When I first heard Eric Church singing “Jeff Tweedy was one bad mother” on the title track off Mr. Misundersood it occurred to me that there is likely a huge segment of new country fans who have no idea who Tweedy is through no fault of their own. It’s not like his music was ever played on country radio, which is a shame. If it wasn’t for trailblazing Alt-Country artists like Tweedy, I may never have heard artists like Church, Kenny Chesney, Tim McGraw, Kellie Picker and the dozens of other new country performers that I enjoy today.
The following 7 Quick Clicks feature some of the front-runners of the formative years of Alt-Country.
1. Uncle Tupelo – Chickamaugua
1993’s No Alternative comp benefiting the Red Hot Organization for AIDS research featured rarities by some of alt-rock’s biggest bands at the time such as Nirvana, Soul Asylum, Pavement and Smashing Pumpkins. There was one country song on the record — “Effigy” by Uncle Tupelo. The song was haunting and poignant and got a lot of people into a new countrified sound in alternative music via the band’s two leaders – Jay Farrar and Jeff Tweedy (more on what happened to them later). While their band didn’t make much of an impact in sales at the time, their influence is undeniable.
2. Son Volt – Drown
When Uncle Tupelo unraveled, Farrar started Son Volt. The band’s 1995 debut Trace forwarded Farrar’s imprint on the alt-country genre. While subsequent albums have featured a more subtle and sparse sound (some argue all of his albums now sound the same), Son Volt made a splash with their rockin’ first album.
3. Wilco – Passenger Side
Not to be outdone, Uncle Tupelo’s Tweedy forged out on his own. Wilco’s first three albums (A.M, Being There and Summerteeth) are alt-country brilliance (after those three releases the band strove for a more experimental sound which earned them tremendous accolades in the indie scene and an ever greater fanbase). Wilco was and is a cross-genre-bending influence. I always loved this song off their debut album A.M.
4. Whiskeytown -16 Days
And then there was Whiskeytown. WOW. The mercurial Ryan Adams and sweet harmonizing/fiddle playing Caitlin Cary fronted one of the finest bands of the era. Adams’ imprint grew to great heights as a solo artist as his sound moved from alt-country to more eclectic styles — from jam band to rock and roll and everything in between. Adams came under fire last year proclaiming that he never really liked country music and his early work was an exercise to see if he could do it. I call BS on that. If I’m wrong here, it’s proof that he’s one of the greatest pretenders in music history. In my mind he’ll always be one of the genre’s geniuses.
5. Old 97s – Designs on You
I often hear from my alternative music/indie friends “I don’t like country music, but I love the Old 97s.” While this song below is off their 2001 album Satellite Rides, these Texas boys have been going strong since 1993. Their high energy country rock sound, mixed with the electric charisma of lead singer Rhett Miller on stage have made them one of the most endearing bands in alt-country. This is the song that hooked me 15 years ago.
6. The Jayhawks – Blue
The Jayhawks came from the same Minneapolis scene as Alt-Rockers Soul Asylum and The Replacements. In fact, they were all on the same Twin/Tone label back in the day. The Jayhawks were the under-stated members of alt-country. I always likened them to legendary roots rockers The Band. This is perhaps their best known song and one of my favorites.
7. Drive-By Truckers – Never Gonna Change
Sometime in the late 2000s the word “Alt-Country” became passé. It became “Americana.” Arguably, the last great” alt-country band” was the Drive-By Truckers who featured Americana’s biggest star now, Jason Isbell. What’s amazing is Isbell wasn’t the group’s primary songwriter (that would go to Patterson Hood and Mike Conley). Isbell’s DBT songs (including this one) are still huge fan favorites.
What left of center alt-country bands do you love? Let me know at @sneezeguard.
Author: Scott Colvin
Scott has 20+ years experience as a writer/editor and is #CMchat’s Executive Editor. He’s a rabid music fan and a sports junkie. If there’s a cat in the room, he’ll pet it. If there’s a beer in the room, he’ll drink it.