Baseball Toaster was unplugged on February 4, 2009.
For quite awhile now, I've been planning on doing my best of lists for different genres of music. Since I try to be as complete as I can, it takes me double digit hours to get it done. This has caused me to put it off. Well, finally I've finished my first one.
I chose alt.country as my first style to cover, as I figured being a more select genre, it would take less time. I was wrong. For my lists, I'm only making eligible what is in my MP.3 player. Since I'm a bit of a completist when it comes to collecting music I like, this covers a wide selection. Don't worry about me leaving too many deserving artists out.
Explaining alt.country is not an easy thing to do. If you want a really good explanation go to wikipedia's entry. I describe it this way. It's classic country music, with a rock attitude. Kind of folkish, but with a punk edge.
While for awhile, alternative music lost it's true meaning, as much of it wasn't alternative anymore. Alternative country music has always been separate from the country mainstream. None of the artists I will list get much radio airplay on any type of terrestial radio. It's almost like a badge of honor for these artists, though I'm sure many of them wish they could get paid like the second-rate performers who dominate the current country charts.
Gram Parsons is often referred to as the Godfather of alt.country. As much as I love this genre of music, I have never been able to get into Parsons. Weird. I think the greatest alt.country performer is Neil Young, though when he was producing his greatest music, he wasn't doing it thinking "I'm creating some kind of new genre."
The term alt.country took off in the 90's, with the band, Uncle Tupelo being the group that contributed the most to the scene. Squabbling between bandleaders, Jay Farrar and Jeff Tweedy went their own separate ways, with Farrar moving onto Son Volt, while Tweedy establishing Wilco. When compiling my list, I made the rule that I would take only one song from a performer and that it had to have been recorded after 1990. The top 5 of the genre are the Jayhawks, Wilco, Son Volt, Steve Earle, and Ryan Adams. They have numerous songs that could be on the list, so I highly recommend exploring their complete catalogues.
I consider the Jayhawks to be the greatest alt.country band. The best alt.country album is Son Volt's debut, Trace. The following 40 songs I have listed I think are all worth downloading.
Blue by the Jayhawks- This is one of the most beautiful songs ever recorded. Harmonies that CSN&Y would kill for. Hard to pick just one by this great band, but Blue is the best the genre has produced.
Effigy by Uncle Tupelo- This band was better served by breaking up, as both debuts by the new groups that came out of their wake were superior to anything Tupelo had done. Effigy is a great cover of a CCR song. Creedenece could legitimately be considered the first alt.country band.
Windfall by Son Volt and Damn Shame by Jay Farrar- Cheating here a bit by including 2 by Farrar, but since one is a solo work I thought I would fit it in. When Trace came out, I was completely blown away by the mood it created. While Farrar has been a bit spotty over the past 10 years, Damn Shame is him at his best. Many forget that after their first releases, critics were hailing Farrar as the genius of Uncle Tupelo, with Tweedy being kind of an afterthought.
What's the world got in store by Wilco- While other albums by them have gotten more attention, Being There I think is the band's best offering. Wilco has produced a lot of work that goes outside the alt.country label, but the weary sound and vocals Tweedy creates on this song are near-perfect.
More than I can do by Steve Earle- Over the past 20 years, no one has put out more consistently good records on the alt.country scene than Earle. I picked the song I did because I think it is his most catchy tune and the Beatlesque hooks are impossible not to tap your foot to.
Jacksonville Skyline by Whiskeytown and New York, New York by Ryan Adams- Another sneaky addition, with Adams being the creator behind both songs. Whiskeytown was a good band, but it has been since Adams went solo that all of his talents have been allowed to truly shine. Adams quite possibly is the most prolific major artist of this decade. By putting out so much it has been an overall detriment to his career, as more editing would allow the best stuff to not get lost. His versatility is pretty amazing, though, as Adams can write songs it seems in most any genre and make them quality offerings.
Buick city complex by Old 97's and Come Around by Rhett Miller- Right behind the alt.country artists I've lsited, the Old 97's are at the top of the next tier. Led by singer Miller, who looks like a model/rock star, has a great pipes, and writes great hooks, it would seem like the Old 97's would have everything needed to be big successes. They also happen to be a great live band, as Will Carroll and I (name dropper) found out in person at a show in 2005.
Fiona by Lyle Lovett- I'm not sure if I consider Lovett a true alt.country artist, but I do think his body of work is as good as anyone on this list. This song has a great bluegrass feel to it and shows off his wonderful voice. I have seen more brilliant live shows by Lovett, than any other performer. I happened to be at the show when he had just gotten married to Julia Roberts and I can tell you that he was so great that night, there were few women in the audience who didn't understand what Julia saw in him.
Winona by Matthew Sweet and These are the days by Paul Westerberg- Few have put out more great music over the past 20 years than these 2 artists. Both have always had an alt.country influence to their music and on these songs it really shines through.
Electrolite by REM- Hard to argue that REM's classic albums Murmur and Reckoning weren't alt.country, as the Byrds jangle was essential in its core. In more recent times, their country influence has faded, but on this beautiful song, it makes a strong return.
All 10 of these singer songwriters make great music. Johnston and McMurtry have a bundle of great songs they have recorded that I highly suggest you check out.
While each of these bands have different styles, they all have in common an alt.country influence running through them.
Edwards, Willis, and Chambers are great singer/songwriters who are criminally under most radar-screens. The Kiley and Lewis offerings were 2 of my favorite singles of 2006.
Rusty Cage by Johnny Cash- Not sure if Cash truly qualifies as alt.country, but his work with Rick Rubin definitely possessed the spirit of the genre. I can recall that the first time I heard him cover this Soundgarden jam I couldn't believe how great his deep baritone meshed with the lyrics.
I finish my alt.country mix-tape with 2 choices from the Deadwood soundtrack. The theme by David Schwartz is a dynamite bluegrass instrutmental, while the clip from Al Sweargengen titled In Life is a pretty good summation of life.
In Life you have to do a lot of things you don't want to fucking do. Many times, it's the fuck what life is...one vile fucking task after another...but don't get aggravated...then the enemy has you by the shorthairs.
Ryan Adams - "My Sweet Carolina" ("Heartbreaker" is one of my five favorite albums of all time)
Josh Ritter - "Kathleen", his first album, "Hello Starling" was stellar.
Dixie Chicks - "Landslide." I like the cover much better than the Fleetwood original.
Uncle Tupelo - "Black Eye" "March 16-20, 1992" is another record that could be in the running for best alt. country record. It is very stripped down and primitive rock, but it definitely pulls at the heartstrings.
Wilco - So many to choose from it is silly. You are being contrary not to have them as the best alt. country band since they own the genre, but I like that. Their whole new album is great and it is late, so I will just recommend all of them.
As for songs, Bright Eyes can be even mushier and whinier and far more precious than Ryan Adams at his mush-whine-precious worst (I love Adams's music, and totally agree that he needs to relegate a lot of his stuff to B-sides), but "If The Brakeman Turns My Way" is a great song that I think meets Scott's classic country with a rock edge definition.
Finally, a shout out for Cory Branan. He hasn't yet recorded a song I don't like. From funky in "Muhammad Ali and Me" to adding a twang to Born to Run-era Springsteen in "Ms. Ferguson", I love the guy's work. His best known album is called The Hell You Say.
many of the artists on your list are people i haven't really listened to, but i'll check them out. i'd also suggest, say, neutral milk hotel and red house painters.
The guy who blazed the trail by rejecting Nashville and moving to LA where he fronted The Blasters...who opened for the Dead Kennedys (and others) in the 80's LA punk scene?
The guy who has blended country/rock/blues/southwestern/zydeco/you name it into a 20 year solo career...
Dwight is the foundation of alt country.
I love Old 97's, they're probably one of my top 5 favorite bands of all time. I first got into them through Satellite Rides, but what really sold me on them was "Too Far to Care's" 1-2 opening punch of Timebomb and Barrier Reef. Salome's a really beautiful song off that record too. I also love Murry's acoustic songs like Valentine and In the Satellite Rides a Star.
I can never get enough of hearing Gram Parsons' Return of the Grievous Angel and $1000 Wedding. Kasey Chambers does a beautiful cover of Grievous Angel. My favorite original of hers is On a Bad Day.
Neko Case's Blacklisted and Fox Confessor are great albums, hard for me to pick a favorite song off there though.
The only Steve Earle album I have is "I Feel Alright," which is a great one.
I've tried to get into Ryan Adams but can't. I do like some Whiskeytown songs though and Faithless Street's a pretty decent album.
Vishal - what band were you in? I used to watch Rilo Kiley, Phantom Planet, and Kara's Flowers a whole bunch back when they used to play together all the time (time period you're referring to?), so I may have caught your band.
i was briefly in a cheesy power-pop band up in berkeley, which was very much on the fun and non-serious side. we only ever played a couple of shows in socal unfortunately, so i doubt you ran across us. we were called fenway park (singer was a big sox fan). anyway, i was also involved in setting up on-campus shows on sproul plaza, and we invited rilo kiley, but it rained that day so we had to move the show to a co-op where we recruited a couple other bands to play, mine included, and i hung out with them that night and the next day. they're a really friendly bunch. plus, i got to play out of blake's amp. he has a sweet set-up :)
Originally I had yoakum and alison krauss on the list, but I wanted to do 40 and felt like they might lack the rock sound to fit. Love both of them a lot more than 75 percent of the people on the list, but wanted to go with artists I thought rock fans would embrace. Could be wrong on this one.
I will check out the people that are offered up. Thanks.
i love alt country. i had a mix tape that someone gave me, probably around 1995, with a song on it i loved. i never knew the name or the (male) artist. and i lost the tape years ago.
i've been trying to find the song ever since.
all i remember is the gist of the lyrics. something "i'm walking on the beach. she walking in the water." something along those lines. slightly quirky lyrics about a guy struggling to understand his girl.
ring any bells? anyone? i lost the tape in a car fire (no kidding) years ago and i've been trying to find the song ever since.
Onstar may I help you?
Bags- yeah, my car is on fire.
Onstar- sir we will do what we can, please begin by stepping away from the car.
Bags- sweet mother of jesus, my favorite mix tape is burning....must save mix tape...ow, ow, ow.... it's melting!
Onstar- sir, please step away from the car.
Bags- (sniffling) it's gone. Oh the hu.manity! Why I ask? Why!
(This was another dramatization brought to you by onstar.)
U2 is a great concert and an incredible show. Old 97s is a fun show - like a live band at a party, but a live band better than any live band you've seen at a party. I know this isn't the topic, but the best show for a "fun" concert along with the Old 97s is Better Than Ezra in the late '90s. Now that was a fun show - a great show to take a date.
I don't see a Rev song on the list. Am I misreading this sentence?
I think that the Supersuckers' Must Have Been High album could qualify for the list: it's much more y'allternative than the rest of their "hillbilly punk" catalog. [Personally, I'd choose "Hungover Together."]
I must confess that I never "got" Ryan Adams or understood why he receives such great press. Great to see the Bottle Rockets getting some love, though.
My rule of thumb on the genre: if it's on Bloodshot Records, it's probably good.
Great topic, Scott.
I had picked bales of cocaine, as it kind of fit the todd snider style of alt.country. Put dan bern and mojo nixon on the list of funny, clever cowpunk artists.
That's a happy coincidence. Thanks, Scott.
Until they get kicked off for non-payment of (exorbitant, obscene) royalties, somafm.com's Boot Liquor channel plays a lot of these guys. I actually tried to start listening to KZLA back when they were a going operation about two years ago, but realized that most country is just garbage; there was no way they were going to play Lyle Lovett, let alone Son Volt or any of the roots-crossover types like Dave Alvin.
Although the term alt-country needed the early internet grammar to come into usage, I would say most of the great music in this genre preceded 1990, when it was called "country-rock" or, as Gram Parsons liked to call it, "Cosmic American Music." Of the artists you cover here, virtually none of them measure up to:
The Byrds: Sweethearts of the Rodeo (especially, the extended version which restores Gram Parsons' vocals to several songs from which they had to be removed for legal reasons.) Key songs: Hickory Wind, One Hundred Years from Today.
Bob Dylan: John Wesley Harding and Nashville Skyline. Key songs: I'll Be Your Baby Tonight, Lay Lady Lay, Tell Me That It Isn't True.
The Band: Music from Big Pink, The Band, Stage Fright. The entire alt.country movement is more rooted in The Band than Gram Parsons, inasmuch as the Band was the first "Americana" group. Key songs: Lonesome Suzie, The Weight, Tears of Rage, Across the Great Divide, King Harvest, Whispering Pines, The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down, The Shape I'm In, Daniel and the Sacred Harp...really every track on their first two albums.
Creedence Clearwater: First album, Bayou County, Green River, Willie and the Poor Boys, Cosmo's Factory. Bayou Country is filtered through a psychedelia/jam band mentality, and there are R&B stabs throughout, but it's country rock for the most part. Key songs: Born on the Bayou, Proud Mary, Green River, Don't Look Now, Lodi
Dillard and Clark, The Fantastic Expedition of... and Through the Morning, Through the Night. You like the Jayhawks? This group's for you. Key songs: Train Leaves Here This Morning, Out on the Side, Through the Morning, Through the Night, Don't Let Me Down
Grateful Dead, Workingman's Dead and American Beauty. Just sublime. Their most disciplined studio efforts. Key songs: Uncle John's Band, Cumberland Blues, Dire Wolf, Ripple, Friend of the Devil, Candyman, Box of Rain, Sugar Magnolia, Casey Jones.
Flying Burrito Brothers, Gilded Palace of Sin, Burrito Deluxe. Gram Parsons again, along with Chris Hillman and Sneaky Pete Kleinow, who just died. Key songs: Sin City, Dark End of the Street, Hot Burrito #1, Christine's Tune, Wild Horses, God's Own Singer
Micheal Nesmith, Magnetic South, Loose Salute, Nevada Fighter. Considering how famous he was from the Monkees, this guy still fights to get the credit he deserves. His band featured the wonderful Red Rhodes on pedal steel. Key songs: Calico Girlfriend, Joanne, Silver Moon, I fall to Pieces, Grand Ennui.
Gram Parsons. GP and Grievous Angel. Maybe you don't like the fact that he was a rich, spoiled, drug-addled a-hole who abused all his friends. Fair enough. But his music was great and still delivers. Key songs: She, The New Soft Shoe, How Much I've Lied, Return of the Grievous Angel, In My Hour of Darkness, Ooh Las Vegas, Love Hurts.
Linda Ronstadt. Her early stuff was all country rock, and highlighted some of the genre's best writers. Key songs: Love Has No Pride, Everybody Loves A Winner, Desperado, Faithless Love, When Will I Be Loved, Heart Like A Wheel, You Can Close Your Eyes.
Little Feat: Their first two albums, Little Feat and Sailin' Shoes were a hybrid of country-rock and Howlin' Wolf, with a little of the same stony humor you find in Michael Nesmith and the Flying Burrito Brothers. They bear little resemblance to the Southern-friend boogie-rock sound they're known for now. Key Songs: Strawberry Flats, Truck Stop Girl, Brides of Jesus, 44 Blues/How Many More Years, Easy to Slip, A Apolitical Blues, Cold, Cold, Cold, and two versions of the ultimate alt-country song: Willin'.
I could go on. I'm not much of an Eagles fan, but they've got a few good songs that qualify as alt-country. Neil Young you mentioned, but he was also in Buffalo Springfield, which was a little countryish, as was another successor band, Poco, which had some pleasant songs in this genre. The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Emmylou Harris, The New Riders of the Purple Sage, even Rick(y) Nelson.
Not to diss any of the music you mentioned (although I've never gotten the appeal of Wilco), but it is heavily derivative of the music listed here, and thus rises and falls not so much on its newness as on the individual talents' ability to write worthy songs and perform them.
For my money, the prize goes to Neko Case. Her excellent current album Fox Confessor.. is a trendy thing to have, but her entire catalog, going back to the much more countryish "Neko Case and Her Boyfriends," is stunning. What a singer, what a songwriter. She manages to be trendy and underrated at the same time. It must be the fact that she's gorgeous.
I'm with you on Kathleen Edwards. Great songwriter. I've enjoyed the Jayhawks, Rilo Kiley/Jenny Lewis, Kasey Chambers, Tift Merrit and of course Lucinda Williams has been phenomenal for 20 years, especially the Car Wheels on a Gravel Road album.
As I think about it, I think the problem with alt-country now is that the male performers take themselves too seriously. In addition to not enjoying Wilco, I also don't enjoy Ryan Adams, Bright Eyes, Son Volt, Uncle Tupelo or Whiskeytown. I don't know why. Seems like a chore to listen to them. The womenfolk need to tell these boys to shut up and let them sing.
Great list and thanks for some new suggestions. I saw Lucero at SXSW two years ago and they were very impressive - their record Tennessee is loaded with great offerings. 'Nights Like These' is recommended.
I didn't note any previous mention of Robert Earl Keen. If your mp3 doesn't have any Robert Earl, I feel bad for you.
You won't be sorry.
Funny, the reason I missed most of this terrific thread is because I was at a Drive By Truckers/Alejandro Escovedo concert. Great, great show -- the Truckers are doing an acoustic tour right now which is very different for them. It'll be interesting to see how they survive the loss of Jason Isbell, who was arguably their best songwriter.
Like Will, if I were doing this list, literally half of it would be DBT songs. If there were justice in the world, they would be huge stars by now. "The Dirty South" is the album of the decade. That they rock so hard sometimes obscures how unbelievably phenomenal their songwriting is.
2 Thanks David for the pointer to Cory Branan. I wasn't familiar with him but just downloaded a few songs. Good stuff.
Lucinda Williams is a goddess
Some many groups kinda move in to the Alt-country vien it's hard to draw thick lines. The Grateful Dead's Friend of the Devil is definatly an alt-country record as is Uncle John's Band. The Stones with Dead Flowers, Let it Bleed, Country Honk and yes, Wild Horses. I think that Johnny Cash and Kris Kristopherson both should be considered alt-country/americana artists - I think it's a shame that it took a movie for people to finally think it was cool to like Johnny Cash again, and Kris's The Pilgrim Chapter 33 is one of those cuts that should be on ever alt-country fans Ipod.
If you listen to Elvis Costello - alot of his stuff leans Alt-Country. One great one that people have left out is BR549
I considered including some stuff from the great grateful dead tribute "dedicated", but didn't go with it as I was trying to stay away from covers. (I know there are a couple here)
Elvis Costello's "king of america" is one of my all-time favorite records. I highly recommend it, as it could be his most alt.country sounding.
I guess I don't think of the drive by truckers or kings of leon as alt.country, as their music rocks a bit too hard.
Susan Tedeschi I've always considered more of a blues artist, as I have of Bonnie Raitt. No exact science here, as I some could quibble on similar grounds on a few of my choices.
Truthfully, I think Neko Case is tough to consider as someone who fits the alt.country genre, as she is more of a Patsy Cline-type. Same goes for K.D. Lang, who I thought was brilliant earlier in her career.
Thanks for everyone making this a fun discussion.
"Susan Tedeschi I've always considered more of a blues artist." I think you're right, as a rule. That song in particular, with its great fiddle and energetic vocals, is a bit of a crossover, I suppose.
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