OF COURSE genres are inadequate to describe anything worth describing, and I often find myself questioning why particular labels even exist. I clearly remember the first time I heard the Stones' Got Live if You Want It and wondering aloud why someone thought they needed to invent punk rock (The answer of course is financial and political and not aesthetic). But one genre label is more troubling to me than others, perhaps because I've invested so much time and energy in it: Alternative Country.
A bit of personal history:
As a teenager I was pretty immersed in what was just then being dubbed "alternative" music. We're talking early nineties here, and I was heavy into the Chili Peppers, Sonic Youth, Nine Inch Nails, Primus, etc. But I was even more dedicated to a whole other generation of music. Unlike most kids who discovered their parents' music, I was less interested in the druggy psychedelia. No, my friends and I had created a very strange little pantheon, the triumvirate being Bob Dylan, Neil Young, and Lou Reed. Honestly, that's still kind of my pantheon, as much as Lou may have slipped down the totem pole over the years.
Now there's a certain tension in these tastes (though the VU are a pretty good bridge). Luckily Nirvana and company arrived to complete the circuit and make Neil Young into an alternative god. Unfortunately for me, I hated Nirvana. It took years to realize the error of my ways. I couldn't stand Nevermind (and still have trouble with it). But I appreciated grunge's recognition of Neil, and it helped my nascent musical sense begin to make what should have been obvious connections between these disparate styles.
None of which has anything to do with Alternative Country.
But one band that my friend turned me onto was the Jayhawks. There was nothing particularly "alternative" about them unless you considered their cut-up, faulty telegraph, sense-imagery lyrics. No, the style was pretty straight 70's country-tinged rock with very clear debts to Mr. Young, not least in Gary Louris' fuzzed out, choreographed guitar solos.
And so it began. The Jayhawks were connected to several other artists and bands that were all part of this crazy scene that was happening somewhere out in the wide world. A bunch of punks were playing country tunes would be the short version.
But here's the thing: Alternative Country was always a hoax.
The great granddaddies of the "genre" were Uncle Tupelo, and a more schizoid band has never existed. The band traded leads and songwriting, and occasionally went with the strategy of a million annoying cover bands' of playing some old song in another style, throwing in some heavy guitars or playing fast and electric. The band left me cold whenever paying lip service to that whole conceit.
And no wonder. These guys weren't country. After Tupelo's breakup they went their own separate ways and did what they were good at. Jay Farrar writes astonishingly great dark little ballads. And then he writes some other boring stuff to fill out the album (Disclaimer: Son Volt's Trace is a masterpiece,mostly due to being heavy on great dark little ballads). While Jeff Tweedy immediately demonstrated that toying with country cliches was not his bag at all. He was born to play with pop cliches. The Beach Boys are much more central to Wilco's sound than Bill Monroe.
The positive outcome of my obsession with this music was that it turned me on to a whole bunch of classic country artists who have inspired and sustained me ever since. If it weren't for the Jayhawks, who knows how long it would have taken me to explore Hank Williams, Johnny Cash, George Jones, Merle Haggard, and Waylon Jennings?
So, what would I call "Alternative Country?"
How about this:
This is a tiny little taste of Grant Lee Buffalo's masterful album, Mighty Joe Moon. Besides the prominent banjo on this track, there's not much to tag this as "country," alternative or otherwise, except for the themes and images that keep popping up throughout the album. It's like a perfect hybrid of the Band and Joshua Tree era U2. That is, it does its thing while digging its hands into the endlessly fertile source that is American Folk music. And what comes out is an atmospheric masterpiece that can in various places draw its way back to, surprise, Dylan (Mighty Joe Moon and Quinn the Eskimo), Young (that falsetto), and Reed (those beats and that guitar).
And the circle is unbroken.