Welcome to my super-opinionated alt.country music guide!
As a fella who's been listening to hick music for decades now, I have viewed the whole alterna-country scene of the '80s and '90s with mixed feelings. On one hand -- yay, country music!! On the other hand... all that drawls is not Hank Williams. There's a tendency for many alt.country fans (and journalists) to uncritically cheer on every band that picks up a fiddle and sings off-key... But why settle for second-, third- or fourth-best? I, for one, think that there's some value in being critical, since it's partly through reflection and appraisal that art is able to grow.
Anyway, here's a quick look at some of alt.country's notable artists... This "guide" is incomplete for several reasons, not the least of which are shortages of time and money. Also, originally I had only intended to review alt.country records I like, and now that that the section's been expanded to be more inclusive, it may look a bit more sparse than the original, more compact version. What are my criteria? In short, I like folks who can play well, and who really "get" the vibe of country music. I'm particularly not fond of bands who play up to white trash stereotypes, or who play sloppy because they think it's cute or that that's all you need to do to sound "country." I also dislike artists that I think are stuck up, stagey, or overrated. Sure, it's all a matter of taste... and that's why I'm expressing mine. Hopefully my ramblings and raves will be helpful for at least some of y'all out there...
Accident Clearinghouse "By Blood And Marriage..." (OBT, 1999)
I suppose I should confess that I never really tracked Whiskeytown all that carefully, although I have friends who are totally ga-ga over them... Not really knowing much about them was what made this solo outing by singer Ryan Adams such a pleasant surprise for me. It kicks off with "To Be Young", a picture-perfect homage to Blonde On Blonde era Dylan, and continues on in a Zimmerman-esque vein through a series of songs that are alternately sentimental and vengeful, with concisely executed production that ranges from picked-bone sparse to eerily lush... It's a rock-country crossover with an album-wide cohesion that sneaks up on you, full of impressive, glittering nuggets of songwriting and soulful, catchy guitar twangery. There's also a super-sweet duet with Emmylou Harris, which is worth the price of admission alone. Very nice stuff, and very well written.
Another nice album, which alternately takes things down a notch or two, sticking to even mellower terrain, and plunges headlong into blaring, glammy rockstar wankery. There are still a few Dylanisms at the start, but most of this is sort of introspective, folk-ish pop songcrafting. In timbre he reminds me of Loudon Wainwright III (or, by extension, Loudon's son, Rufus Wainwright...) But on several tracks he overplays his knowledge of the pop past: "Tina Toledo's Street Walkin' Blues," for example, is just a little too Sticky Fingers-esque and the baldness of the swipe is distracting. (Besides, hipsters singing about hookers -- yawn.) Overall though, this is a very fine album, nicely sculpted and quite listenable, though only tangentially "country." Worth checking out, though he is in the process of transforming himself into a bona fide rawk star.
This odds'n'ends set of demos and other "unreleased" material has its moments, both of purity and tedium, but it's certainly worth checking out, particularly if you're an Adams fan to begin with. Hey, I kept my copy...!
Ryan Adams "Love Is Hell, Pt.1" (Lost Highway, 2003)
Well, y'all can pretty much forget about his lingering "country" influences: this is a rock record, pure and simple. Still, the strummy acoustic vibe laced inside this set of slinky, super-mellow indierock tunes is mighty nice, and easy on the ears. I'm a little nervous about the way his vocals have begun to edge into a Bono-style U2-ish over-emotive warble, but on the whole this is quite a nice, listenable little record. Recommended.
Ryan Adams "Love Is Hell, Pt.2" (Lost Highway, 2003)
Ryan Adams "Rock'N'Roll" (Lost Highway, 2003)
Terry Allen "Juarez" (Fate, 1975)
A classic of the genre, from back in the days when "outlaw" was over and "alt-country" had not yet been invented. The way I hear it, they're not supposed to have fancy, smarty-pants performance artist intellectuals in Bumbump, Texas -- but I guess nobody told that to Terry Allen, or to his wife Jo Harvey Allen. What started as jocular dabbling in hick iconography has turned into a respectable gig. Not the catchiest, most melodic country music ever made, though a few early tunes did have a bit of a bounce to them... especially on the first album, where Little Feat leader Lowell George pitches in on a few songs. Personal faves include the goofy "Truckload of Art," where creative types from the boonies rent a U-Haul in order to take their wares to New York City (...and show those Gotham snobs a thing or two!) and "The Great Joe Bob (A Regional Tragedy)," which dissects the myth of the football All-American as upstanding citizen. Interesting material, which may take a bit of effort to appreciate.
Terry Allen & The Panhandle Mystery Band "Smokin' The Dummy" (Fate, 1980)
Terry Allen & The Panhandle Mystery Band "Bloodlines" (Fate, 1983)
Terry Allen "Amerasia (Soundtrack)" (Sugar Hill, 1987)
Terry Allen "Human Remains" (Sugar Hill, 1996)
Terry Allen "Salivation" (Sugar Hill, 1999)
Terry Allen "The Silent Majority: Terry Allen's Greatest Missed Hits" (Sugar Hill, 2004)
Terry Allen "Pedal Steal" (Sugar Hill, 2006)
Dave Alvin - see artist discography
The hotshot, blues-drenched lead guitarist for NRBQ dashed off this lovely solo album early in his career, and it's a real gem, definitely worth tracking down. Here the master musician of the alterna-bar-band repertoire nods his hat towards Hank Williams and Delta blues forerunners, while also sculpting several lovely, delicate acoustic love songs of his own. A nice mix of styles, mostly in a mellow, country-tinged mode. One of my favorite hidden gems from the past. Recently re-released on CD... hoo-rah!!
It's been a long time since I actually listened to this record, but I remember when it came into my old radio station in '96... I was all jazzed because I knew who Anderson was, and was sorely disappointed when I heard how blunt, loud and clangy the disc turned out to be. Very testosterone-y and overproduced. That's when I found out Al had quit NRBQ and become a bigshot Nashville songwriter and sideman... Too bad his own record(s) turned out to be so unsubtle and clunky. But who knows? Maybe if I go back and check it out again, I might be more into it... It is Big Al, after all! How bad could it be?
A sweet tribute to the heyday of the heart song, that style of weepy ballads perfected in '40s and '50s and '60s by the likes of Webb Pierce, Kitty Wells and George Jones. First off, I love the graphics (an homage to the Columbia label's late 'Fifties look, back when Carl Smith was top of their country roster...) and the liner notes are a hoot, too -- a witty takeoff on the pretentiously written, pseudo-intellectual "essays" Nashville used to slap onto their LPs. Best of all, Armstrong -- an SF Bay Area local -- backs up his obvious love for the style with a lot of talent, especially as a songwriter. All twelve tracks on here are original compositions, written with an intentionally old-time feel. The material ranges from goofy Howard Harlan-style paradox tunes ("Looking Forward To Looking Back") to abject weepers and loser tunes galore. The production is a little uneven, but the material is great. (This disc can be found c/o Hepcat Records distribution).
Yay! This album is twice as punchy as his debut, packed with a dozen top-notch original compositions, and one well-chosen cover tune. Armstrong clearly has a strong command over the range of his material -- plain old, straight-ahead hard country music -- and he has a remerkable ability to write modern honkytonk songs that are every bit as good as the '50s artists he's out to emulate. Mighty good stuff. (PS - This time around the album art parodies the cover of Jimmie Skinner's LP by the same name (but wait; wasn't that on Mercury?), a clever homage that, once again, tips Armstrong's hat regarding his artistic intentions and his strong grasp of country music's rich history. His website is also a lot of fun to poke around.)
Asleep At The Wheel - see artist discography
Asylum Street Spankers - see artist discography
A sharp, punchy, musically lively little album from an energetic Austin newcomer... Lloyd Maines, Buddy Miller, and a few other top talents lend their hands, and the disc zips along at a nice clip. I have to admit, though, that I wasn't completely captivated by this one -- Atkins sounds awfully Steve Earle-ish, and copies the parts of the Earle sound that also don't appeal to me -- the hurried, brusque, muscular approach, etc. Seems he'd do a lot better to slow down a bit, and look for the subtler touches in his music. Still, as alt-country debuts go, this is pretty impressive.
Atomic Deluxe "Swing Time Shoot 'Em Up" (Cool Cat, 1996)
Atomic Deluxe "My True Love" (Cool Cat, 1999)
A band that may provoke as many groans as guffaws, the Lizards crank out Doctor Demento-style novelty tunes for the twangster set... Trouble is, while some of their songs are indeed super-funny, most of their material is rather strained, and their delivery often seems too prissy and self-satisfied to really carry the joke. This album is particularly vexing for me, since it includes an ennervated version of "(I Cried A) Hot Tub Of Tears," which is a song I remember well from it's late-'70s demo version, which used to be played constantly on the old KFAT radio station... and was a lot livelier and funnier than the Lizards's rendition. Still, the Lizards make up for it with "Old And Fat And Drunk" and "The Car That Hank Died In," which are the sole comedic highlights on this otherwise sluggish and filler-ific album.
Austin Lounge Lizards "Highway Cafe Of The Damned" (Sugar Hill, 1988)
Austin Lounge Lizards "Lizard Vision" (Flying Fish, 1991)
Austin Lounge Lizards "Paint Me On Velvet" (Flying Fish, 1993)
Austin Lounge Lizards "Small Minds" (Sugar Hill, 1995)
Austin Lounge Lizards "Live Bait" (Sugar Hill, 1996)
On this live EP, the Loungies tackle politics with "Teenage Immigrant Welfare Mothers On Drugs" and "Gingrich The Newt..." They also sings some of their time-tested country novelty tunes like "Highway Cafe Of The Damned" and "The Car That Hank Died In." God bless Texas!
Sigh. Is there no joke these guys won't just bluntly pound to death? "Another Stupid Texas Song" and "Leonard Cohen's Day Job" are funny enough, and well, maybe the truncated version of "Mama Don't Allow..." But, jeez, they sure can strain against the formula at times... Their brand of humor is still way too on-the-nose for me. Nice cover art, though!
More of the same. Many of these jokes might seem funnier if you'd never heard of the band before, or if you just heard them on a radio show, one song at a time. But listening to one of these albums all the way through, from end to end... Yeeee-e-e-e-eeex. I guess it takes a certain temperament; I find it a bit of a chore.
There are a some songs on here that might get ya to giggle, the first time you heard them, as well as the usual dose of jokes that fall flat and just lie there, inert. On the plus side, Kelly Willis kicks in some fine vocals on "We Always Fight When We Drink Gin," a pitch-perfect parody of 1960s-era country duets, and folks from the SF Bay Area may appreciate "Banana Slugs! Racing Down The Field (Proposed UC-Santa Cruz Fight Song)" but many songs don't stand up to protracted scrutiny. Some just have lame premises, like the voyeuristic "When I'm Cleaning Windows," "Jesse + Phil" (about a fictitious gay affair between conservative senators Jesse Helms and Phil Gramm) and "The Lonely Yodeler" (the joke being that his interest in Tyrolean yodeling is accompanied by a fetish for lederhosen and other leather gear...) Of historical interest (if not musical durability) is "Why Couldn't We Blow Up Saddam?" one of the few country tunes from '03 to criticize the conduct of the war in Iraq; in retrospect it seems to trivialize the war, but I bet it got a lot of applause in their live shows. The Lizards also pull in some good material from outside sources, notably "Merchant's Lunch," from the Red Clay Ramblers, and Tom Paxton's "You Can Eat Dogfood." In both cases, you're better off with the original, but they do spice things up... Anyway, this is another A.L.L. album for true believers only, but it has its moments.
Axton Kincaid "Axton Kincaid (EP)" (Luster Music, 2006)
Nice, down-to-earth, twangy alt-country with a bluegrassy feel, sort of like Jim & Jennie or Freakwater -- a little more settled-down and conventional, but no less enthusiastic or lively. Nice set of original tunes, mostly written by San Francisco-based singer-guitarist Kate Howser, kicking off with a catchy honkytonk/old-timey ditty, "Who's Gonna Pour My Whiskey When You're Gone?" that sets a great pace for the rest of the record. Good, solid band with a nice grasp of country music's soulful, non-novelty side... I'm always in favor of folks who take it seriously and get things right. Lookin' forward to more from these folks! (For more info, check out the band's website at www.lustermusic.com )
Axton Kincaid "Songs From The Pine Room" (Self-Released, 2006)
The first full-length release from this gritty San Francisco alt-grass outfit reprises some of the songs from their earlier EP, notably "Who's Gonna Pour My Whiskey When You're Gone?", a catchy mix of honkytonk and old-timey stringband stomp, and the evocative drinkin'-and-thinkin' tune, "Red Light." The group handily fits into the contemporary altbilly scene, with a particular affinity for all those folks from the Midwest who know what it's like to drink too much, too often and really not give a damn. Freakwater and Scrawl come to mind right off the bat, but maybe that's just because the main vocalists are gals, but also because the lyrics are very downer-iffic and express a distinctly female perspective, albeit one that's rather grungey, raw, urban and hip. The remnants of the band's rock'n'roll past are readily evident, both thematically and musically -- mandolin picker Jennifer Daunt takes several searching, improvvy solos that have that choppy, rockin' feel to 'em, but while she lacks the technical rigor and formalism of mainstream bluegrassers, she makes up for it by sounding like a real, live human being, rather than just another hotshot superpicker. Flaws are one of the things that help define this band -- songwriter Kate Howser paints portraits that are often desolate and unfulfilled, but also joyful and unrepentant, a mixture of moods that is reflected in the music. In true DIY spirit, the imperfections are there, but they help you notice the sparkle of the gem underneath. (For more info, see axtonkincaid.com )
Alt.Country Albums - Letter "B"
Hick Music Index