Alt. Country is a funny idea. You take country music and you honor its traditions. Yet, its practitioners seem to have a more liberal and progressive view of the music than many of its mainstream performers, who are more likely to add plenty of fireworks and certainly care less about the tradition. Unless that tradition includes making lots of money.
Sometimes this alt.country thing seems more like a special club where everyone knows each other. Emmylou Harris has certainly visited with most of these folks and sung back-up vocals whenever she's in town. And boy, were there plenty of people who got left off.
And ranking them got even weirder. As much as you might think that I just love sitting here coming up with who should be #15 and who deserves #12, it's much more annoying than you could ever believe. Sure, I have the Yahoo! Jumbotron to spit out advice and numbers. It's not talking to me at the moment because I left Shooter Jennings off the list. But a man has to start and stop somewhere. I like what I like. And sometimes I feel like people have earned a spot even though I don't personally care. Sometimes I do respect the effort. Sometimes I urinate on my shoes.
Here are 25 acts who have made albums that qualify in some way as "alt.country." They have the lack of album sales to prove it.
Old 97's: I prefer their rock stuff to the more traditional sounding ones. And the pop stuff is most convincing. Rhett Miller and Murry Hammond have also found the time record solo albums, which have been pretty good as well. Some guys go out to the garage to drink beer and get away from their wives. These guys make records instead. What a work ethic.
24) The Knitters: X, the band, were way ahead of the curve, forming this side project with pretty much the same people as their actual band, but not wanting to confuse their punk-obsessed fans--who might think there was something wrong with them for playing Merle Haggard covers--called themselves the Knitters and decided to sit down while they played. Now that's what I call rebellious.
Varnaline--Anders Parker: Anders has been doing the solo thing and that's been ok, but when he had a steady backing band he could trip out and do lots of psychedlia and country and it worked like a Reese's Peanut Butter Cup. But with less calories of course.
22) Robbie Fulks: Fulks writes lots of funny tunes like "God Isn't Real." If this is true, then who am I supposed to blame when things go wrong? Me?
Alejandro Escovedo: Anybody with a name with this many vowels should show up in Crossword Puzzles the world over. Unlike those crazy Polish folks who always manage to jam so many consonants into their names that no one else can spell.
20) Mary Gauthier: Gauthier is one of those "tough" people who sound like leather. Other people tell me she's experienced. I think she's scary. I wouldn't attend one of her concerts without my posse. I might get hurt otherwise.
Jayhawks: These guys have been around so long that everyone now considers them elders and Gary Louris often acts as a "consultant" to other people's albums, co-writing songs and overseeing things to make sure they are properly alt.country.
18) James McMurtry: McMurtry comes from the Lou Reed school of limited vocal range. Like Reed, he's literate as hell, which would figure since he grew up with a dad in Larry "Lonesome Dove" McMurtry, who surely taught him something other than how to get the old man's mail.
Buddy Miller: Here's someone everyone else loves and who's a pivotal member of the alt.country community who I've never enjoyed. But I know he belongs on a list of alt.country people because his name gets dropped far too often. Maybe one of these days it will click. But I've also been waiting for the Band's Music From Big Pink to click for more than 20 years and it still puts me to sleep.
16) Scud Mountain Boys: Joe Pernice has gone on to the Pernice Brothers and become the new Colin Blunstone in the process, but once upon a time he flirted with country music and did a pretty good job convincing people that residents of Massachusetts could be trusted with what is really more of a Southern tradition. Next thing you know they'll be growing cotton in Maine!
The Long Ryders: These poor guys got nailed to the wall for doing a beer commercial. It showed they lacked "integrity." These days everyone sells their songs to anyone who will pay them and no one blinks. These guys should get a do-over.
14) Whiskeytown--Ryan Adams, Caitlin Cary: Ryan Adams may be the most annoying performer I've ever witnessed. He lit a cigarette before every song and then proceeded not to smoke it. He didn't just drink wine throughout the set, he made a point of slowly getting the bottle out and pouring each glass as if it were an act of theatre. He played every song as slow as possible and when audience members attempted to participate and request songs and hoot and holler, he acted as if we were attending a church service and no one should interrupt the sacred rites. Then he threw a hissy fit and made his poor roadie hold up the lyrics to a new song he'd just written that day. It sounded like all his others.
Wilco: I always think these guys sound like Tom Petty without the hits. I'm amused at the idea that they're so successful since Jeff Tweedy is about as unassuming a "rock star" as can be imagined. I wouldn't be able to pick him out of a line-up. He's got a great voice that he insists on hiding behind lots of weird effects. Which is what people who don't like country music seem to think is what makes him better.
12) Jason And The Scorchers: Another band who got stuck recording covers to get attention back in the 1980s when radio was not even nearly as useless as it is today. But back then there was no alt.country scene, so the hopes were that a band could actually break into the mainstream. Not to worry, they couldn't.
Bonnie Prince Billy: Ah, the ultimate weirdo. As Palace Brothers, Palace Music, Palace Songs, Palace...he's just a sucker for identity politics and lots of oddball limited edition singles. He likes to leave mistakes on the records and I'm always reading how this latest album is the most "intimate" that he's ever done. Any more "intimate" and we'll be sleeping in the same twin-sized bed together.
10) Laura Cantrell: She gave up a career in banking to become a country singer. At the time, it seemed like a risky move. Now it's looking pretty prescient.
Richard Buckner: Sometimes Bucky gets a little too caught up in weird stomp-boxes and droning open tunings and writing lots of lyrics without writing melodies to go along, but he's one of my favorite performers if only because he was completely serious while living in Winnipeg that it was only a 16-hour drive to Seattle. Hey, if that's the case, New York and Chicago are practically neighbors.
8) Uncle Tupelo: These guys spearheaded the entire alt.country movement by accident. How were they to know that a magazine--No Depression--would use one of their tunes to name their magazine? The entire movement might have come out differently if these magazine guys had chosen to call the zine Chairs Missing.
Son Volt: So Uncle Tupelo spun off into two bands--Wilco and Son Volt. You see who I prefer. That's just how it is. Jay Farrar sounds like he's trying to locate the right place to die. He, too, though, has gotten a little carried away with droning open tunings and should be forcibly stopped from doing so.
6) Steve Earle: His singing has turned into a bit of a parody over the years, all snorting and whining and sounding like he's coming down with a cold. But his songwriting continues to challenge us at every move. I'd like to see him take on Hannity's America and turn out the lights on him.
Vic Chesnutt: Vic is clearly one of the leading proponents of "wheelchair rock." And his powerful songwriting and twitchy, itchy voice makes him a sure-shot for someone like me who likes people who sing with a sneaky look in their eye. It means they're up to something.
4) Gillian Welch: I've always admired her sensible shoes. I've heard she's actually from city stock even though she likes to pretend she's roughing it in the Appalachian Mountains. Hey, sometimes I like to pretend I have a job!
Lucinda Williams: Lucinda's like Steve Earle in the sense that she likes to sing like she's coming down with a cold. She also writes like the anti-depressants aren't working. I definitely wouldn't put her records on at a party and expect people to be happy about it.
2) Patty Griffin: Patty can get a little spiritual for my liking. I don't want to climb a mountain for human enlightenment and I don't care if all the unfed children of the world finally hold hands as one or whatever these good-natured anthems are about. But her songs about chicks doomed in Florida and lonely suburbanites taking the train into the city to feel even more alienated make me feel good about my own dissipating life. Hey, anybody wanna go get a beer?
Drive-By Truckers: Why not? These guys play loud enough. Patterson Hood sings like a country singer. I don't think country musicians usually think in terms of grand concepts the way these guys sometimes do. But then kids today are just so predictably unpredictable. Or is that unpredictably predictable? Someone can tell me the difference. But I won't listen anyway. Why would I? We're all doomed anyhow! Hee hee.