Alt country, also called Americana, indie country and a thousand other names, is as hard to label as pornography, and seemingly all the bands that fit that style are loathe to try.
Paraphrasing Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart when he tried to pin down pornography, you know it when you hear it.
Alt country drafts its influence as much from roots Americana like the high lonesome sound of Bluegrass legend Bill Monroe, country’s Hank Williams, and folk singer Woody Guthrie as it does from the post punk angst of Joy Division and pure power pop of The Ramones.
Slim Cessna, one of alt country’s leading statesmen says of his influences, “When I first heard [the ’80s punk/country band]The Gun Club, I knew this was my music. The foundation of our music may be based on American music tradition like folk and country. After that there are no rules. All songs are given freedom.”
Unlike mainstream country music, which is largely indistinguishable from modern pop music and benefits from huge industry support and promotion, alt country has never found a home on the radio. It’s largely absent on rock, country, bluegrass and traditional roots music stations. Your best bet is college radio, but even then its usually part of a special program devoted to the style, and not in general rotation.
This could be changing.
Largely through the success of some of the more accessible acts like Mumford and Sons, and The Avett Brothers (the Avett Brothers were even mentioned in an episode of last season’s Dexter), which share some of the characteristics of alt country, record companies and radio are seeing that there is a market for roots-influenced music.
Like all good art movements, alt country is more than just a sum of its parts. The masterful mixing of genres and styles ads a sophisticated, visceral and modern take on a distinctly American art form.
Traditional Bluegrass and country offers a snapshot of the beauty and pain of rural America in the early part of last century. Today’s alt country builds on that, often mixing the fire and damnation, end of the world spirit of punk rock with gospel and biblical references, particularly 16 Horsepower and Slim Cessna.
The lyrical journeys will take you to hell and back, and offer a glimpse of salvation, if you’re game enough to take them up on it.
Catch Slim Cessna’s Auto Club on tour now and coming to a city near you.
Other alt country bands to explore:
Jessica Lee Mayfield
Slim Cessna’s Auto Club
The Handsome Family