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Alternative Country

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Primary Stylistic Influences:
Secondary Stylistic Influences:

"The defining mood of what is now usually described as 'Americana'... is something deep and folksy and slightly creepy, about family and nostalgia and blood and sex and religious faith and death."
—Brian Hinton, South by Southwest: A Road Map to Alternative Country

Alternative Country is what happens when you cross the outlaw strand of country with Rock & Roll and the American folk tradition, held together by the do-it-yourself attitude of punk, as well as the, well, alternativeness of Alternative Rock. Influenced by Neotraditional Country, Cowpunk and alternative rock, the scene coalesced in the mid-eighties and is going strong today.

Also called insurgent country or Americana (a term that also includes bluegrass and folk), alt-country is mainly defined by its resistance to the perceived commercialism of mainstream and pop country music. Stylistically the genre is a melting pot, with artists incorporating influences ranging from roots rock, bluegrass, rockabilly, Southern Rock and honky-tonk to alternative rock (especially the Jangle Pop subgenre, which pioneered the idea of "roots" music with a punk attitude), folk rock, and punk. Instruments include banjos, pianos, guitars, rifts, keyboards, drums, and heavy to medium vocals.

Alt-country was pioneered by folk- and punk- influenced singer-songwriters like Lyle Lovett and John Prine in the mid-eighties. The Byrds were another early influence on the genre with their 1968 album, Sweetheart of the Rodeo, which initially sold poorly but would be later Vindicated by History as one of the first examples of country rock. Two Byrds members, Chris Hillman and Gram Parsons, would found The Flying Burrito Brothers, with Parsons going on to a brief solo career before his untimely death in 1973 at 26 from a drug overdose. 1970s country rock bands like the Eagles would also serve as building blocks of the genre. Other early pioneers of the sound were artists in an alt-rock subgenre called "Cowpunk", such as Meat Puppets, Lone Justice and the British group The Mekons. This came to prominence in The '90s, with artists like Steve Earle, Lucinda Williams and Dwight Yoakam and bands such as Uncle Tupelo, Son Volt, and Wilco (the latter of which quickly moved into more general Alternative Rock) and broke into the rock mainstream in the 2000s with the success of Drive-By Truckers, Hank Williams III and Ryan Adams.

Because of the subgenre's attachment to regional folk cultures, artists can originate from all over the world, but are often from the Southern United States and the Appalachian Mountains region. The closest the scene has to a capital is Austin, Texas with its annual South by Southwest festival.

There has traditionally been very little overlap between the fandoms of mainstream country and alternative country, with the latter being treated closer to Alternative Rock and Folk Rock.

Alternative Country Artists:



Technically a separate genre of sorts (it preceded the solidification of Alt-Country as a genre by a few years), the bands of this primarily 80s movement combined Country with Punk Rock and New Wave to create a distinct hybrid. Many bands of the genre had a humorous slant to their lyrics- the Country influence was often Played for Laughs. Often overlaps with Jangle Pop, Punk Blues and Psychobilly.

Texas country music

From its humble origins as rock-infused music played in dive bars, Texas country includes some of the best known alt-country acts. The scene is centered on Austin, but there is a distinct West Texas sound.

Red Dirt

Centered on Stillwater, Oklahoma, Red Dirt resembles Texas Country but is, if anything, even more ornery.

Country Folk

Inspired by Bob Dylan's Nashville phase, this tends to be a mellower, "thinking person's" style of alt-country.

Underground Country

Beginning in the mid-90s, underground country emerged in Nashville by means of cross-pollination between that city's vibrant Country and Punk Rock scenes. Musically, acts tend to pay homage to hillbilly swing and pre-60s country such as the Louvin Brothers, but often with a punk twist and a rebellious attitude. Saving Country Music is the main scene blog.

Tropes common in alt-country include:

  • As the Good Book Says...: Bible quotes are quite common in alt-country songs, frequently in an ironic context.
  • Crapsack World: Alt-country protagonists tend to grow up there.
  • Darker and Edgier: Compared to mainstream country.
  • Deep South: Alt-country songs generally tend to portray the American south in a more critical light than the romanticized depictions common in mainstream country.
  • The Drifter: Protagonists frequently are this.
  • Drowning My Sorrows: All the time, whiskey being the most popular option.
  • Drugs Are Bad: Often played straight—but not always, especially where cannabis is concerned. Alt-country songs that discuss addiction are also likely to at least touch on the underlying issues that can drive substance abuse: for example, "Fireline Road" by James McMurtry, or "Broken Window Serenade" by Whiskey Myers.
  • New Old West: A common aesthetic in alt-country songs, or in films or series that use them in the soundtrack.
  • Ode to Intoxication: Common, but typically darker than mainstream country songs on the same topic (e.g. "Whitehouse Road" by Tyler Childers).
  • Rated M for Manly: Not universal (there are plenty of female artists), but common.
  • Religion Rant Song: While mainstream country is known for its celebration of religious faith, alt-country artists are more willing to question or outright attack religion.
  • Three Chords and the Truth: Simplicity of composition is a defining trait of the genre.