Introduction | Alt. Country & The Bluegrass Revival

Hank Williams and George Jones would have found the whole notion of alt-country unfathomable. Why would anyone seek an alternative to bestselling country records?

For these sons of dire southern poverty, the whole point of making country records was to sell as many as possible and maybe catch hold of the dignity and comfort that a middle-class life might afford. In fact, it was the hunger for such success that gave their early recordings such a compelling edge.

On the other hand, if you were Steve Earle, the son of a San Antonio air-traffic controller, or Lucinda Williams, the daughter of a Lake Charles English professor, middle-class life was already a given. What was most important to them – more important than the Billboard country charts – was the ability to express themselves as writers. And because their favourite writers included Bob Dylan, Townes Van Zandt and Johnny Cash, their preferred medium was not poetry or the novel but rather country songs. For them, alternative country was inevitable.

In parallel fashion, most of the bluegrass musicians born before 1950 clung to the format created by Bill Monroe because it represented – much like the church it so often celebrated – a rock of stability in a world of rural hardship. But many of the best young bluegrass pickers born after 1950 craved possibility more than stability, challenges more than tradition. Musicians such as banjoist Bela Fleck, mandolinist Sam Bush and dobroist Jerry Douglas wanted new chord changes, new rhythms. To find them, they created new-grass.

These three streams – the new-grass pickers like Fleck, the country rockers like Earle and the singer-songwriters like Williams – often overlapped, sharing stages and recording sessions. They varied a great deal – especially in volume – but they were united by a determination to pursue an artistic vision rooted in country music’s past, even if it meant working at the margins of the current country-music marketplace.

Key Artists

Sam Bush & Bela Fleck
Kasey Chambers
Alison Krauss
Uncle Tupelo

Styles & Forms | Alt. Country & The Bluegrass Revival
Inside the Music | O Brother, Where Art Thou? | Alt. Country & The Bluegrass Revival

Source: The Definitive Illustrated Encyclopedia of Country Music, consultant editor Bob Allen


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