hollywood Town Hall

For their second album, and major label debut, The Jayhawks rewrote the book on classic American songwriting. This is faultless.

From the opener Waiting For The Sun through to Nevada, California this is a summer-kissed, winsome and beautiful record. They knew how to rock too. Witness Martin’s Song. Pealing guitars, clipped drums and major riffola.

Gary Louris, interviewed on a Glasgow radio station stated his favourite ever single was The Clash’s Complete Control. Oh, yeah, that’s what I’m talkin’ about!

Whiskeytown-Strangers_Almanac-Frontal2. Whiskeytown –Strangers Almanac

Another major label debut, Strangers Almanac rocked a Replacements-style gritty soul, with Ryan Adam’s classic songwriter chops well to the fore even at this early stage.

Caitlin Cary’s violin adds an old-time vibe to many of the tracks and the band’s chaotic career and car-crash inter-member relationships is almost palpable in the grooves. This leaves Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours trailing in its dysfunctional dust.

001856643. Alejandro Escovedo –A Man Under The Influence

Escovedo should be famous. Simple as that.

As a member of SF punk heroes The Nuns, resident in The Chelsea Hotel when friends Sid and Nancy met their demise and with fans like Strummer and Springsteen, he’s enough subject material to write an opera.

Through a series of fantastically wordy, melodic (and under-rated) solo albums, he’s ploughed a lone furrow as a one man storybook. This is the best of his own albums and includes Mr Strummer’s fave, Castanets.

cfc7e7608ddd5fcd2e1b42cfe134ac8fc39cda404. REM – Reckoning

Bit of a curveball here, but personally I consider REM’s IRS years as crucial in the alt. country story.

From the midst of indie rock, REM appeared like some dusty, freaky, bar band from Hell with acid-fried lyrics set to punk rock tainted Byrds guitar and chiming, climbing melodies.

So. Central Rain and Pretty Persuasion’s skeletal rockabilly are utterly timeless.
This rings like music from outer space and from the old West at the same time.
There’s a couple of other great to decent albums, but for me, it was all gently and slowly downhill from this for REM.

LR5. The Long Ryders – State Of Our Union

Opening with the furious Looking For Lewis And Clark, this amalgam of punk, country and psychedelia tools along with chiming Rickenbacker guitars, soaring vocal harmonies and some proper pop smarts.

Anglophile leader Sid Griffin’s 60’s garage snarl gives the album a real authenticity despite their rather tenuous links with the Paisley Underground scene.

Bizarrely, this album is unavailable on CD and vinyl now. Its well worth searching out a copy at record fairs though.

album-anodyne6. Uncle Tupelo – Anodyne

This was keynote Americana band Uncle Tupelo’s final release before fracturing into Wilco and Son Volt due to Jay Farrar and Jeff Tweedy’s volatile working relationship.

Sad, lonely countryfied songs allied to UT’s intense, dense playing make this a bit of an uneasy listen.

A cover of Doug Sahm’s classic Keys To My Heart is a joyful romp amongst the dynamism of the rest of the album.

The sound of a band self-destructing.

Jason--The-Scorchers-Lost-And-Found-2170177. Jason And The Scorchers – Lost And Found

The Scorchers hi-octane, whiskey-soaked combination of country misery-stories and fiery hard rock was never bettered than on this from 1984.

Last Time Around and White Lies are searing, soaring rockers. Warner Hodge’s unhinged guitar sounds like an out of control Buick crashing through a cop station

Broken Whiskey Glass begins as a mournful, longing ballad before steaming into a full-on rockabilly stomper. The Scorchers are (they’re still going!) one of the most high energy live acts ever. Check out the clip from The Conan O’Brien Show on YouTube of White Lies to see the evidence.

weep18. Waco Brothers –Freedom And Weep

John Langford, formerly of The Mekons and Three John’s fame formed Waco Brothers in his adopted home of Chicago.

This ‘un from 2005 fuses hellfire soul and dirty rockin’ to fine effect. Excoriating commentary on the then Bush administration and lost highway road songs churn through the grooves.
Langford’s vocals still have a Leeds tinge to them and this gives the album a slightly homely feel.
Check his Pine Valley Cosmonauts cover of Gary Gilmore’s Eyes for some more of what he does best.

sixteen-horsepower-sackcloth-n-ashes9. 16 Horsepower – Sackcloth ‘N’ Ashes

Not strictly alt. country but a hugely influential album nonetheless.

David Eugene Edward’s hellfire and damnation outfit dealt in a twisted, deathly olde worlde folk. Demented squeeze box, stand up bass and Edward’s yelping Old Testament declaiming are their stock- in- trade and never bettered than on this debut album.

Lyrics of redemption, punishment and guilt fed through a Noo Orleans-style musical grinder gives the songs an Appalachian, bluegrass feel.

Ryan_Adams_GoldA--[Front]-[www_FreeCovers_net]10. Ryan Adams – Gold

Perhaps the high watermark of the late 90’s Americana glut of releases.

Adams, having left Whiskeytown, set himself on collision course with the critics with what seemed like an album a week, collaborations with Elton John and the like and chemically-fuelled behaviour which seemed to be deliberately aimed at creating a legend around himself.

This, however, is a tour de force of songwriting smarts.

A double album of Stones-ey rockers, Parsons-esque ballads and superior writing, Gold is a triumph.
It’s unusual for an album of this length to be consistently good, but Adams pulls it off here.
Simply indispensable.

So that’s our top 10 Americana / Alt. Country albums …. over to you for yours now please.

All words by Joe Whyte. Joe Whyte’s Louder Than War Author Archive is here.


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11 comments on “A Beginner’s Guide To Alt. Country & Americana”

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  1. I haven’t heard most of these albums , but I would say that The Long Ryders other album – Native Sons – is better than State Of Our Union … and Green On Red’s Gas ,Food ,Lodging is better than both of em….

  2. Green On Red, wonderful, Peter Bruntnell – Normal for Bridgewater is stunning

  3. Would heartily reccomend sometimes you gotta by Stacie Collins a mean harmonica player in her own right , bassist Al Collins is also in Jason and the scorchers. In the UK on a regular basis and building up a hardcore uk following.

  4. Well, I have heard all of these and none are anywhere near as good as The Handsome Family’s “Through the Trees”, Mekons’ “Fear and Whiskey” or Willard Grant Conspiracy’s “Flying Low” and yes… agree with Ando about Green on Red.
    On the plus side, at least you haven’t put The Byrds’ abominable ‘Sweetheart of the Rodeo’ which seems to be compulsory in such lists…

  5. Not a bad top 10, though I take issue with 2 Ryan Adams related projects and only one uncle tupelo (and no son volt or wilco). The first tupelo album should be included simply for historical accuracy, but I would suggest wilco’s 2nd album and son volt’s debut should edge out a few of the albums on the list

  6. twitter_neuroboy

    It’s tough to do it all in ten albums, but also worthy of the list would be
    Once Were Trees by The Beachwood Sparks
    Trace by Son Volt
    To Far To Care by The Old 97s’

    . . . and the fathers of it all (or at least a lot of it) The Flying Burrito Brothers.

  7. No Lucinda?? Better than all these dull blokes.

  8. Yeah, Green On Red were in, then out, then in…….I consider them more roots rock than strictly americana but difficult to leave them out. TBH, could have been a top 50. And I didn’t intentionally have all blokes in it!!

    • No Giant Sand? Overall a good list although the jury’s out on Green On Red being more roots rock.I also think that native Sons trumps State of Our Union.

  9. I don’t think there’s a definitively great Giant Sand album amongst all the good ones, but yeah, maybe…..

  10. Oh my goodness! an extraordinary write-up dude. Thank you Having said that I am experiencing concern with ur rss . Don’t know why Unable to subscribe to it. Is there any person getting identical rss problem? Anyone who knows kindly respond. Thnkx

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