Alt! (Part 1)

This is a guest post from the League’s own James Hanley! When I read Professor Hanley’s submission, I had simultaneous, conflicting feelings. Something so well-written, thorough and informative makes me jealous, and makes me think I really need to step up my game.

On the other hand, not only was this a pleasure to read and listen to, but it saved my lazy butt some serious work! Take it away, Professor…

Glyph says, “OOOOH! DO ALT-COUNTRY! PLEEEZE!” And who can resist such a plea? Even a FYIGM LibertarianTM like me likes to give a little. 

For the record, I’ve always hated country music. If it’s played on any of the 15 dozen indistinguishable country radio stations in your town, I hate it. (OK, give me a few drinks and I’ll sing “Friends in Low Places” with gusto, but that’s it; under no circumstances could I ever not loathe “Boot Scootin’ Boogie.”) But in my adult years I began to realize that there’s a great universe of non-pop country, including not only what we call “alt,” but some of the old stuff, back to the ‘early 60s, ’50s, and before. To know the roots of contemporary alt country, you have to know some Roy Acuff, Patsy Montana, Jimmie Rodgers, Bill Monroe, and Kitty Wells, along with the more-well-remembered Johnny Cash and Hank Williams. What attracted me was the stripped down nature of a lot of it, the lack of layering in production (not that I’m anything less than awestruck by Phil Spector’s truly awe-inspiring “Wall of Sound,” and not that I don’t know every note in a couple of Pink Floyd albums). It’s the same interest that attracted me to early punk rock and to Tom Waits, and that now has me taking a belated listen to Lou Reed and Leonard Cohen; the sense of spareness, the understanding that what isn’t there–the empty spaces in the music that haven’t been filled–tell as much of the story as what you actually hear.

The influences of the old stars are still present, but have been pulled into such diverse paths that alt country is a vast amorphous catch-all covering a range of very different styles. In fact alt country arguably began back in the 1950s, when Starday records just kept doing what it had been doing all along instead of joining in with the newly developing Nashville Sound. The Nashville sound gave us some of the greatest performers ever, such as Patsy Cline, but ultimately ruined popular country by over-emphasizing pop song structures, eventually evolving in the late ’60s/early ’70s into countrypolitan (the era of “crossover” artists like Glenn Campbell and Kenny Rodgers) and in the next decade into country pop, the sickening blend of country and soft-rock/bubble-gum pop that still rules the airwaves. But as Nashville became more pop-focused it was was challenged by the Bakersfield sound (think Buck Owens–“The Streets of Bakersfield,” geddit?–and Merle Haggard) and outlaw country (think of Kris Kristofferson and the Hank Williamses, Sr. and Jr., despite their wildly different sounds), which along with bluegrass were the original alt country stylings.

Today’s alt country ranges from a contemporary outlaw sound to bluegrass, to folky/gospelly stuff, to rockabilly, psychobilly, honky-tonk, cowpunk and that catch-all category, Americana (or maybe Americana is just a synonym for alt-country, or is a bigger category that includes alt country and other types of folks music; there’s no authoritative ruling on these things). I’m hoping to do several posts to provide you with some understanding of the range of styles, but since folks who hate country are inclined to be dismissive at the first hint of twang (or at least that’s how I was), I want to start in this post with what I think are very accessible songs, then introduce some edgier outlaw and rockabilly stuff in later posts. Other than accessibility, the theme tying these songs together is they’re all songs I like to sing (badly) while strumming (badly) on my acoustic.

Let’s start with Shawn Colvin, a woman with a perfect country/folk voice, singing legendary songwriter John Prine’s* “Killing the Blues.” You may have heard the recent Robert Plant and Alison Krauss version of this, but while Plant and Krauss are both brilliant artists they pooched this one, turning a song that hovers in that uneasy void between hope and despair into a tedious dirge. To my ear, Colvin’s is the definitive version, country folk at its best. Her voice is a bit shaky in concert, so you could easily argue the album version is better, but there’s something special in this video about the simplicity of the performance. On stage alone, with no gimmicks, no effects, no safety net, she embodies the song’s sense of vulnerability.

I can never get that one quite right on my acoustic. The little hook that gives the guitar line its distinctive sound is an easy E to Esus4 shift, but I can never get it to sound right because I only strum, and there’s a grace note in there I need to pick. But this next song, “Drunken Poet’s Dream, by  Ray Wilie Hubbard, has an easy chord sequence for you hackabilly home-strummers. The first lines, “I’ve got a woman who’s wild as Rome, she likes to lay naked and be gazed upon,” are enough to know we’re into outlaw music now. But I’m still focusing on accessibility, so this isn’t wild dirty outlaw country, just contemplative outlaw country about love, poetry, and burning bridges.

Next up on the hit parade is “Wagon Wheel,” a great singable song (also easy to strum) with a complex history. Bob Dylan half wrote a song for a movie, which didn’t get in the film but did get bootlegged. Old Crow Medicine Show’s Ketch Secor stumbled on a copy as a teenager, wrote some more lyrics to fill it out, gave it a bluegrass twist, and performed it for several years before thinking about the copyright issue. When he approached Dylan, the Bard liked what he’d done with it and agreed to a co-writing and shared copyright agreement. But the story goes even deeper, because Dylan adapted part of the chorus from bluesman Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup’s “Rock Me Mama,” who got that song from Big Bill Broonzy, who had recorded it in the 1920s. The Dylan/Secor song isn’t Broonzy’s song, mind you, but with that provenance–legendary blues singers, America’s most noted songwriter, and some old-timey Appalachian bluegrass,**–it’s fitting that this has become an alt country standard. The audio quality on this video isn’t great, it starts a couple measures late, and the crowd can’t sing for sh*t, but this is a song that’s meant to be heard live and sung along with, so just pretend you’ve had a few and are right there in the crowd adding your voice to the joyous throng.

Robert Earl Keen, I think, is one of those folks who are revered within certain circles and almost unheard of outside those circles. He’s right up their with John Prine as a great songwriter, so I want to give him a nod here. “I’m Comin’ Home” may not be his greatest song, but it’s one I love to bash out on my guitar (emphasis on the first syllable, please) from time to time.

The last two songs are by two more women with phenomenal voices.  But unlike the pure clarity of Shawn Colvin’s voice, Eilen Jewell and Lucinda Williams–especially Williams–have voices that moan with pain. Jewell straddles the alt country/folk line, but leans more to the country side of it than Colvin, and has done excellent versions of Dylan’s “Walkin’ Down the Line,” and Erik Andersen’s “Dusty Boxcar Wall.” This is a perfectly done live version of “Where They Never Say Your Name.” This song is a great example of building on music history. She got the idea from an old Jimmie Rodgers’ song, the first two notes sound like they’re taken straight from a Johnny Cash intro, the bass line’s classic country, and the song’s chock full of blues licks and–maybe I’m crazy, but I’m going to say it anyway–Dick Dale surf guitar homages.*** This is the last one I chose for this post. I wanted to limit myself to 5 songs, but I kept coming back to it and playing it again and thinking it’s so phenomenal how can I not include it?

And to close out our introduction to the softer side of alt country, I turn to the living embodiment of heartache, Lucinda Williams. A couple of years ago Johanna and I were back in her Southern California hometown, and by a stroke of luck Lucinda Williams was playing at the Ventura Theater, with Chrissie Hynde opening for her……on our anniversary. Awwwwesooome! Lucinda’s what country’s supposed to be, what it used to be, but no longer is. As my friend Jeff said, she looks like she’s been rode hard and put up wet. You know she’d never make the top 10 on American Idol. I hate to use the word authentic, but if you want a succinct statement of the difference between Lucinda Williams and any of the bland indistinguishable pop-country princesses produced on the Music Row assembly line, that word captures it all. Williams can rock out.  She blew the roof off the Ventura Theater with “Essence,” a song that starts as pure country and builds to a straight-out rock ending. You can see a live version of  it here, but I think the one we saw carried that closing section out about twice as long and just built the musical tension to the point where it was almost unbearable, where the audience needed closure, before hitting that final chord that resolved it. It was emotionally draining–I got pulled so deeply into the music that as the last chord died away I almost felt like I’d woken up from a trance.

But here I want to give you one of her lesser known gems, “Blue,” a song that is achingly spare, forlorn, and beautiful. While I generally prefer to feature live performances, Williams is famous for being a perfectionist in the studio, and her production of this song is so perfect in every detail, that this one has to be the album version. Bo Ramsey, a master at building rich songs out of bare-bones arrangements, co-produced, and the influence of his minimalist aesthetic is unmistakeable here. Ignore the cheesy video someone put together when they posted this online–just close your eyes and listen, with intensity.

If you’ve avoided alt country because pop country really sucks, I hope you’ve found something you can connect with here. If you’ve been curious about alt country but didn’t know any, I hope I whetted your appetite enough for you to go listen to more. If you’re an alt country fan and are outraged that I didn’t play the Drive By Truckers, Uncle Tupelo, or Hayseed Dixie, feel free to argue my choices. Just remember that this time I was going for an accessible introduction. Given space, for this particular post I would have added the Be Good Tanyas (seriously. do. not. fall. in. love. with. me.), Gillian Welch (even us agnostics like some good gospel), Lone Justice (dude, where’s my time machine? I need to see that performance live–oh, and a note Skyler Laine, this is how you sing “Fortunate Son,” you wicked little blasphemer), Mary Gautier (a sensitive and touching song about a stripper and the customer watching her? okay, then), and, of course, Dwight (the rent is too damn high!). 

If you think my choices are too tame, well, next time I’ll throw out some of my favorite NSFW alt country faves, some of the good kick-ass outlaw stuff, the songs I don’t play for my innocent little girls, and that are the reason I’m glad my elderly mom doesn’t understand computers well enough to find my iTunes folders.

*John Prine is the Bob Dylan of alt country, a great songwriter with a nearly unbearable voice. For each, their songs can only reach their true potential when sung by others.

**In some ways, bluegrass really isn’t that old-timey, having emerged as a distinct commercial genre only in the late ’40s. But it derived from a hillbilly style that was born from the folk songs carried by the English, Scots and Irish settlers into the comparatively isolated Appalachian region and influenced by black musicians with the addition of banjos and the introduction of blues elements such as sliding from one note to the other and the classic call-and-response form. Bill Monroe, who’s credited with creating the genre, specifically credited Arnold Schultz as an influence. When you hear Monroe on his mandolin, Lester Flatt on the guitar, and Earl Scruggs on banjo you’re hearing the hundreds-of-years old echoes of British Isles peasantry, the equally old or older echoes of West African pastoralists, and the precise origin of bluegrass. And still there are folks who think globalization is something new.

***Compare to Dick Dale playing country music here and here.

Photo credit Micah Taylor,


Glyph is worse than some and better than others. He believes that life is just one damned thing after another, that only pop music can save us now, and that mercy is the mark of a great man (but he's just all right). Nothing he writes here should be taken as an indication that he knows anything about anything.


    • RE: The Byrds – Both “Tambourine Man” and “Turn Turn Turn” absolutely TRANSFIXED me as a child. Not just the vocal harmonies, but the guitar – that shimmering, floating, time-suspending heavenly sound which launched a thousand bands, and to this day stops me in my tracks whenever I hear it. I read somewhere that if Johnny B. Goode was said to “play a guitar just like ringing a bell”, Roger McGuinn was the guy to figure out how to do that.

    • Mike, this is not an issue of aesthetics, Bob Dylan’s voice is objectively irritating. It’s been scientifically proven.

        • I’ve got the government documents to prove it!

          Seriously though, A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall (both Dylan’s original and Seeger’s live from the late 60s) is objectively the greatest song ever.

          • The greatest couple dozen songs.

            In the sleeve notes on the Freewheelin’ album, Nat Hentoff would quote Dylan as saying that he wrote “A Hard Rain” in response to the Cuban Missile Crisis: “Every line in it is actually the start of a whole new song. But when I wrote it, I thought I wouldn’t have enough time alive to write all those songs so I put all I could into this one.”

          • Aw, hell.

            OK, one more. Since you guys are on Dylan, and Mike is a baseball fan, I would be remiss to not point out The Mendoza Line (now sadly defunct).

            One of the singers leans HEAVY on the Dylan impression – the two male singers and the female one often trade barbed recriminations over countryish rock:

            “Catch a Collapsing Star” – a portrait of a flaming trainwreck of a codependent literary relationship, drunk on words and just plain drunk (“I could see you blazing through the frost / Amazing grace, and a hacking cough” and “Took vacation in New Orleans and I held you on the shore there / Slurred yr words, refused your thoughts, spoke in riddles no one got / So what was it that we wanted, and God forbid if we had got it” are some of my favorite lyrics in this one)


            “A Damn Good Disguise”: Booze was drunk & mistakes were made, a story as old as time. “You long for a bar with a quiet room / No one’s gonna treat you like a kid that way”. And I like to picture the “Damn Good Disguise” that will be required to “Live This One Down” as Groucho glasses and nose as the wearer slouches to and from their stool.


            And, a Springsteen cover, “Tougher Than The Rest”:


        • I think he’s still eating his green eggs & ham. He’ll be by later.

  1. It’s alt. It’s not country. I can’t get country fans to care about Lucinda Williams or John Prine. doesn’t arise from country music but rather from gospel, which still has a wide and deep tradition. A better name for is What Folk Became.

    • alt – country to me has always looked like country’s prodigal son, rock, trying to come home again.

      I came at it from that direction – the 80’s American punk and postpunk bands that played with twang and country forms occasionally. Bands like The Replacements and REM, among others.

      Then I backtracked to things like Gram Parsons:

      And the Stones’ flirtations – Mick seemingly unable to play a “country” twang straight in his vocals, always sounding like he is taking the piss; despite the fact he has no trouble reverently emulating blues singers.

      Somehow that seems appropriate to both the “prodigal” metaphor, and to the exquisitely-mocking “fish-you” of “Dead Flowers”:

    • Blaise,

      There’s no argument that alt/alt-country draws heavily from gospel, but then old style country always did. But it’s incorrect to say alt didn’t come from country–it came straight out of what country was. Nashville diverged, others didn’t–Nashville dominated the mainstream (and lost a lot if its gospel roots), so the older style became outlaw, and as it evolved, spinning off different streams (including, as Glyph notes, some interbreeding with rock), it all became alt.

      • Alt-country’s such a completely different animal. We can disagree on its provenance and heritage but for my money, alt-country is no more country than Woody Guthrie. Outlaw country was more aggressive but no less polished than the plastic cowboys Nashville still excretes.

        Country was once Country-and-Western. Country was just White Man’s Blues done up in a barn dance format. It arose from the old jigs and reels of the poor English, Scots and Irish who’d settled here and there across the USA. Well into the 1930s and even into the 50s, country was seen as the music of ignorant sharecroppers, not a whit better than the Negro Music of the time, from which country music had picked up a good many licks.

        And country was live music: Grand Old Opry’s barn dance shows meant anyone with a radio could invite a few friends over and dance with his wife in his own parlour.

        In response to all that sniffing, country music stepped up its game and started recording with superior technology and superior players. The country music industry never quite gotten over how badly they were treated. It’s a sore spot.

        There’s a bit in the Bible, Book of Galatians, where it says “My grace is sufficient for thee: for my strength is made perfect in weakness. Most gladly therefore will I rather glory in my infirmities.” Alt-country stripped off all that rhinestone glitz and the Stetson hats and the Gentleman Farmer Pickup Truck bullshit and took on a strength made perfect in weakness, gloried in its infirmities. Alt-country is just the musicians, playing what they love, without Mutt Lange pushing the faders on yet another Shania Twain fluff, producing two mixes, one with pedal steel for the country radio crowd — and one without, for the pop radio crowd.

        • a strength made perfect in weakness, gloried in its infirmities

          This is exactly the link: that pride in and reverence for imperfect things and people, that the the Stones (“and my ragged company”) and ‘Mats, and those that followed them rode straight back from rock into country: “If being afraid is a crime, we hang side by side.”

          Here’s the Drive-By Truckers at a great Nashville record store called Grimey’s. 1st verse is a bit risque / borderline NSFW, but the chorus is terrific:

          “So I’ll meet you at the bottom if there really is one, they always told me when you hit it you’ll know it / But I’ve been fallin’ so long, it’s like gravity’s gone, and I’m just floating.”

          • Gram was awesome. If anyone still buys CDs you used to be able to pick up the two-fer of the G.P. & Grievous Angel albums on a single disc for pretty cheap.

            I often wonder if he would have made it, if he and Keith Richards hadn’t been so close; not everybody can live like Keith, and survive. By most accounts, Keith was not a good influence to be around.

          • There was a difference between Keef and Gram. Keef knew when to get off his withered old buttocks and do some work. Gram would just sit there and nod, the ultimate Stones fanboi. Eventually even Keef got tired of his act: Keef had learned all he need to learn from Gram Parsons.

            Gram Parsons took up with evil people. But the worst person in Gram Parsons’ life was Gram Parsons.

          • Keef knew when to get off his withered old buttocks and do some work

            There’s a pretty funny interview somewhere with Richards where he is being asked about the height (depth) of his infamous heroin dalliances…the interviewer is clearly expecting the old self-abasement/penance routine, you know, the old “it was a dark and terrible time in my life that I am glad to have escaped” song-and-dance.

            Instead, Keith rather cheerfully replies that during the years when he was doing horse constantly (and in French tax exile), he learned how to snow-ski, and made Exile On Main Street, one of the most celebrated rock records there is.

            From Richards’ POV, debilitating heroin addiction can be somehow viewed as productive.

            Keef is not like the rest of us. Kids, do not try to be Keef at home.

          • There’s a story old of Gram Parsons on the nod at the Stones’ pad. Keef had to yell at Gram to get up and go play a concert. Apparently Gram just sorta lay there and that was the end of Keef’s relationship with Gram. He was ejected as were all the other hangers-on.

        • Well, I’m certainly not going to argue that what falls under the alt country label isn’t a vastly different animal than what falls under the straight country label. There are folks wearing shitkickers and cowboy hats in Ventura, California, but there weren’t any of them at the Lucinda Williams concert. And I may be able to go see Eilen Jewell this weekend, but I know the crowd is going to be all folkies and no Brad Paisely fans.

          • I have often said rap, country and gospel wrap music in lyrics. Rock went the other way, pulling down the VOX fader on the vocal and making the voice just another instrument in the mix, often to the point where the words couldn’t be understood.

            Ask yourself, as a guy who knows how to finger a fair-sized number of chords, why does alt-country appeal so much to you? It’s about the song itself, the intangible aspects of that head-nodding realisation of what Robert Fripp once said “Music so wishes to be heard that it sometimes calls on unlikely characters to give it voice”

          • Oh, you got my reason exactly right. I love a good story, and a good song tells a good story. Because, dammit, sometimes we are broken down like a train wreck and still can’t let go–who can’t relate to that?

  2. James, this was terrific. And I really liked that Eilen Jewell tune. It’s got a sort of country-noir sound that Neko Case has used on occasion.

    Neko Case is one that I just can’t fathom why she’s not better known. She’s one of the many that came out of punk, and can now can stand next to the Patsys and the Lorettas in my book. I’m a man – but I’m not ashamed to say that Neko makes me cry.

    Here are two of her songs that showcase a voice like the pure wild forces of nature that so often feature in her lyrics:

    “This Tornado Loves You” (this has a line most songwriters would kill for – “I have waited, with a glacier’s patience” has it all – assonance as massed and implacable as the image it contains. Another great line is “Their souls hangin’ inside-out from their mouths” – dealing death as casually as one turns out a pocket. That’s Eric Bachmann of Archers of Loaf/Crooked Fingers behind her.)

    “People Got A Lotta Nerve”(this one has a bit of that Byrds-y guitar).

    Speaking of country-noir, the album of hers that really roped me in was Blacklisted (she works with a lot of different bands, but her backing band on that one was Calexico – here they are doing a cover of Love’s “Alone Again Or”, also covered by the Damned).

    The song that made me a fan for life was “Deep Red Bells” – a haunting and poetic (seriously, check the lyrics at the link – “It looks a lot like engine oil and tastes like being poor and small / And popsicles in summer”) evocation of a murder, her stunning voice pealing out across the void like the titular bells. Turn out the lights and turn this one up; if you don’t get the shivers, I’m not sure I trust you.

    • Thanks for the kind words, G. All I can say is that I spent way more time than I can begin to justify in writing that (that was pretty much my whole weekend), but that it was so much fun I couldn’t stop. What was just meant to be a few videos kind of grabbed hold and ran away with me.

      • Thanks for the Neko Case introduction. I didn’t know her. Reminds me a bit of 10,000 Maniacs/Natalie Merchant.

        • If you are looking to dip your toes, I can recommend Blacklisted, Middle Cyclone, and the live album The Tigers Have Spoken unreservedly.

          • That’s a neat video. I don’t have Challengers, and honestly, I often get tired of the NP’s in a very strange way – they are almost TOO good, piling too many dizzying hooks into the same song; it’s exhausting, and sometimes I wish they’d slow down & spread them out a little more thin (“too many ideas/hooks” is a weird problem to have). One or just a few songs is often all I can take.

            I tend to prefer Dan Bejar’s songs (“Jackie” on the first one, and the end of “Testament to Youth in Verse” – the bells ring no, no, no… is amazing).

            That said, “Sing Me Spanish Techno”, “To Wild Homes” and yes, even “Letter From An Occupant” can be pretty mind-blowing.

          • “Myriad Harbor” is my favorite off of Challengers, if you haven’t heard it. But I find Case’s voice haunting wherever I hear it.

          • Weirdly, I DO have that one track. It must have been a free download I got somewhere. Playing it now.

      • Neko IS weirdly divisive live. And it doesn’t even seem to relate to the “there are good nights/ bad nights” phenomenon common to any live act.

        A few years ago on my b-day we saw Neko, in a smallish venue, with another couple.

        The wife of the other couple and I *loved* the show. Powerful, moving, intimate, funny.

        My wife, and the husband of the other couple, found it a bit dull / uninspiring.

        That particular dynamic made for awkward after-show conversation.

        • A friend saw her at the same venue the next night, and thought she was fantastic, but we saw her on my wife’s b-day, at a venue with the same name as me!, and the wife was very disappointed (she had been a huge fan.)

          • This is so weird. If we could scientifically quantify what is going on, we might understand why she is not a household name. Because when she connects, she really CONNECTS, just a killer combo of power/threat and vulnerability/delicacy.

            I wasn’t being hyperbolic – the songs I listed can and do make me tear up, on the regular.

            And FORGET about “The Tigers Have Spoken” – that one SLAYS me every time, I am a mess by the time it’s done.

            Because the tiger’s US, man! He died never even knowing what it was to be free!

      • Aaron,

        Thank for that Gillian Welch/White Rabbit link. I’d never heard that one. And just so you know, she just barely didn’t make my featured list in the OP–first artist out, but absolutely as deserving as those I did select.

  3. I grew up on a lot of country, but it was mostly the typical radio stuff in the 80s. There was plenty of Dolly Parton, Kenny Rogers, Alabama, and the like. Later on, there was a lot of Garth Brooks, Travis Tritt, etc. My own musical tastes went in different directions, especially as I hit middle school. My opinions on country are pretty similar, regarding the quality of today’s pop-country vs. traditional country.

    Several years ago, I was introduced to 16 Horsepower. That was my first touch of anything related to alt-country. Eventually I found out about Whiskeytown, Lucero, and Uncle Tupelo. I have also done some light digging into older country, and I have found a lot there that I enjoy.

    I look forward to your follow up post and getting introduced to some new music.

    • Aw, I was gonna hold onto these links, but dangit:

      Whiskeytown, Tupelo, and Lucero all came out of reverence to The Replacements, who I mentioned above. Tupelo obviously splintered into Wilco and Son Volt. Wilco has traveled pretty far afield at this point, while Son Volt has generally stayed pretty consistent in their sound:

      Tupelo on Conan:

      Son Volt:

      Lucero has probably stuck the closest to the ‘Mats template of rock and boozy regret. This guy’s voice gets on my nerves after a while (I have the same problem with Jay Farrar of Son Volt – too yarbly). But in small doses, it’s pretty great. Here’s a live take on “That Much Further West”, a compact tale that says so much more than the words on the page (Since / She’s been gone / I’ve done less right, than I’ve done wrong / But I ain’t / That much worse than the rest / Just that much further west) :

  4. This guy’s voice gets on my nerves after a while

    So true. I love his voice, right up until the point where the switch flips in my head, and I am ready to throw the CD into a fire.

    • Yeah, I have seen them play a couple times and I enjoy it for about an hour, then I go play foosball (they sometimes play LONG shows – I was at one that was close to 3 hours).

      What’s weird, is, I love a lot of – ah – IDIOSYNCRATIC singers. Singers that many would feel have no business behind a microphone and about which the best that can be patronizingly said is that they are “trying their best.”

      But that yarbling always sounds like an affectation to me – an easy way to show the singer is “feeling it”, that becomes habitual and just as easily caricaturable as the “cookie monster” vocals in a lot of metal.

      It drives me NUTS. Just drop it, and sing. Like I said, Son Volt and Lucero do it; Eddie Vedder and his army of clones in the 90’s were the WORST; Springsteen has been known to do it.

      • Eddie Vedder and his army of clones in the 90’s were the WORST
        Oh don’t make me go all Rush fan on you. Eddie Vedder’s voice was a refreshing break in a sea of male singers who all sang in my vocal range and higher. His voice turns me to mush. Of course with a few male exceptions I find that I find idiosyncratic male singers more tolerable than their female counterparts. Rule in my house, James doesn’t listen to Cindy Lee something or other (evidently I’ve blocked her last name from my memory) in my presence and I won’t play the Smiths in his.

        • To be fair, I don’t blame it all on Vedder – I heard a demo tape of “Ten”, when PJ were just starting to gather momentum, and though I didn’t care that much for the music, I remember telling my friend “the singer has an unusual voice, kind of cool”.

          Though PJ never became my cup of tea, it was more the flood that came AFTER Vedder that was the bigger problem – just singer after singer imitating him on 90’s rock radio, it was inescapable.

          • When it comes to the music style I would agree but his voice is distiguishable and I really can’t think of any singers sounding like him. Of course I’ll admit I also enjoy PJ as a whole so I may not have been so irritated by his imitators.

          • I take Vedder’s vox like a coffee stout:
            Pretty good for about the first bottle & a half, and then it gets old.

        • Cindy Lee something or other

          Oh, yeah, I’m going to badger Glyph into letting me do a Cindy Lee Berryhill post someday. And about 3 people are going to like it.

      • yeah but glyph you gotta admit making fun of vedder’s singing voice – which was indeed a bit unique at the time – is a lot of fun. seriously, try it:

        “mah blah na voodey boo / gooey doo-eeey blooeyyyyyy”

        • The videos trying to figure out the lyrics to “Yellow Ledbetter” are pretty funny. “Potato waaaaaaave.”

          “Make me fries.”

        • Oh, believe me, I’ve been known to do some yarbling.

  5. This is wandering a little farther afield, but that’s the beauty of the “alt” tag – it frees country (or country-ish) to do all sorts of things it’s normally too tradition-bound to do (after all, get too experimental in form or content, and it suddenly doesn’t seem “country” anymore).

    But the sound of pedal steel often says “country”. Athens’ Japancakes makes instrumental/improvisational/drone rock that sometimes sounds a bit like if Neu! had happened in the West.

  6. the sense of spareness, the understanding that what isn’t there–the empty spaces in the music that haven’t been filled–tell as much of the story as what you actually hear.

    The most intelligent line I’ve read about music in a very long time. It’s accompanying notion would be dynamics.

    Nice post James. Will listen to each as the day allows.

    • It’s accompanying notion would be dynamics.

      This is why Nebraska is Springsteen’s best record, and why in concert I did not enjoy him. When EVERYTHING is the peak, nothing is.

      • Although I much prefer Hank Williams III’s take on “Atlantic City.”

      • I’m not a Springsteen fan for that reason. Only tune he’s done that I really liked, humming-to-myself liked, was the very short I’m on Fire.

  7. Dude, given the amount of Austin/Central Texas music you just posted, you can never make fun of Texas again.

    First, I have seen REK live maybe a ten times. I am a fan (the road goes on forever, man), and will see him any time he’s in town, but I think my fandom has as much to do with the fact that talking about REK has gotten me not one, not two, but three dates in the past.

    Second, Hubbard plays here all the time too, though I’ve probably only seen him four times.

    Third, Lucinda lives here, though she doesn’t play here all that often. I’ve seen her once, and would love to see her again.

    I didn’t even mention Colvin, whom I don’t like, but who is also from here and used to play here a lot (not sure if she still does).

    Conclusion, you should probably live in Austin.

    • Yeah, and I’m going to post more Texas musicians before I’m done. It’s a bit painful to acknowledge.

      I’m tempted to post Ray Wiley H’s “Screw You, We’re From Texas.” I probably won’t fit it in, but you know, that’s a Texas attitude I can respect.

      • I grew up in Franklin, TN (I was born in Nashville, though), and the music I heard around my house, in addition to a lot of Dylan, Seeger and The Band, was Hank Williams (one of my earliest memories is my Dad singing “Hey hey good lookin’, what you got cookin’? How’s about cookin’ somethin’ up for me?”), Johnny Cash, The Carter Family, Patsy Cline, and the like. So one of the few things I like about Texas is the alt country scene here in Austin. Well, that and the winter weather.

        Unrelated: I lived in Franklin from 2 until I went to college (and a couple summers thereafter), but since I was born in Nashville, if someone from the South asks me where I’m from, I tell them Nashville. I once heard a story about an obituary in the Oxford, MS paper that went something like this:

        Bertha May Smith, 92, passed away last Thursday. She is survived by two sons, a daughter, and seven grandchildren. She lived in Oxford for the last 90 years, but she was from Natchez.

        • My house didn’t really get much country. The closest my dad got was CCR, John Denver, and The Eagles (well, and he had some Stones – the “Sticky Fingers” LP with the Warhol zipper with some of the Stone’s countryish flings – “Dead Flowers” and “Wild Horses” are on there. God I love that album. An odds-and-sods that blows most other records out of the water).

          CCR is still awesome, and Denver and Eagles a bit better than their critical reputations suggest.

          • CCR is still awesome. I don’t know if anybody got my kind of mis-placed reference to them in the post (a first draft remnant that neither got cut nor given quite the set up it needed), but that American Idol rendition of “Fortunate Son” last year made me absolutely livid. Still makes my blood boil, in fact. And it perfectly embodied what the f**k is wrong with pop music today, that nobody involved with that show said, “look, kid, you can’t sing “Fortunate Son” with a big ol’ shit-eating grin on your face.” CCR were righteously angry, and if you can’t be righteously angry when you sing that song then just stay the hell away from it.

            Oh, and I know every John Denver song ever. My older sister loved him, and that was my first concert. I never listen to him anymore, but there’s a good dozen or so songs I still sing regularly.

          • I made the error of trying to sing CCR at karaoke once.

            I thought “I know this song. I LOVE this song!”

            Big mistake.

            Unless you actually are Fogerty, and have Fogerty’s voice, just don’t.

          • Be very, very careful with CCR songs. If they could sue John Fogerty for plagiarizing one, imagine what they could do to you.

          • That had to be the craziest lawsuit ever. “You sound too much like yourself!”

          • You know, the rumor has always been that Fogerty basically recorded all the parts (maybe not the drums) for CCR (who I love, by the way… Long as I can see the light, in case you haven’t heard it in a while), so suing him for basically reproducing what he made by himself makes it even stranger.

    • And Griffin lives in Austin too, with Robert Plant, so there ya go. I’ll help you find a nice place to live here.

      • Eh, first you have to find me a job there. Then you’ll have to do something about the weather. Then we can worry about a house.

        • I’ll talk to Michael Dell, see if he has anything for a political scientist.

          As for the weather, you may want to get a summer home in Nome or something. And by summer, I mean April through October.

          • You do that. Hell, he probably could afford to change the weather in Austin.

    • That’s cool stuff, zic.

      I actually started taking lessons from a talented local guy last summer, but I hurt my arm at…of all things…a barn raising, and had to put it on hold.

  8. Country music is just what happened when the Irish tunes traveled across the Atlantic. All of the instruments are the same, all of the time signatures are the same… hell, traditional Irish music is about roving, drinking, fighting, love, war, betrayal, and death. Country music is about roving, drinking, fighting, love, betrayal, and death. It’s even going back on itself.

    • There’s another group that had a big influence on early, and therefore contemporary, country music, and they’re not from Ireland. In fact, one might say that the English/Scotch-Irish folk music only became country when it came into contact with the music from this group. There’d be no banjo in country music/bluegrass without this group.

    • Does this mean The Pogues could be considered Alt-Country?

        • I thought about remarking that there’s globalization that arises organically out of changes to the market, and there’s the forced globalization that comes in the holds of slaves ships and from the refugees of deadly famine, but I thought that might be a little heavy.

          To make it lighter, the cultural diversity of the South, with Scotch-Irish (and Irish-Irish), English, French, Spanish, and perhaps most importantly, African and Afro-Caribbean cultures colliding in multiple combinations from Texas to South Florida, and up through the Carolinas and Appalachia, over several centuries, even if those collisions weren’t always voluntary, has been the catalyst for the bulk of the great art that this country has produced. It’s why I still love the South, for all its faults (and they are myriad).

  9. very nice writeup mr. hanley – i enjoyed it despite not really digging this style of music. (my wife is a huge gillian welch fan, on the other hand)

    quick question – where does (or does he at all) john fahey fit into any of this?

    • I’d call Fahey a genre-bender. Rather than fitting clearly within a style of music, he had a style of playing that he transported across genere boundaries (and very damn well!). But the style of playing has lots of connection to traditional Appalachian styles, as well as to the related Delta Blues, so he can definitely be counted in, if not precisely placed.

      How’s that for a rough guess?

      • works for me! this is definitely not my area of expertise when it come to the rad tuneage. i generally see him tossed under “americana” – and i get it, given his own ethnomusicological activities – but holy hell is that ever a useless description to the outside world.

        “so, uh, this music is american, and, uh, kinda simple except when it’s not?”

  10. Final addendum. I thought maybe I was a bit crazy for hearing some surf guitar in the Eilen Jewell song, but now I’m pretty sure I’m not. Check out Wayne Hancock’s “Brand New Cadillac.”

    • Speaking of globalization – Google isn’t finding the comment, but last time Dick Dale came up I discovered that he is of Lebanese descent, and traditional middle-eastern musical scales, instrumentation and rhythms were all part of what he was doing when he “invented” surf guitar.

      Obligatory Clash cover of “Cadillac”, live in 1980:

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