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What is Alt-Country Music?

By Kathy Hawkins
Updated May 23, 2024
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Alt-country music is a nickname for a genre known as alternative country. Alt-country music has roots in the country music style of artists like Johnny Cash and Hank Williams, but is also based in the rock and punk music movements, and has a rough edge, as opposed to the overproduced sound of Nashville country stars like Garth Brooks or Shania Twain. Alt-country music is also sometimes referred to as Americana music, or as No Depression, after an album title by early alt-country band Uncle Tupelo.

The alt-country movement first started in the 1960s, with artists like the Byrds and Gram Parsons, who were as connected to the rock music scene as they were to country music. In the years since, artists such as Neil Young and Steve Earle have successfully combined rock and country music. However, the musical form did not gain an official title until the release of Uncle Tupelo's No Depression album, which included folk covers and punk/folk original tunes. The group recorded four albums before splitting up. Today, both of Uncle Tupelo's singers perform in successful bands of their own: Jay Farrar in Son Volt, and Jeff Tweedy in Wilco.

Some other successful alt-country groups include North Carolina band Whiskeytown and its lead singer, Ryan Adams, who has since formed a successful career as a solo artist; and the Old 97s, an energetic band from Texas that combines country twang with rock music. Uncle Tupelo's offshoots, Son Volt and Wilco, have also done extremely well in the alt-country world; Son Volt had a hit in the early 1990s with Drowning, while Wilco have been revered in the music world for their brilliant album, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, which combines alt-country with experimental music.

There is also a magazine called No Depression that is dedicated to alt-country music, and named after the Uncle Tupelo album. The magazine has existed since 1995, and has profiled hundreds of important alt-country artists, including Alejandro Escovedo and bluegrass artist Ralph Stanley.

Musical Expert is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Discussion Comments
By anon136771 — On Dec 24, 2010

Also check out Woven Hand, and SCAC (slim cessna's auto club).

By anon20568 — On Nov 02, 2008

Some other good gothic americana artists are Jim Strange, Two Step Slumber and Strawman. I advise anybody interested in the genre to check them out.

By ladydbfl — On Aug 21, 2008

Can anyone recommend an alternative country/Americana station that audio streams?

By Kay — On Apr 23, 2008

Sounds like the author is really into "Goth-Americana." My question is this: when is music considered simply "rustic" as opposed to being out-of-tune crap with poor vocals and poor timing? I personally know two of the bands that are raved about above. They are not "rustic," they just can't play or sing (I know - I'm just not not punk enough to understand). Gothic Americana is simply country played by folks who don't play so well. Don't get me wrong - I despise the glossy commercial stuff that comes out of the Nashville machine like anybody else. But to say that BR549, Steve Earle, Junior Brown or Joe Ely are even close to being in the same genre as the Goth Americana hacks, come on. These guys can actually play and sing well. I believe a famous elder punk artist once commented that punk can't be played for long because once you actually learn how to play or sing well, it's not punk anymore. Enough said.

By anon1952 — On Jun 21, 2007

It’s seeped into popular culture as all good things do. But fortunately for those involved, the mainstream machine got it wrong, and missed the point. It’s a funny thing: Alternative Country. Most of the genuine artists whose music falls under this label want nothing to do with the term. Just as Kurt Cobain and Eddie Vedder shunned the term “Grunge”, right before all the edges got softened and bands like Creed and Bush rose to mainstream popularity, bands within the alt-country umbrella tend to leave a middle finger waving to the title.

The beginnings of the alt-country movement are hazy and shrouded in speculation and hearsay…Some credit the birth of Alt-Country to folks like Gram Parsons, other schools of thought attribute the merging of hard rock and loose country to Jason and the Scorchers, while others give credit to Uncle Tupelo.

There will never be a definitive answer to who started it all; some could go as far back to when Johnny Cash gave the finger to Nashville on a billboard, or when Hank Sr. got the boot from the Grand Old Opry… The out-law mentality has been there from day one. Regardless of who played the first note, or went against the mainstream first, the birth of this lo-fi infusion of Americana/Country/Punk/Rock was an answer to the congealed, pop-laden country music coming out of Nashville. As Bloodshot Records, an independent label and champion of the alt-country sound once put it, Alternative-country, or insurgent country, is music that "applies a steel-toed boot to the rhinestone-encrusted ass of commercialized country crap”.

Over the years, however, the alt-country movement has softened. Not unlike the shift of country music to conventional Nashville pop, the sound has settled down, blending into the mainstream arena, leaving the outlaw attitudes far behind in the dust. The largest success stories of the scene are stark examples of it’s decline.

There is, however, another side to Alternative-Country. While musicians like Ryan Adams or Wilco gear up for their next big stadium tour, sponsored by Clear Channel and Pepsi, a darker, more rustic style of music lingers in the shadows, creating an ominous sound that is sweeping over the nation. Picking up where Tupelo left off before the former members sold their souls for a few college tours, new artists are emerging, ready to take back country. Fusing together the usual suspects, Americana/Country/Punk/Rock, this new brand of music also blends traditional bluegrass, gypsy-folk, and the blues to create a dark, raw style of alt-country many refer to as “Gothic-Americana”.

Many credit this style's origins to the artists that came from the Denver scene in the mid to late 90's, such as the Denver Gentlemen and 16 Horsepower. While many of the top bands today are still cultivating their sound in Denver, the genre has spread like wild-fire across the nation, with each region infusing their own musical traditions into the sound. The Scene is pushed along by pivotal bands such as Slim Cessna and Jay Munly (Denver CO), Strawfoot and the Monads (St. Louis MO), Reverend Glasseye and HUMANWINE (Boston, MA), Curtis Eller (New York, NY), and William Elliott Whitmore (Lee County, IA) to name but a few.

The bands in this genre produce an honest sound full of fire and brimstone, pain and loss. The style is rustic and full of history, yet always pushing the boundaries of the musical landscape. Many of the bands in the Gothic-Americana scene share the stage with sideshow freaks, circus performers and burlesque dancers, bringing back a feeling of medicine shows without the cure-alls. But don’t call them alt-country.

What it all really boils down to is one simple fact. Country is no longer country. It’s merely twang-pop, centered around pomp and circumstance. Thanks to the emerging rustic-americana sound, alt-country is no longer alt-country. It’s simply country. The way country music used to be, when Cash gave Nashville the finger--the way country music should be.

-Jackson Sykes

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