A Beginner’s Guide To Alt. Country & Americana
Joe 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 –
1. 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!
2. 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.
3. 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.
4. 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.
5. 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.
6. 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.
7. 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.
8. 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.
9. 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.
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.
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.