There's a case to be made that Alternative Country, or Alt-Country as it's more often called, hasn't ever really been a legit genre. One will be hard-pressed to get any of the artists lumped in with the moniker to claim it as their sonic home, and even the original journalistic voice of the hard-to-define style, No Depression, cited its own confusion when it claimed, on each issue; that it covered "Alternative country music (whatever that is)."
With the successful insurgence of the (also hard to sonically define) Americana movement of the past decade where artists as divergent as Roseanne Cash, Ryan Bingham, Allen Toussaint, Jason Isbell, Levon Helm (R.I.P.) and Shovels and Rope have been embraced, arguing that Alt-Country as a genre-tag is still needed will be a tough one to win.
Since the mid-1990's, when The Old 97's and Whiskeytown were young pups while Uncle Tupelo split into two different bands that would both certainly become influential, many prominent acts have started their recording careers with the raw, rootsy vibe of Alt-Country, only to juke into different directions later. Neko Case, the musically adventurous Virginia-born artist who began by twanging her way into indie hearts over a decade ago is hitting the Granada Theater on Thursday night, so we thought it would be a good time to take a look at a few killer bands that were once considered Alt-Country, but now fail to come close to the genre that maybe never was.
5. Neko Case - We'll start with the star of Thursday night's show. Indeed, her 2002 debut, Blacklisted (released on arguably the label that best represented what Alt-Country sounded like in the 1990's golden days), and her 2004 live record The Tigers Have Spoken contain dustiness and robust vocals that fit well within the Alt-Country distinction, but with 2006's crtical favorite, Fox Confessor Brings the Flood, unique song structures and a greater focus on ambiguous story-telling took her musical path into an indie-flavored direction from which she hasn't returned. Her 2009 Middle Cyclone and last year's The Worse Things Get, The Harder I Fight, The Harder I Fight, the More I Love You, are remarkably versatile albums that indeed tease those who wish she would bring the country back, but both offerings are way too ambitious to be cornered.
4. My Morning Jacket - The proggy, psychedelic arena-rockers began as a scuffed-up group of southern boys playing southern music through a grizzled filter of hazy folk-rock. On their 1999 debut, The Tenessee Fire, their alt-country leanings are clear in tunes such as the lo-fi jangly gem "Evelyn Is Not Real." By the time the band's commercial breakthrough album, 2005's Z, came around, the Jim James-led group of Kentuckians were in an eclectic psych mode pretty hard. Which is where the y have remained and continue to challenge and progress.
3. Kathleen Edwards - In terms of the artists we're taking a look at, Edwards, the proud Tom Petty fan and even prouder Canadian, is the one whose overall body of work may have taken a bit of a misstep as she wandered away from her somewhat angry Alt-Country beginnings. Failer, her 2003 debut is a must-have for its dangerously vulnerable lyrical content and stories of screwed-up people. The goodness continued with 2005's Back to Me, which increased the poetic and musical grit that shook off the disc. After her 2011 divorce from long-time guitar player Collin Cripps, Edwards shacked-up with the patchiest beard in indie rock, Justin Vernon, and offered up 2012's Voyageur. It's a great listen and Edwards bravely and believably bares her pain and questions for all to see, but it lacked the force and urgency of her previous works. The music on the album is flavored with a somber indie-intensive tone. That's not to say she needs to go back to her folk-rock origins, but few would complain.
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2. Ryan Adams - Adams became famous as the screwed-up leader of North Carolina's Whiskeytown, which was an Alt-Country powerhouse. Their 1997 Stranger's Almanac album is a pure classic. In fact, more than a few will tell you that Adams' solo debut, 2000's brilliant Heartbreaker, is in a hallowed, top handful of Alt-Country albums of all-time. But since 2001's slicked-up, breakthrough record, Gold, Adams has been a tough nut to predict. Whether it's '80s Replacements-style rock, Grateful Dead-inspired roots-rock, or just plain old mediocre rock, Adams has been firmly entrenched in the generic singer-songwriter camp for some time. In 2011, Adams released the beautiful Ashes and Fire, which some deemed as Alt-Country, but it wasn't. It's a simple, but elegant, album that just happens to be performed on an acoustic guitar.
1. Wilco - The greatest example of the types of acts were discussing here. Wilco is the Jeff Tweedy side of the splintered Uncle Tupelo. They began with music that attempted to travel the same road as his previous band had. Wilco's debut album, A.M. wasn't as warmly welcomed as the debut from his former bandmate Jay Farrar's band Son Volt was. Still, it certainly had its share of fine Alt-Country moments in "Should've Been in Love," and "Box Full of Letters." In 1999, the group teamed with Billy Bragg to interpret Woody Guthrie lyrics into newly arranged folk songs for the landmark Mermaid Sessions record. While that album stands as a seminal work, the group grew weary of sonic limitations and began to expand. The eye-opening Summerteeth, their 1999 "proper band record," seemed to lose some old fans, but as the years progressed, the group's size has continued to grow into international headliners, just as their musical range has increased with each album.