Grieving Angel (or, What Happened to alt.Country)

“I saw the writing on the wall, with the Americana movement…I started to see country-western reproduction shirts at the Gap, and once something gets that big, it’s over.” – Darin Wald, Big Ditch Road.

“Do you mean Gram Parsons is dead?” – Larry Oster-Burg (Michael Shannon), Grand Theft Parsons

Historical periods, art movements, ice ages; you’re never really sure when one begins or ends. Art especially, with its constant action/reaction sequences, is vaguely defined from one movement to the next. We do tend to agree, however, that there is a start and there is an end, even if they are ill-defined. No Depression magazine announced earlier this month that their next issue would be their last and it’s hard not to see this as a bellwether for the movement it championed: alt-country.

The traditionalist country and “cosmic-Americana” music that most influenced alt-country as a movement was long over with by the time the scene began to rumble in the mid-80s. The old guard were either dead or in a holding pattern, the Byrds had gone off on one of any of the other directions they chose during their career, and Gram Parsons was ashes in Joshua Tree; all in all, there wasn’t much left. But there was Dwight Yoakam and his neo-traditionalist fusion of showmanship, style and punk’s defiant attitude, gleaned from fellow Los Angeles bands like X and the Blasters, both of which also channeled part of the specter of country music. And just around the corner would be the album most often cited as the genre’s opening salvo: Uncle Tupelo’s No Depression.

Where the style would go over the next decade and a half would be largely dictated by two groups, most efficiently (if not precisely) represented by the songwriting forces behind Uncle Tupelo: Jay Farrar (neo-traditionalists and slavish devotees) and Jeff Tweedy (progressive-traditionalists). When Uncle Tupelo called it quits after 1993’s Anodyne, both of the subsequent spin-offs, Son Volt and Wilco, channeled a lot of the same energy of their previous project. Then something went weird.

When Wilco recorded Being There in 1996, the gloves had come off for progressive-traditionalists. The restraints of the genre were showing. For some, like Wilco, this would eventually lead them completely away from anything even resembling country or alt-country. For others, it was more of a wake-up call for revitalization. The Jayhawks took a middle ground in the struggle by siphoning country, pop and soul into a righteous mix. Their records, on up through the adventurous and underrated The Sound of Lies in 1997, showed a fascination with reclaiming country music’s place as equal part of the more popular narratives of rock and rhythm and blues by deconstructing traditional styles and laying out image-heavy songs. Even pioneers who had been with the movement since before it was a movement were opening their doors. In 1998 Lucinda Williams would finish recording and finally release her long-in-the-making Car Wheels on a Gravel Road, the glossiest and most polished record she had recorded – earning her an amazing share of critical praise and mainstream audience that she hadn’t previously reached.

Seeing a connection? Within a period of two years, from Being There to Car Wheels, the whole face of the alt-country game had changed. Neo-Traditionalists like the Jayhawks, Lucinda Williams and the aforementioned, Jay Farrar fronted, Son Volt (whose Wide Swing Tremolo, with its astoundingly louder and rockier tones, would also come in 1998) were fusing their country with pop and rock while progressives like Wilco were completely leaving the genre behind. By the release of Wilco’s Summerteeth, it was as if they’d never been the band that recorded “I Must Be High” or that they were fronted by the man who wrote “New Madrid.”

But the most central and crucial record to this pivot point is Whiskeytown’s 1997 release, Stranger’s Almanac.

You know you’ve got something going when the chameleons show up. The great imitators, the ones who can shift and shuck and jive with ease. Ryan Adams is one of them. Not to cast aspersions on Adams’ legitimacy as a songwriter or musician – quite the contrary. He’s a gifted and rare breed. But the trajectory of his career is a roller coaster of phases and stages – from the sub-Tupelo of Faithless Street through the American music museum of Stranger’s Almanac to Gold’s populist anthems and on and on.

Chameleons read the writing on the wall better than anyone and the divide between Stranger’s Almanac and its follow-up, the shelved and delayed Pneumonia, was as wide as you could imagine. Stranger’s Almanac had country weepers (“Excuse Me While I Break My Own Heart Tonight,” “Dancing With the Women at the Bar”), exercises in r&b/soul/country fusion (“Everything I Do”) and the Midwestern, Replacements‘ channeling country rock (“Yesterday’s News,” “Waiting to Derail”). From stem to stern it’s the best amalgam and synthesis of everything that alt-country music accomplished between its mid-80s beginnings and its mid-90s apex. And it’s no wonder Adams would never come back to it.

Since then it’s been a genre just coasting. The great albums are past, with only occasional glimpses of great artists whose turn at the songwriting table would probably have succeeded regardless of whether alt-country existed. Great albums exist from these last ten years, but not because they were earth shattering in any way, but simply because they were just really good. That’s not a complaint or a criticism. It’s just the sign of it getting late in the day for alt-country.

Now with the deluxe edition re-issue of Stranger’s Almanac due out next week, seeming to perfectly coincide with No Depression’s demise, we might have that rarest of historical moments: when the changing of the guard is obvious and visible. / J. Neas

Whiskeytown :: Luxery Liner (Gram Parsons cover)

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37 thoughts on “Grieving Angel (or, What Happened to alt.Country)

  1. Spot-fucking-on
    I too saw the writing on the wall when the gap and abercrombie starting selling pearl snap western shirts that were being snatched up by kids who never heard of Gram Parsons.

  2. Wow. Spot-fucking on indeed. The writing is always on the wall. One of the worst is country icon Johnny Cash. Personally, after Walk the Line, which I found to be a horribly misguided and often boring, hollywood-ization of the Man in Black’s life, I haven’t been able to listen to Cash. Everywhere I go a sorority sister is singing Karaoke to “Walk the Line” or putting “Boy Named Sue” on the jukebox. I guess it’s better than listening to Barry Manilow, but seriously, it just makes me sad when great music doesn’t get the proper treatment, absorption, or contextual identity. After all, Johnny Cash wasn’t your Mama’s country-western star, he was your deadbeat Uncle’s. The one in jail.

  3. I liked what Brian Henneman from the Bottle Rockets said about it:

    Re: No Depression To Cease Publication
    by Buck Stopshere on Tue Feb 19, 2008 3:22 pm

    No, it’s good.
    This means the last “roots rock scare” is finally over.
    It’s underground again, just like it’s been time and time again.
    It’ll start up again, when a new generation of writers discovers it, and we’ll get to be excited all over again for awhile.
    They ALWAYS “discover” it, ’cause this kinda music never goes away, it only goes away in the eye of the general public.
    I don’t know exactly when it began, maybe with the Flying Burrito Brothers.
    Before that, they’d have just called it “rock and roll”.
    The Flying Burrito Brothers were HIGHLY unpopular in their day, but, they managed to eek their way onto some public “radar”, which led the studious types to find more likeminded music, which, also wasn’t very popular, yet, was enough to encourage a “scene” to develop, usually not a very big scene, but a “scene” nonetheless.
    Somebody always rises to the top though, I guess maybe back then, it was The Eagles.
    That becomes publicly accepted as “mainstream”, which then gets lumped in with other things “mainstream”, and the root of where it came from gets totally branded to the “winner”, thereby abandoning the also-rans, at least from a media perspective.
    The winner is now “mainstream” though, so, even though they ARE from what they began, the “roots” are pushed back underground, and the “alt-country-rock-whatever scene” is over for awhile, in the eye of the general public.
    Usually takes about a decade to run its course.
    Stayed low after that, ’til the next generation of writers came along, and “discovered” this great new kinda “Pure American Music”, by groups like The Long Ryders, True Believers, Lone Justice, Jason & The Scorchers, etc…
    I reckon The Georgia Satellites may have won that round, I’m not sure, but, the cycle ran its course again, ’til the next generation discovered these bands called Uncle Tupelo, Jayhawks, Bottle Rockets, etc…
    Looks like Wilco might have won this round, and now, it’s back underground again.
    The atrophy of music, as a driving force in pop culture, is diminishing each generation of this phenomenon, yet, it still seems to survive, this thing we call “roots rock”.
    Maybe we’re the only genre that proves the theory “Hey Hey, My My, Rock And Roll Can Never Die”.
    Sure seems more vital, and meaningful, to see Alejandro Escovedo play today, than it does to see Skid Row, or Ratt.
    It’s a form of music that has survived many generations fully intact.
    It never even got as diminished as the “Strat And A Hat” guys diminished the blues.
    You can’t kill it.
    At the end of time, all that will remain is Keith Richards, a Fender Telecaster, a bunch of cockroaches, and roots rock music.
    With nobody left to categorize it for, I bet Keef’ll just call it rock and roll…

  4. The term ‘alt’ country was always a tenuous term that even the main torchbearers of the scene were very dubious of. For instance the scene supposedly began with Uncle tupelo’s ‘No depression’ yet throughout the 80’s bands like the Long Ryders, the Knitters, Steve Earle and Dave Alvin existed and produced genre defining works and classic albums that only in hindsight have been lumped together as early incarnations of ‘alt’ country. Some people even believe that the term came around when the Mekons(a band you haven’t even mentioned) covered Hank William’s ‘I’m so Lonesome I Could Cry’ for an album and record staff got flustered as to where to shelve an indie rock album with a Hank Williams song on it. Hence the term ‘’.
    But how do we define the death of a movement that was never as clear cut as the Music Press would have us believe anyway. The genre defining albums that always get associated with ‘alt’ country never set the world alight sales wise at all. Uncle Tupelo never shifted vast amounts of units and the Jayhawks certainly didn’t. Around the same time as the birth of ‘alt’ Country was the death of the much maligned Shoegaze era. A scene that died just before MBV would release one of the greatest albums of all time and a good five years before Spiritualized would release ‘Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating In space'(the music press favoured Spiritualized album, not mine). The aforementined albums are collosal works that were made around the same time or well after the pronounced ‘death’ of the scene that they sprung from. You also state that Ryan Adams has long since cut loose from the shackles and restraints of ‘alt’ country yet last years ‘Easy Tiger’ was one of his most critically and comercially successful albums and if ‘Tears Of Gold’, ‘Pearls On a String’ and ‘Everybody knows’ aren’t i don’t know what is. My personal favoutite ‘Cold Roses’ is another steeped in country rock and ‘Jacksonville City Nights’ is probably the most countrified album that he’s done. The fact that he returned to his roots after the perceived failure of Rock N Roll and Love Is Hell does not lead me to believe that ‘alt’ country’, ‘roots rock’, ‘americana’ or whatever you want to call it is any more dead or alive than it ever has been. Just because artists experiment and evolve doesn’t mean anything. Rock and roll never died when Elvis Costello released ‘Almost blue’ and neither did soul music when Ray Charles released ‘Modern Sounds in country and western’.
    Last year Josh Ritter released his best album, as did Bright Eyes, Octoberman and Jim White. This year we have already seen the Drive By Trucker’s magnifficent and most country influenced album for years’Brighter than Creation’s dark’. Dusty Rhodes and the River band have released the astonishingly underappreciated ‘First to Live’, one of the most exciting albums I’ve heard for years and we are barely into the third month of the year. The longer the term ‘’ stays unfashionable the better in my opinion because it was the scene’s un-trendiness that attracted me to it in the first place. The last thing I would want for ‘roots rock’ would be the kind of coolness that now plagues the indie scene where people are judged by how tight their jeans are or how many angles they have in their haircut. How joyless the indie scene has become in the Uk with clubs full of self-absorbed scenesters too wrapped up in themselves to let go and lose themselves in the music. How tedious the watered down, pasty faced sub-Gang Of four/Wire/Libertines with added soul eroding production sheen that passes for much of the music in the UK indie scene at present. Perhaps it is indie that is really dead then? But no, because no matter how bland or lifeless a music scene can appear there is always great music out there and in years to come we will forget the dreary wannabes and the birth and death of so-called ‘scenes’ and remember only great music that no matter what will transcend any scene.

  5. @ MD:“After all, Johnny Cash wasn’t your Mama’s country-western star, he was your deadbeat Uncle’s. The one in jail.”

    Hey dumbass: Johnny Cash was your mama’s country-western star. He was hugely popular in the 60s and 70s. He even had his own prime time network TV variety show for a few years , where he hosted guests such as Bob Dylan and Ray Charles. It makes me sad that you’re such a snob.

  6. The alt country scene is dead because the gap sells western style shirts? A Johnny Cash move has significance to the rise and or fall of alt country?

    You people are out of your minds. Your also taking your ball and going home. You know, the one you don’t own.

  7. Since the bulk of my argument had to do with the genre hitting its peak in the late 90s, prove me wrong. (And I mean that in a positive way – not as an insult.) What are some records we’ve seen in the 00’s that are both considered alt-country and progressive in some way? It’s just that when I think of forward-thinking alt-country, it isn’t from the last 8 years. Doesn’t mean there aren’t records from that time period that are amazing (Matt H., I agree with almost every album you named as an example) but that as far as art-moving forward, it’s felt like they’ve been almost non-existant.

  8. I must admit I find it hard to think of an alt-country record in the 00s that encapsulates the precise term ‘alt country’ as well as ‘Strangers Almanac’ and I agree that classic album may always be seen as the genre defining touchstone for many people. Time(the Revelator) 2001 springs to mind as an album comparable in terms of widespread influence. Lambchop were hugely inventive in the 00s and I truly believe Jason Molina scaled new heights in terms of ambition along with Bill Callahan and many other artists who may have started out in the mid to late 90’s but are now really hitting their stride. A personal favourite of mine is 2004’s Empire Builders by Jason Ringenberg which is as original, powerful and relevant as anything that came out in the late 90’s. I still also believe that Ryan Adams has one huge, legendary album left in him yet. Don’t we all? Also, there are many other artists I love like Sparklehorse, Okkervil river, the National, Mark Lanegan and MMJ who may not be classed as essentially alt-country but possess certain elements of the genre within their broad scope of sounds. And as well as newer bands like the Everybodyfields and Dusty Rhodes and the river Band I believe the music will continue to evolve and move forward within and around the parameters of indie, rock, soul and other genres like it always has done and hopefully always will do. Anyway, there is something else I do agree upon and that is that the Jayhawks ‘Sound Of Lies’ is one of the most neglected and underated albums of the last 20 years. I recently put it on for the first time in a long while and was blown away by how fresh and inventive it still sounds.

  9. One could make a case that this is not “news,” really, if only because we dropped “alt-country” from our cover-tag three years ago in favor of a more broad-ranging term. This was certainly in part because, just as with many of the artists associated with alt-country, we ultimately wished to stretch our boundaries further than that more specifically descriptive tag suggested. Previously we’d accommodated the stretches by qualifying “alt-country” with my dad’s “whatever that is” addendum; but I do remember that when we redesigned our logo upon our tenth anniversary in 2005, we talked over the seeming inevitability that “alt-country was dead” at that time. (And when we sought our contributing editors’ advice as to other presentational shifts with the magazine, we chose one of their suggestions, that we seek to cover the past, present and future of American music, as our new cover-tagline.)

    Beyond those details, I think it’s important to note that the disappearance of our print issue has much more to do with the upheavals of the music and print-media industries as a whole, rather than anything genre-specific. And quite obviously the music industry’s overhaul is far more widespread than just in the alt-country genre. So ultimately, as convenient as it may seem on the surface, I’m not sure it actually makes a lot of sense to tie ND’s print cessation to the disappearance of alt-country, given that A) there are greater factors influencing the decision, and B) alt-country as a “movement” really had already passed. (And/or, as others point out, it may never have actually existed as a “movement” in the first place, but is really a continuing undercurrent that predated the mid-90s boom and will survive it well into the future. All really depends on your perceptions and definitions of the form, I think.)

  10. The worst thing Ryan Adams ever did was to stop playing with Caitlin Cary. None of his solo stuff is close to being as good as Whiskeytown. His early solo stuff was pretty good but the longer he’s been around the more boring he’s become. He is and always has been the most unoriginal recording artist around. Every song sounds like someone from the 70’s or the 80’s. Now he just sounds loke watered down Dead.
    As for the term Alt Country, just another marketing term for something that had been around for years. I just thought is was short for young rock dudes playing country/roots rock in the 90’s. That style has come and gone since the 60’s.

  11. Yep. Henneman’s got it right, as usual. It’s the music I’ve listened to my whole life, from Dylan, John Prine and the Stones to Springsteen and London Calling, from Grievous Angel and Willie Nelson to Hollywood Town Hall and AM, right up to now. You guys miss the boat on Todd Snider’s “East Nashville Skyline”? No mention of that gem of a record. The music goes on and on and on. And when the culture ain’t paying attention, the artists get really hungry and then they do some good work. Malcolm Holcomb? Howe Gelb’s “Sno Angel Like You”? Again, as Henneman said…Alejandro!? Rodney Crowell’s last three records? On and on and on…lucky us.

  12. Oh, Please!!!! The legacy and greatness of Johnny Cash doesn’t need any movie or karaoke to even try to do him justice. They can’t!!! Johnny was great in and of himself. If I play Ring of Fire on a silent jukebox during a mid-day drunk at Wafflehouse, does that make him less or more one of the great artists of my lifetime? NO. He’s one of a handful of artists that will always retain a purity of true great talent regardless of trends or whatever else comes down the pike.

  13. I’ll concur with the argument that this is, perhaps, a hibernation period for ‘alt-country.’ My intention wasn’t necessarily to say that the genre is dead, but that it hit its stride a while ago and hasn’t really picked up the pace in any ways. Great music still comes out, but perhaps not the stuff that ends up being legendary for being unique and progressive.

    I really appreciate the great comments about this. You guys have had me reflecting on this piece a lot since I wrote it.

  14. Alt-country isn’t dead; you just need to know where to look.

    Mainstream radio may have moved on to “the next big thing”, but college stations and community radio, who can play what they want, will continue to spin tracks. Years from now the genre will “discovered” again. Until then, long live Johnny Cash, the Bottle Rockets, Lucinda Williams, and Neko Case

  15. I think it’s a little misleading to say No Depressions next issue will be there last, if they are going to continue on the web (which is what I gather from Peter Blackstock’s comment). Otherwise nice thought provoking piece. I probably agree more with Henneman, but I will pull out s. almanac and listen. I suspect there wasnt too much progressive about it, it was just a great record in a style that had been neglected for a while. but I could be wrong.

  16. Lovely piece. I remember did a great poll of the greatest albums – with Trace by Son Volt on top. Perhaps an interesting time to do that again, now that the ‘era’ is gone, and a bit of time has passed. Would Trace still be on top? Would tangental albums like Silver Jews make the list? And how about the Scud Mountain Boys? The Old 97s? or the second string like Minibar and Marah…very interesting. Someone should write the book.

  17. i just read this article, which slightly upset me…as I am a huge fan of alt. country or no depression or whatever the hell you want to call it and would prefer it was still very much alive, the article was persuasive and I was starting to believe it and then…

    i read all the posts below that reminded me of some things- the Drive-By Truckers just put out there best album (more country than ever), Ryan Adams (though some may call it look warm Dead) is returning to some of his roots, though I thought Easy Tiger was a little too polished, and Gary Louris and Mark Olson have both put out solid to great solo records (Olson’s in particular was a favorite of min) with a duo album set for release later this year….

    also I have discovered a couple of really great bands down here in the Carolina’s including NC’s American Aquarium as well as Caleb Caudle and the Bayonets and in my home state of SC we have American Gun, Josh Roberts and the Hinges, and Cary Ann Hearst and the Gun Street Girls….

    other smaller artists like Todd Snider and Lucero continue to reach higher and higher on subsequent albums without abandoning their alt. country roots…..

    there are also older artists who are only now starting to record some great music, check out Phil Lee (Nashville) or Sam Baker (Austin)….

  18. Here here for mentioning Caleb Caudle who is pretty fantastic. I’m from his neck of the woods here in NC and saw him do a great job opening for Jason Isbell back in the fall. Same when American Aquarium opened for Isbell in December. Both good bands/artists.

  19. Can we please stop with the declarations of demise and the need for difinitive beginnings and ends. To suggest that a form of music is dead is to suggest that it was a passing phase or fad. Alt. Country or Americana isnt dead, it’s merely evolved and possibly different than in the supposed glory days. The above commenter mentioned Lucero and Todd Snider, another quoted Brian from The Bottle Rockets. Those acts, along with Reckless Kelly out of Austin, among others are still producing works that shine as examples of “Alt. Country”. Will there ever be another Stranger’s Almanac? Maybe, maybe not. Will there ever be another “Damn the Torpedoes”? If not, does that mean there will never be another great rock record? Who’s to say what album is or isnt another version of any great album from the past? I know, it’s all subjective, but please stop searching for some misguided form of closure, just because advertisers have stopped seeing the incentive to place ads in a magazine that has a niche readership or that you may feel the current crop of albums in thie made-up genre arent up to the level of certain great albums form the past.

  20. I would just like to point out that Josh did not once, in the above post, use the word “dead”. he is merely looking back at a genre whose most, er, popular period seems, at least for now, behind it. yes, i could easily rattle off 20 or so artists carrying the torch, and i am glad for it, but that was not the point of josh’s piece.

    as always, appreciate the hearty comments. keep ’em coming.

    – A.D.

  21. As others have noted, the “” scene is far from dead. It might be evolving, but when you look at some recent albums by Marah, Drive-By Truckers, Gary Louris, etc you will see that the scene is flourishing. I personally wouldn’t be surprised to see the Trucker’s “Brighter Than Creations Dark” rank up there with Stranger’s Almanac in another 10 years (is that blasphemous to say?).

    Even more telling to the genre, is the fact that last year we saw one of the greatest “” tours EVER, when The Drams, Glossary, Grand Champeen, and Two Cow Garage teamed up for their “THIS is American Music” tour. In my opinion, that tour defines what “” is. From the hard rocking replacementsesque songs, to more country staples, to watching all the band members cram onto a tiny stage to cover Tom Petty’s “American Girl”. Maybe is evolving, but after seeing that show, THIS is definitely American Music.


  22. yeah. is dead. move on to the next big thing and leave the music to the people who never needed to define it in the first place. i hear american idol is the next new alt.american thing: good luck; and, thanks for stopping in to drink all our beer and eat all our ribs. don’t worry, we’ve saved the good stuff until you’ve gone home. drive safe now, say hi to martha quinn.

  23. No way it’s dead. I totally disagree. You just aren’t looking hard enough for. It’s growing every where. You stop in to any tiny little bar in South Carolina and you ain’t gonna see american idol music on the stage. Now I will agree with you that we have our bandwagon jumpers. But last time I checked we didn’t own this music. I’ve lived in South all my life and grew up with the country music my dad played on the 8 track player in our Ford Thunderbird. You might be mad that it’s indie kids playing the music that they have no direct ties to. And i get mad about it to. I just saw a band in play in Brooklyn the other night that was playing ‘alt-country’ and claiming to be from Georgia. I don’t think so boys. Now I will tell you what I am fuming about. I ain’t gonna have the chance to be on the cover of ‘No Depression’.

    runaway dorothy
    New York, NY 10009



  24. It’s High Time that Americana, or Roots Music…is only what it always has been…a bunch of homegrown music from all over the musical map…country, blues, jazz, celtic, gypsy…all of it need not be so rigidly clung to as to take away what it has always been to begin with…music of the people for the people by the people and you can only write sing and play what you REALLY know…keeping it real, that is what the Americana or Roots “tradition” all boils down to…!

  25. No doubt, the Grievous Angel marked the beginning and end of a one-of-a-kind style. I think the most fortunate members of any movement are those who participate without even knowing it. When artists and bands follow their hearts and produce music that comes from a unique blend of perspectives, that’s when genres like alt country are born. The minute these styles are labeled and earn a shelf, inevitably others come along and intend to match it. Only the most basic genres can endure forever. Let’s face it, all others are just a blend. Have the Crayola colors remained the same over the years, or have they changed from time to time? Only the base colors remain the same.

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