Styles & Forms | Alt. Country

There have always been avant-garde artists and bands that take elements of country and fuse them with other musical idioms to make their own highly original, often idiosyncratic styles. Many of these artists also address controversial issues that are taboo in the politically correct country mainstream.

It was the late-1960s and early 1970s, when America’s anti-war ‘alternative’ sub-culture was in full swing, that such artists were first referred to as alternative country musicians. Most managed to earn a following without the benefit of airplay on mainstream country radio. Their music has often had special appeal to younger, more urbane listeners who tend to be put off by the bland, predictable commercial constraints of the mainstream and hunger for a grassroots alternative.

A Patchwork Of Alternative Country Styles

Alternative country – and its 1990s iteration, called ‘alt. country’ or ‘alt country’ – has since devolved into a one-size-fits-all category for an array of artists so numerous and stylistically diverse as to defy any precise categorization. Their only common thread is that they offer intriguing alternative sounds and styles that are often in sharp contrast to what is heard in country’s rather predictable and trend-savvy mainstream.

Over the years, quite a few of these artists have found limited niches within Nashville’s music industry. Some, like John Prine, John Hiatt, Guy Clark, Rodney Crowell, Jim Lauderdale, Lucinda Williams, Julie & Buddy Miller, Kieran Kane and Kevin Welch have prospered by writing songs for best-selling mainstream artists while doing their own recording for small, independent ‘boutique’ labels and performing in non-country venues like listening rooms and coffee houses.

Austin, Texas, with its vibrant live music scene, has long served as a viable springboard for a wide assortment of cutting-edge alternative artists and ensembles. These include Junior Brown, who combines droll, gut-bucket country vocals with dazzling lead work on a double-necked instrument of his own design called the ‘git-steel’ – half electric lead guitar and half electrified steel guitar. Others run the gambit from The Bad Livers (whose raunchy and often bizarre sound can aptly be called psychobilly), to gentle old-time yodelling country/cowboy music revivalists like Don Walser and satirical hipsters like Kinky Friedman & His Texas Jewboys.

Country Fusion

Many of these earliest alternative country artists, who have become role models for several younger musicians, emerged during the open-minded eras of the 1970s outlaw movement and the 1980s neo-traditionalist movement. These include Texas singer-songwriters Guy Clark, Nanci Griffith, Steve Earle, the late Townes Van Zandt and Illinois-born John Prine. Meanwhile, the west coast has given rise to influential roots-oriented singer-songwriters like Iris DeMent and Gillian Welch, as well as neo-western swing bands like Big Sandy & The Fly-Rite Boys.

The music of south Louisiana’s Cajun (French Acadian) community has contributed yet another strand to alternative country’s vast DNA. Familiar names from this genre include historic figures like Hackberry Ramblers, Iry...

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Source: The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Music, general editor Paul Du Noyer


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