Alt-country music has a rich history that reaches back to Gram Parsons, New Riders of the Purple Sage, and even Neil Young and the Grateful Dead. In truth, alt-country could be loosely defined as most any country music produced outside the Nashville factory. That would include the Sun Records discography as well as the legendary Austin output of the Outlaws in the ’70s. Some called it country rock. Parsons called it cosmic American music. The premise was simple — bring a little hippie to the country music scene, and conversely, bring a little country to the hippie scene. A simple test: If the band you’re listening to has a lead guitarist playing a telecaster and not a Stratocaster, there’s a good chance you’re listening to an alt-country band.
In order to give the list a little focus, a starting point, however arbitrary, must be defined. Uncle Tupelo’s 1993 album, Anodyne, is an obvious one, because the pairing of Jeff Tweedy and Jay Farrar kick-started modern alt-country. Though that band’s debut, 1990’s No Depression, gave a name to both the movement and the magazine that chronicled it, Uncle Tupelo’s final album is clearly country music and yet something totally other than pop-influenced mainstream country music.
The ten selections for this list are in no way comprehensive. Instead, they offer a selection of music that is just as vital as Anodyne and informed by a similar appreciation for bluegrass, honky-tonk, and country and western music.
Special thanks to Matt Cooke, who was invaluable to the ranking process.
10. The Old 97s: Too Far to Care
Though the Dallas-based alternative-country outfit endured a millennial pop makeover worthy of Liz Phair, their major-label debut is a masterpiece of cow-punk fusion. Too Far to Care walks a tightrope between the barroom swagger of “Timebomb” and “Barrier Reef” and the quiet prettiness of songs like “Salome” and “Big Brown Eyes.” Extra points are awarded for the Exene Cervenka cameo on “Four Leaf Clover.”
9. DeYarmond Edison: Silent Signs
A hidden gem from Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon, Silent Signs is a sparse collection that makes the most out every note and lyric. Vernon underscores his words with hints of reverb and ambient noise over simple acoustic arrangements. The effect is something like Hank Williams playing on a post-apocalyptic street corner, and Silent Signs is an album that hypnotically draws you back to it.
8. Loretta Lynn: Van Lear Rose
Lots of musicians talk about owing something to the artists that influenced them, but Jack White went above and beyond the call of duty in resurrecting Loretta Lynn’s career with Van Lear Rose. Lynn had been relegated to the scrap heap for at least a decade when she agreed to collaborate with White. The songs showcase White’s talent at making traditional music sound as if it were beamed from space, and Lynn proves that pure country music can sound vital even in a modern setting. Though Van Lear Rose is a Loretta Lynn album, White’s presence makes it an alt-country classic.
7. Son Volt: Wide Swing Tremolo
[Warner Brothers, 1998]
Many view Jay Farrar as the ultimate “loser” in the splintering of Uncle Tupelo, but in addition to the mainstream success Son Volt experienced with its first album, Trace, Farrar has been able to quietly develop the musical vision that led to the band’s break-up. Most of Farrar’s solo material (recorded during a five-year hiatus from Son Volt) lists toward a groovy weirdness that he never achieved with the more melodic but sometimes bland Son Volt. Wide Swing Tremolo marries Farrar’s two aesthetics, and his compatriots in Son Volt create an image-heavy, melodic, and deep listening experience.
6. My Morning Jacket: It Still Moves
Jim James and company skew more toward the jam band end of the country spectrum, but at its heart It Still Moves is barroom country in the tradition of the Allman Brothers, Lynyrd Skynyrd and Hank Williams Jr. The alt-country credentials of It Still Moves are summed up on “Golden,” where James observes “people always told me that bars were dark and lonely and talk is always cheap and filled with air” over a buttery guitar line. If this were the Seventies, there would have been a movie of the week made about it starring the band.
5. Wilco: Being There
Wilco achieved legendary status as a rock band with Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and A Ghost is Born, but Jeff Tweedy and company lived another life entirely as the more country offshoot of Uncle Tupelo. Though the band’s art-rock destinations are hinted at on songs like “The Lonely 1” and “Misunderstood,” Being There marks Wilco’s high point working in the alt-country genre. The bluegrass-tinged “Forget the Flowers” is not only one of the greatest break-up songs ever written, but it’s also a fitting goodbye as Tweedy moved on to rock icondom.
4. Lucinda Williams: Car Wheels on a Gravel Road
Listen to one verse of a Lucinda Williams song and there is no doubt that her voice is authentic. When she sings about longing, a break-up or a bar fight, it’s not in the metaphorical sense. Though her album West was compared to Exile on Main Street and 2003’s World Without Tears may be her most lyrically adventurous album, Car Wheels on a Gravel Road is a striking rebuttal to the testosterone-fueled genre of country music.
3. The Jayhawks: Hollywood Town Hall
Though the Jayhawks most perfect song is the exquisitely sad “Blue” (which retained every ounce of its impact despite being utilized on the “good-bye” segment for MTV’s The Real World), Hollywood Town Hall captures the band at the height of its power, including the best tracks from their debut, Blue Earth, and originals such as “Waiting for the Sun,” “Crowded in the Wings,” and “Take Me With You (When You Go).” Hollywood Town Hall is melancholy without being maudlin, giving a literary description of the stark landscapes and isolated characters of the Midwest.
2. Whiskeytown: Stranger’s Almanac
Before Ryan Adams became the new hardest working man in show business, he fronted the fondly remembered Raleigh outfit Whiskeytown. While some critics declaimed the band as merely a soap opera for the alt-country set, there is no arguing with the genuine beauty of Adams’ lyrics ably backed by the vocals and violin of Caitlin Cary. Though both have gone on to produce excellent solo albums, neither has been able to capture the magic of songs like “Houses on the Hill,” “Avenues,” and “Dancing With the Women at the Bar.”
1. Steve Earle: El Corazon
[Warner Brothers, 1997]
Though Earle’s prodigious run of essential albums has shown recent signs of coming to a halt, the man’s post-prison artistic production is nothing short of legendary. Earle’s songwriting talent has cast him variously as a bluegrass traditionalist, political activist, and confessional troubadour of worthy of Blood on the Tracks-era Dylan. Though any one Earle’s remarkable albums could justifiably be included on the list, El Corazon offers the best view of his scope as a musician. The political conscious is there on “Christmas in Washington,” and Earle offers pure country gems such as “The Other Side of Town” and “Fort Worth Blues,” but the real power of El Corazon is in the collaboration. Earle pairs with artists as diverse Seattle’s Supersuckers and legendary bluegrass artist Del McCoury on songs that show the vitality and diversity of the alt-country genre.