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Sunday, October 30, 2005
Sunday Morning Playlist: Alternative Country Rock
Not to be confused with Alternative Country, which is a country music form, Alternative Country-Rock is essentially rock music, a continuation of the rock oriented hybrid that first appeared in the late 1960's, but with some new twists.
The first country-rock era, epitomized by the late Byrds, Poco, The Eagles, Gram Parsons, et. al., saw its heyday from about 1969 through 1976. A major label phenomenon, country rock sold in big quantities and dominated the top-40 until the punk, disco, and new wave eras rendered most country-rock obsolete. By 1977, most country-rock groups had either broken up or seen their sales plummet rapidly; The Eagles abandoned it completely on Hotel California, bands like Firefall took it into such pop territory that it lost most of its country influence, and by 1980, country-rock was nearly as dead in the U.S. as progressive rock and heavy metal had become. Early MTV did not take to country-rock, nor did rock radio.
Its slow return to relevance took up much of the 1980's, when a new generation of bands and musicians, nearly all of them recording for indie labels, began exploring Americana and roots-rock which inevitiably led to a rediscovery of rock's country roots. These musicians approached from two directions; some were punk-influenced bands who embraced either rockabilly or Byrds/Parsons style material first, leading them in a more rural, rootsy direction. Others were often rural performers in the first place, with a natural country influence or background, who pursued indie rock careers. Thus, alternative country rock eventually came to encompass a wide variety of styles, ranging from rockabilly punk to neo-Parsons/Byrdisms to Texas blues flavored country to Neil Young influenced guitar-based country rock to cowpunk to countrified jangle-pop. While some performers used country reference as shorthand for irony, many were dedicated and true to the spirit of country, giving it a respect it hadn't seen in nearly two decades.
The first alternative country rock performer to achieve relative mainstream success was Lyle Lovett, who also was the first country performer in years to achieve a significant rock fan base. From the rock side of the fence, but equally straddling it was the Texas country roots-rock of Steve Earle. Perhaps more so for their status as outsiders in the country music world than their actual songwriting and playing, they suggested new possibilities to indie musicians who were trapped playing music that was still unfashionable in the mainstream. It was simple music, and it was honest music. It had roots, it requires good singing, good playing, and good songwriting, but amateurs can fake it pretty easily, making it a music for the masses. While the 1980's was a dry period in general for country-rock, towards the end of the decade, it was definitely on the upswing.
The Long Ryders specialized in a middle-Byrds psychedelic jangle pop that mixed country with folk and postpunk in a reverent, updated country folk rock; despite critical acclaim, they never sold many records. Cowboy Junkies had a hit with The Trinity Session which rode in on "Sweet Jane", but what was essentially a country and western style rock album with an accent on western. The Jayhawks built a large following in Minneapolis for their sweet-sounding Gram Parsons-esque songs. Lone Justice, featuring Maria McKee, was a premature major-label effort to tap into country-rock.
The real alternative country-rock era truly began in 1990 with Uncle Tupelo's release, No Depression, which was the first punk/country fusion to break out nationally. No Depression also became the title of the most influential alternative country-rock 'zine in the country and came to be the nickname by which the genre was known in the early 90's. Uncle Tupelo split into two groups in 1993, the more traditional-sounding Son Volt, and the experimental Wilco; taking country-rock in almost entirely opposite directions, they further illustrated suddenly horizonless possibilities in country-rock. No longer was it limited to adding a banjo to a rock lineup and singing like Buck Owens.
It was also country-rock becoming cool again that gave Johnny Cash a huge audience for his autumnal recordings with Rick Rubin.
"No Depression" as a movement was short-lived, but alternative country-rock has essentially thrived since then, in a myriad of styles, from traditional, to punk, to dream pop. It's one of the few rock genres in the 00's that still produces interesting music with relevance.
Some important/influential alternative country-rock artists/songs include:
1. Uncle Tupelo: No Depression
Belleville, IL trio Uncle Tupelo opened the doors with their 1990 debut No Depression. Still bearing a lot of indie rock influence, particularly in its tempos and guitars, No Depression nontheless is real country rock in the traditional sense. When it appeared, it was a real revelation; in the 80's most country rock sounded retro, borrowing cues from the 60's and 50's. No Depression borrowed just as many cues, but sounded fresh and contemporary and addressed real concerns in its lyrics; the alienated, directionless life in the Midwest in the post industrial era. "No Depression" was a Carter Family tune, one of two covers on an album otherwise written by the trio. Uncle Tupelo's take is disarmingly charming; faithful to the spirit of the original without a hint of irony. It was this lack of irony that made No Depression special. Unlike 80's excursions into country by well-heeled city bands that used country as a signifier, as shorthand, or for humor, No Depression made the small-time struggles of America worthy of indie rock fans' interests; it was simple and honest and "No Depression", the song, put it into historical context. A good track to begin with before listening to the others.
2. The Jayhawks: Blue
The Jayhawks hail from Minneapolis, which in the 1980's had one of the most fertile music scenes anywhere in the country. Beginning life as a bar band specializing in a country-folk mix drawing from Gram Parsons, Tim Hardin, and Dylan's country sound, they made their debut with The Jayhawks in 1986. Ernest but melodically rich, and known for their gorgeous harmonies, The Jayhawks' brand of country rock relied more on Parsons-style weepers and pedal steel than Uncle Tupelo's rock approach, and reached an early peak in 1995 with Tomorrow the Green Grass, which includes "Blue", which got some radio airplay. "Blue" is actually a little less country sounding than many of the band's other offerings, featuring harmonic singing that may have borrowed something from the British Invasion as well. Singer/songwriter Mark Olson departed after this album, leaving Gary Louris in charge. This change altered the band's sound considerably, as Louris began exploring some progressive avenues in the manner of Wilco. Still, The Jayhawks never staryed far from their quasi-country roots; their most recent album, Rainy Day Music, came out in 2003.
3. Tarnation: Listen to the Wind
Tarnation was a short-lived band in the mid-90's fronted by Paula Frazer, a Georgia-born, San Francisco based singer/songwriter. Their sound borrowed from Frazer's rural roots and church choir experience, but mixed it with darker influences from San Francisco's indie scene. The resulting music is reverb-laden dream pop with country textures, released on British dream-pop label 4AD. "Listen to the Wind" is from the first of their two albums, Gentle Creatures, released in 1995. One of the band's less arty and more traditional numbers, it's a slow acoutic based number with a ringing guitar lead and sweet harmony singing from Frazer and Lincoln Allen, with a dark gloom enveloping it, but with a very pretty latticework of guitar at its heart. After Gentle Creatures, the band dissolved, but Frazer drafted a new Tarnation for Mirador in 1997, before calling it a day.
4. Freakwater: Gravity
Led by two women, singers/guitarists/songwriters Janet Beveridge Bean and Catherine Ann Irwin, Freakwater are an arty but traditionalist country rock band with strong Appalachean and bluegrass influences, and they employ a wide range of traditional instuments on their records, including fiddles, madolins, and dobros. They recall a modernist Carter Family in sound, although the Kentucky pair had played in punk bands prior to Freakwater; they also add some humor in the lyrics and a general artiness that doesn't overwhelm the earthiness of the music. Their first EP, Freakwater, was released in 1989, a year prior to Uncle Tupelo's breakthrough. Since 1991, they have recorded for experimental/avant-garde indie label Thrill Jockey. "Gravity" is from Old Paint, arguably their best album, from 1995. Opening as gentle acoustic song sung with a real drawl, it turns into a slow waltz with fiddle and pedal steel with a gorgeous, loping melody. Bean and Irwin harmonize on the second verse; they lyrics are semi-absurd but carry some emotional weight nontheless. They released an album in 2005, Thinking of You.
5. Old 97's: Timebomb
Old 97's, from Dallas, bring some twangy Texan rock aggression to their brand of country rock, delivered with a bar band's no-frills straightforwardness on their first few albums, and with a power-pop influence creeping in on their most recent stuff. Rhett Miller's lyrical material is pretty rich in character sketches and run down, dingy surroundings, and his lonesome wail of a voice captures a good sense of lonely isolation on the road which grows chilling over the course of an album. "Timebomb" leads off their 1997 album Too Far to Care, their major-label debut with Elektra, and third album overall. It opens with a hard rock chime of guitars before settling into a galloping country rock groove dominated by bass and snare, which gathers the locomotion of a runaway train. The guitars twang, Miller's voice is expressive, and the wild lyric is a hoot. They've maintained a solid body of work ever since; their most recent album Alive & Wired was released in 2005.
6. The Palace Brothers: You Will Miss Me When I Burn
Will Oldham's Palace Brothers, also known as just Palace and many other variations of the name, is usually just Oldham accompanying himself on his rough sounding guitar; other musicians generally appear on an as-needed basis. Days in the Wake, from 1994, is a completely solo album, save for a single cut. Lyrically, Oldham has fire and brimstone obsessions, typified in "You Will Miss Me When I Burn", one of a large body of songs of retribution, revenge, sin, and ruin. Oldham's plaintive voice is accompanied only by his acoustic guitar; his sound is overwhelmingly lonesome. In the late 90's Oldham began releasing albums under his own name.
7. Cowboy Junkies: Misguided Angel
A Canadian band built around the vocals of Margo Timmins and featuring her brothers Peter and Michael, Cowboy Junkies released their debut album in 1986 and The Trinity Session in 1987 broke them through nationally on the strength of their cover of the Velvet Underground's "Sweet Jane". While "Sweet Jane" definitely isn't country rock, it fits in well with the rest of the Trinity Session, which is closer to Gram Parsons crossed with Hank Williams (who they cover). "Misguided Angel" typifies their windswept lonely country sound, and is an excellent showcase for Timmins' expressive voice. The song itself is a Parsons-style weeper, featuring harmonica, dobro, and accordian augmenting a economically played guitar bass and drum. A song of simple, remarkable, wistful beauty.
8. Lambchop: Timothy B. Schmidt
Lambchop were one of the more experimental and reckless alternative country rock groups of the late 1990's. Using country as an ingredient in a stew that also plundered soul, jazz, and indie noise-rock, they were one of a number of bands that really weren't "country" but knew enough about the idiom to use it as a framework for more experimental ideas, not dissimilar to Wilco's odd evolution. "Timothy B. Schmidt" is a fairly recent cut from Aw C'Mon, released in 2004, and is symptomatic of their odd eclecticism. The album is given a string treatment by bona-fide country record session orchestra the Nashville String Machine, who play things like a Martin Denny orchestra here, and are accompanied by an array of peculiar, subversive instrumentation; if Stereolab had been from Nashville, they might've sounded like this. "Timothy B. Schmidt", an instrumental, is named after the country/rock singer and songwriter who played in Poco and The Eagles, and is neither country, rock, lounge, pop, or jazz but somehow seems to suggest them all; as a Nashville band, the country is slightly more pronounced. Aw C'Mon was released on the same day as another Lambchop album entitled, No, You C'Mon.
9. The Bottle Rockets: Thousand Dollar Car
The Bottle Rockets are a long-lived group (with some breaks along the way) from Missouri, blending their country flavored roots rock with a 70's southern rock/boogie and Neil Young/Crazy Horse influence, putting them in territory more similar to Lynyrd Skynyrd than indie/punk. Upon relocating to Illinois, they became close to Jay Farrar and Jeff Tweedy of Uncle Tupelo before Uncle Tupelo released their debut. Singer/guitarist Brian Henneman even worked as a roadie for Uncle Tupelo for a spell. The topical "Thousand Dollar Car" is from The Brooklyn Side, released in 1995, a working-class album of reports from semi-rural nowheresville. "Thousand Dollar Car" is a brilliant lament over a beater that rings familiar and true; the song is given great fuzzy guitar chimes and booming drums in Crazy Horse fashion; Henneman's vocals do recall Jay Farrar's to a degree.
10. Whiskeytown: Excuse Me While I Break My Own Heart Tonight
Whiskeytown was that Raleigh, NC based band that gave Ryan Adams his leg up in the world. They managed four albums over a five year recording career that was famously turbulent and rancorous. Whiskytown was one of many bands formed in the wake of No Depression, and bore a strong Uncle Tupelo influence as well as the requisite Byrds/Parsons. While Whiskeytown was often better known for the tantrums and behavior of Adams, they also were among the better alt-country-rock bands of the late 1990's. Faithless Street, released when Adams was just twenty, in 1996, is their best; spare, honest, surprisingly worldwise. "Excuse Me While I Break My Own Heart Tonight" is a highpoint, tender and aching, in young Parsons style, with a hint of Sticky Fingers era Stones. Adams' voice is convincing beyond his years and the instrumentation, which is crisp traditional country rock with pedal steel and plenty of guitar, is the pure stuff, as if it were still 1971. While Adams got most of the attention, credit is also due to guitarist Phil Wandscher, bassist Steve Grothmann, and drummer Eric "Skillet" Gilmore.
11. Wilco: Passenger Side
In 1994, Jay Farrar and Jeff Tweedy of Uncle Tupelo split acrimoniously and set up competing bands. Tweedy's outfit was called Wilco, and since their debut in 1995, Wilco has embarked on one of the strangest musical and professional odysses in rock history, releasing Yankee Hotel Foxtrot for free over the internet in 2001 after Warners wouldn't release it, and pursuing an experimental direction that has taken them far from their early country rock into the realms of space rock and electronica, similar to Radiohead's evolution. Still, their early stuff is real country rock, which displays the early manifestations of their eventual experimentation. "Passenger Side" is from their 1995 debut, A.M., and is one of the most countrified songs on the album, full of guitar twang and Tweedy's hoarse drawl. The lyrics, about having a suspended drivers' license, is slacker loserdom writ small, and have an honest sense of humor that doesn't get smug.
12. Son Volt: Windfall
While Jeff Tweedy was busy with Wilco, Jay Farrar founded Sun Volt, who made their debut in 1995 with Trace. Son Volt was in many respects the polar opposite of Wilco, highlighting the differences the two Uncle Tupelo founders had in that band's future direction. Where Wilco used country as a springboard into studio experimentation, Son Volt kept a back-to-basics roots sound that kept them in a traditionalist honky-tonk vein. "Windfall" leads off Trace and sums up the band's sound nicely. Opening as a slow, lonesome ballad, it transforms itself into a rambling, good-spirited ode to the road, in a classic vein. Rock instrumentation plus pedal steel and fiddle augment an excellent vocal from Farrar. Although the band broke up in 2001, Tweedy revived the name for some projects in 2005.
13. Blue Rodeo: Fools Like You
Blue Rodeo are a roots rock band from Canada, where their popularity is greater than in America. Led by singer/guitarists Jim Cuddy and Greg Keelor, the band had a major hit in their homeland with their debut album Outskirts, from 1987. Their classic was Lost Together, from 1992, which blended their roots/country leanings with a vaguely Dylan-esque pop sensibility that resulted in a collection of little gems that are instantly catchy without losing their organic roots. "Fools Like You" leads it off with an appropriately gentle acoustic and fiddle intro with piano before kicking into a midtempo roots rocker notable for its Al Kooper-like organ. The vocals recall Nashville Skyline-era Dylan while the guitars both recall the Byrds and also hit the tremelo. Blue Rodeo's most recent album, Are You Ready, appeared in 2005.
14. The Walkabouts: Feel Like Going Home
The Walkabouts were from Seattle and recorded for Sub Pop but had nothing to do with grunge. Led by singer Carla Torgerson and Chris Eckman (and also featuring Eckman's two brothers), the band has released a large body of work since a self released tape in 1984; their best album is arguably the all-covers album, Satisfied Mind, from 1993. On it, they recontextualized an unusually eclectic range of songwriters, including Patti Smith, John Cale, Nick Cave, Gene Clark, and the Carter Family in much the same way as Yo La Tengo did on Fakebook; re-casting the songs entirely within their own paradigm. "Feel Like Going Home", a Charlie Rich original, has opening chords almost sound like the Stones' "I Got The Blues" crossed with their version of "Love in Vain" as it settles into a stately dirge. Torgerson and Eckman's vocals are quite something else however, with Torgerson delicate vocal playing off Eckman's baritone with almost funereal weariness. An unexpectedly rich textured and galvanizing guitar takes the solo. They returned to original material for their next album, Setting the Woods on Fire, which is another somewhat Stones-inluenced country rock album.
15. Golden Smog: Pecan Pie
Golden Smog isn't really a band so much as a side project involving memebers of Soul Asylum, the Jayhawks, Wilco, The Replacements, and other indie names, the band has never really had a lineup set in stone. Formed in the 80's as a reaction against the limitations of punk, the band developed a club following that ultimately led to three Golden Smog albums in the 1990's. Down by the Old Mainstream was their second album, from 1995, and features Wilco's Jeff Tweedy, the Jayhawks' Gary Louris, and Soul Asylum's Dan Murphy. "Pecan Pie" is a Tweedy song from the album, which is in a casual roots-rock/country vibe, based around an acoustic guitar and dobro, and a rollicking bass, as Tweedy's voice is low-key and laconic without sounding smug. The song is pretty much what the title describes, about a girl and pecan pie, not necessarily in that order.
16. Neko Case & Her Boyfriends: Deep Red Sails
Virginia born singer/songwriter Neko Case was a hot item on the indie/country-rock scene in the late 90's and early 00's, attaining acclaim for her own albums as well as her sidework with Vancouver based indie pop band The New Pornographers. Blacklisted, from 2002, is her high point to date, a smokey sounding late-night album that recalls k.d. lang to a degree, but with a darker ambience that sometimes suggests Nick Cave. Her voice is her greatest asset, although she's a capable songwriter and knows how to wring the melody out of a tune. "Deep Red Sails" is a standout from the album. It opens with a minor key jangling guitar and edgy percussion. Case's voice is a luscious one; full of nuance and sweetness, and not just a little mystery. Melodically, the song has an unconventional, almost keening reach, the rhythm is jumpy and restless. Yet despite, these peculiararities, the song reveals itself midwaythrough as an almost Johnny Cash-style country rocker before ending in a mysterious haze again. Case is quite possibly one of the most compelling female vocalists in rock these days; her records are always interesting, and she works with interesting collaborators.
17. Scud Mountain Boys: Silo
Originally the Scuds, the Scud Moutain Boys represented a phenomenon that occured in indie rock in the wake of Uncle Tupelo; a rock band abandoning its rock idiom entirely, and beginning fresh with an acoustic based country sound. They only managed three albums, but each is a dignified and distinguished acoustic country album with shades of Son Volt that doesn't lean too heavily on the Americana angle. Massachusetts was their final album, from 1996, and is probably their best. "Silo" is one of the best moments, boasting a gentle, wistful melodicism and sad lyrics. Acoustic at its heart, it adds a lonesome chiming guitar that also takes a twangy, reverbed lead and a fiddle; its sparseness conjures up dusty, windswept nowhere and some of the guitarwork is truly gorgeous.
18. Ryan Adams: Come Pick Me Up
Singer/songwriter Ryan Adams originally led the volatile combo Whiskeytown before embarking on a prolific solo career in 2000. Adams himself cites Loretta Lynn, George Jones, Merle Haggard, and Johnny Cash among his influences; to these he also has added a punky guitar-based approach that gave Whiskeytown its edge. Solo, he's toned it down a little, although his debut Heartbreaker still has a lot of his grit and swagger intact. He's real enough that Emmylou Harris appears on the album, doing for him what she once did for Gram Parsons himself. It includes "Come Pick Me Up", a classic drinking song that kicks off with a woozy harmonica and drum and takes its sweet time getting to where it's going, which is a wide, expansive chorus with Kim Richey taking over the harmony vocals. Adams remains a controversial figure, much of it for reasons that aren't musical. As a musician, both solo and with Whiskeytown, he's amassed a body of work that holds up well versus a lot of A-listers.
19. The Waco Brothers: Make Things Happen
Formed in 1995 by a group of British ex-pats, led by Jon Langford of seminal punk band the Mekons, The Waco Brothers were an outlet for his and the others' country leanings that didn't fit into their own punk bands. Intended as a vehicle to play live in the Chicago area, the Waco Brothers created a stir with their aggressive, tightwound country-punk, which they eventually parlayed into a seven album career that continues to this day. "Make Things Happen" is from their 2000 album Electric Waco Chair; it, like the album is a sweaty, gritty, tough-minded c&w workout with an obviously British, almost Revolver-period Beatles-like sensibility applied to the country sounds. Electric Waco Chair was an important album because it marks a real self-identity for the band instead of country with a Mekons feel like their first few albums. Freedom and Weep appeared in 2005.
20. The Blood Oranges: Hell's Half Acre
The Blood Oranges only lasted for three albums in the early 90's, but they were good ones, with a deep bluegrass influence to their music. The Crying Tree was their final album, but it displays all of their best points; Jimmy Ryan's songwriting and mandolin, Cheri Knight's singing and writing, and Mark Spencer, an excellent guitarist who could play fast runs. "Hell's Half Acre" is the standout. Their recordings are fairly hard to come by these days; worth picking up if you find it somewhere cheap.
Sunday Morning Playlist is a weekly feature.
Listen to Uncle Tupelo: No Depression (1990)