Back in the ’90s, there was a lot of country-rock coming out of the Midwest: Uncle Tupelo, Wilco, Son Volt, the Bottle Rockets and Ass Ponys. The term alt-country was used to describe these acts, an alternative to the mainstream, radio-friendly schmaltz that represented the worst aspects of Top 40 and country, music that came with a side of mullets and their own dance crazes. “Achy Breaky Heart” indeed — it was Hank Williams’ heart that was breaking.
Alt-country has been around for decades. Early incarnations, such as outlaw country and country-rock, shook up the turgid country music scene and returned the genre to its earthy roots. There were other genres that got lumped in with alt-country: roots rock, punkabilly, insurgent country, new country, the high lonesome sound. “Alt-” means an alternative to Big Hat country music, but it also signifies a rootsy sound infused with the spirit of alternative music. The Waco Brothers, for example, jumpstarted traditional country with the speed, energy and British accents of punk.
It’s difficult to squeeze 50 years of music into 10 items. My criteria was simple. Represent every decade since the ’60s. Include only those albums that have a genuine country inflection, as opposed to those which are more rightly identified as folk, southern rock, bluegrass or roots. There were idiosyncratic benchmarks as well. Bob Dylan made a few great country records, but he’s on enough lists already. He even won the Nobel Prize, for chrissake. Johnny Cash is the ultimate alternative and the ultimate in country, but he’s not alt-country. He’s just Johnny Cash. Some of the greatest country music can be found on side four of Live at the Whiskey A Go-Go on the Fabulous Sunset Strip by X (1988), but that’s only 25 percent of a single album and X already gets enough credit as a punk band. The Violent Femmes were an alt-band that played skiffle but only a few country songs. REM was alternative and country-ish, back in the ’80s, but they were many other things as well, even if Mike Mills rocked a Nudie Suit.
So, here are the top 10 alt-country albums in chronological order.
Alt-country exploded in the late ’60s after Gram Parsons showed Keith Richards how a real country boy played it. Gram invented country-rock with his early groups the Flying Burrito Brothers and the International Submarine Band. By 1968, the Summer of Love was dead and gone; everyone grabbed an acoustic and made country-tinged roots music. The Stones, the Beatles, the Band, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Bob Dylan, Buffalo Springfield, Gene Clark. The sitars and mellotrons were put down and the steel guitars came out to play.
The Byrds were instrumental in this paradigm shift. Sweetheart of the Rodeo — their sixth album but the first with Parsons — was the first country-rock album by a major band. The quintessential alt-country record, Sweetheart was recorded half in L.A., half in Nashville, the two cities where its symbolic heart lies. The album was well-received by critics but only a modest commercial success. Many longtime fans had trouble absorbing the new country sound, while country music enthusiasts weren’t too sure about their music being adopted by dirty, long-haired hippies. The album also created a rift within the band. Parson left the Byrds before the album was released, after being a member for only six months.
The album and band suffered because they were ahead of their time. Over the next few years, because of Parsons’ influence, country-rock would become popular throughout the English-speaking world. Of course, we can also blame Parsons for bandwagon-jumpers such as Poco, Alabama, Pure Prairie League, the Eagles and country crossovers like the Mandrell Sisters, Kenny Rogers and the Oak Ridge Boys. Thanks a lot, dude.
By the early ’70s it was no longer a crime for tuned-in young people to enjoy country. Popular music was mellow, acoustic, folky and western. Cowboy boots, CB radios, overalls, Stetsons and The Dukes of Hazzard were all the rage. Rhinestone cowboys ruled the land and, thanks to John Travolta’s Urban Cowboy, mechanical bulls weren’t just for honky tonks anymore.
Alt-country was ubiquitous and, for the only time in history, it ruled the charts. John Prine, Waylon Jennings, Kris Kristofferson, Mickey Newbury and Merle Haggard were all in their prime. Ex-Monkee Michael Nesmith got in on the act with his First National Band. The Grateful Dead moved from psychedelia to country-folk with American Beauty and Workingman’s Dead, both released in 1970. Guy Clark and Townes Van Zandt were rockin’ and even Ringo Starr went country on 1970’s excellent Beaucoup of Blues.
Parsons’ second solo release, Grievous Angel, was recorded shortly before his fatal overdose in the fall of 1973 but was released posthumously. He eschewed terms like “country-rock” in favor of his own phrase, “cosmic American music.” Made with his singing partner Emmylou Harris, a country great in her own right, Grievous Angel features members of Elvis’ “hot band” as well as appearances by Linda Ronstadt, Kim Fowley and Bernie Leadon. The album is loaded with classics (“Brass Buttons,” “Hickory Wind”) and poignant covers including “Love Hurts” and “Cash on the Barrelhead.” As with all his records, Grievous Angel was critically acclaimed but sold poorly.
After 18 albums and much commercial success, Willie Nelson made the record he’d always wanted to make. Red Headed Stranger is the apex and quintessence of outlaw country. With a new contract from Columbia Records giving him total creative license, Nelson made a concept album about a man who’s on the run after murdering his cheatin’ wife and her lover.
Stranger is spartan and simple — mostly guitar, drums and piano played by Nelson himself. In fact, the arrangements were so minimal that the record execs thought his finished album was just a demo. They were not, to say the least, very pleased. Nonetheless, the album went on to become his most well known and beloved, reaching platinum status many times over.
The Long Ryders were only around for a few years, but their influence has been monumental. They looked great in string ties, white jeans, suede jackets and Byrds’ hairdos — their sound was also vintage. The decade’s other countrified rockers — the Beat Farmers, Green on Red, Giant Sand, the Gun Club, BoDeans, Steve Earle, Rank and File, Jason and the Scorchers, Tommy Conwell, the Blasters — were less period in terms of clothing and music.
The Long Ryders were so Parsonian that Gene Clark — Gram’s Byrds colleague — even joined them on Native Sons, their first album. The record was produced by Henry Lewis, who helmed the first two Burritos records. If that’s not enough, the album cover recreated an unreleased Buffalo Springfield LP. Despite wearing these deep influences on their (record) sleeve, the Long Ryders’ brilliance was in capturing the sound of mid-’60s country-rock with fastidious attention to detail while never being limited by it.
The Long Ryders didn’t sell many records but were a cult favorite among serious fans and fellow musicians. In the ’90s, alt-country performers would toss aside the bolo ties and fringe haircuts, but, musically, they would be greatly indebted to the Ryders, especially Native Sons. Wilco, The Jayhawks, Kurt Cobain and the Black Crows were all profoundly inspired by the group.
The ’90s weren’t only the heyday of grunge and alt-rock but alt-country as well. This is when the phrase came into common usage and “country-rock” was forced to retire. Alt-country bands were springing up all over the country, particularly the Midwest. No Depression magazine — named after the Carter Family tune “No Depression in Heaven” and the Uncle Tupelo album No Depression — was founded in 1995 to cover the scene. For the same reason, Uncut magazine was launched in the U.K. two years later.
This new breed of country-rockers represented an alternative to mainstream country and was often produced by people who didn’t start off as country music fans. People like Ryan Adams of Whiskeytown, Kurt Wagner of Lambchop and even Hank Williams III grew up listening to punk, metal and alt-rock. They loathed country music and what it represented. As they got older, however, they were won over by Hank, Johnny and Gram. Some alt-country musicians didn’t come from Texas or anywhere “country” but northern cities and tidy suburbs — some even hailed from Canada, Australia and the U.K. They attended art school and played soccer, with nary a Winchester rifle, farm or Appaloosa in sight. Prominent bands and performers included: the Bad Livers, Papa M, Neko Case, Robbie Fulks, John Doe, the Sadies, Smog, the Silver Jews, Dollar Store, the Old 97’s, the Handsome Family, Laura Cantrell, Freakwater, the Gourds, Mary Gauthier, Gillian Welch, Alejandro Escovedo, Bobby Bare Jr., BR5-49, Caitlin Rose, the V-Roys, Lift to Experience and the Broken Family Band.
Jonathan Richman is one of the greatest and most unusual musicians around. As a teenager he drove down from Boston and knocked on the door of Steve Sesnick, the manager of his (obsessively) beloved Velvet Underground. Somehow, he ended up living on the guy’s couch. His first album, The Modern Lovers, was a mix of Bo Diddley, Lou Reed and sensitive teenage heartache. Richman co-invented punk, post-punk and emo.
On his second solo release, Jonathan Goes Country, Jonathan uses a minimal sonic landscape that evokes first-generation rock ’n’ roll, skiffle, flamenco, surf guitar, rockabilly and 19th-century parlour music, but it’s also very country. From anyone else, a record like this would be sarcastic — it’s playful, fun, goofy, filled with songs about riding busses, the old corner store and playing second fiddle to a horse — but with Richman you know it’s real. His mix of covers (Goffin/King, Jack Rhodes, Ronee Blakley, Marty Robbins) and originals work perfectly together because he’s not appropriating someone else’s sound; he’s just taking something he likes and playing it in his own peculiar way.
Uncle Tupelo: Anodyne (1993)
Led by Jay Farrar and Jeff Tweedy, the Tupe was formed in Belleville, Illinois, in 1987. Recorded in Austin, Anodyne was produced by Brian Paulson, whose previous credits were more alt- and less country.
Tweedy and Farrar hadn’t been getting along for some time, but during this period their animosity grew more pronounced. They often argued onstage, and a few punches were thrown. They met alt-country icon Doug Sahm around this time and asked him to sing on their cover of his “Give Back the Key to My Heart,” a rollicking country-rocker. Anodyne was only a minor alternative hit but, in 2016, Paste magazine rated it the best alt-country album of all time.
Lambchop: How I Quit Smoking (1996)
Lambchop is one of the most idiosyncratic groups around. “Nashville’s most fucked-up country band” is bizarre and elegant at the same time. Formed in Nashville during the early ’90s by Kurt Wagner, the group was never really a group. Lambchop is a collective with as many as 20 musicians on stage, or in the studio, at any one time.
How I Quit Smoking, their second record, features oblique and often droll lyrics, stunning understated playing and Wagner’s trademark mumbly warble. The spaces between sounds are perhaps even more important than the actual notes and chords. The record has 12 originals, a song credited in part to Elton John, and “The Man Who Loved Beer.” This peculiar tune is an adaptation of a poem entitled “The Man Who Was Tired of Life,” taken from an Egyptian text Dispute Between a Man and His Ba (c. 2000 BCE). Not your typical country-rock, unless that country is Ancient Egypt (and the rock is a stone tablet).
Like many alt-country bands, Lambchop has gradually transformed into something entirely different. Today their sound has elements of soul, minimalism, jazz, ambient, electronica and post-rock. But one thing remains the same — the Chop is a little bit country, almost no rock ’n’ roll, and heavily influenced by… no one.
Whiskeytown were only around for six years before Ryan Adams left to start a solo career. Strangers Almanac is filled with haunting violin from Caitlin Cary, effortless melodies and exquisite harmony singing. This is a classic record that almost never got made. The drummer and bassist both quit shortly before production, Cary also considered leaving and the sessions began with no guitars — they were accidentally left by the side of the road. Adams was forced to use a $100 pawn-shop guitar, which lends a ragged beauty to the album. Strangers Almanac is a downbeat collection of bittersweet ballads and melancholy mid-tempo numbers punctuated by a few shuffling rockers. “16 Days” and “Houses on the Hill” are among the most beautiful songs of the century.
By Y2K, many alt-country acts from the ’90s had moved on to explore other forms of music. Wilco became an avant-garde pop-rock band. Lucinda Williams was rapping like Ice Rube (though she’d probably call it “talkin’ blues”). My Morning Jacket, after their first album of whisper-country, started sounding more southern rock — Duane Allman’s Jacket would have been a more fitting name. Alt-country found new converts, however, such as Robert Plant. The Zeppelin front-man, who’d been making nondescript rock albums for 20 years, started recording rootsy, country-folk albums with the Band of Joy and Alison Krauss. Williams, Wilco and others still played country music, but not to the exclusion of other genres. Maybe because of this, the more vague and inclusive term, “Americana,” became more common than “alt-country.”
Bonnie “Prince” Billy — who also records under the names Palace Brothers, Palace Songs, Palace Music, Superwolf and even Will Oldham, his actual name — never stopped making country music. However, this mercurial, relentlessly creating artist did stick his toe in other waters, such as Spanish-language electronica with the experimental group Tortoise.
Master and Everyone is a grand, majestic, LP made with longtime partners Matt Swanson and brother Paul Oldham, William Tyler from Lambchop and others. The album is less quirky and more straightforward than his previous work. Instead of pioneering new ground in lyrics and music, he simply wrote timeless standards. The cover art is our first clue — instead of rough sketches of seemingly random objects or scenes, he offers a serious portrait of his own face. Oldham’s early work sounds like 78-rpm recordings of Appalachian music discovered in someone’s attic. Master and Everyone is more produced, more confident and musical, but no less raw or powerful — the perfect synthesis of craft and emotion.
Sturgill Simpson is a Kentucky boy whose mother was a secretary and his father a state policeman. His mother came from a long line of coal-miners. He joined the navy, lived in Japan, worked at IHOP, moved back to Old Kintuck’, formed a country-rock band, got married, worked for the railroad and moved to Nashville.
He eventually went solo and released Metamodern Sounds in Country Music (2014), which earned comparisons to Merle, Waylon and other “outlaw country” giants. This diverges from his earlier work — and mainstream country generally — in that the lyrics are both progressive and traditional, concrete and abstract, country and psychedelic. Simpson writes about truck driving and LSD, spiritual reflection and CB radios, God and Buddha, coal dust and love for all mankind. The lyrics might sound a bit wishy-washy for a truck driver, but they’d seem pretty rustic to a Smiths fan.