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Ten Great Alt-Country Artists

Updated on October 24, 2011

The term "Alt-country" like the term it is derived from, alternative rock, can be hard to define. A lot of what is now defined as alt-country used to be considered mainstream country. A great deal of it also incorporates the styles of folk, bluegrass, blues and southern rock as well. Perhaps a good definition might be music that is too rock to be country but too country to really be rock but the pop sensibilities of mainstream country radio and their failure to recognize many traditional country artists makes this problematic. Ironically, in the United States, alt-country artists seem to inspire more fans in the big cities. However it is defined these are ten "alt-country" artists that mainstream country and rock radio won't play.


Neko Case also performs with the indie rock band The New Pornographers but as a solo artist she has gained a substantial reputation of her own. A lot of her influences are folk and country based, which leads to her walking that line between rock and country that a lot of alt-country artists inhabit. Having recorded seven studio albums in a relatively brief period, Case has managed to keep a startling level of quality throughout all of them. Her strong songwriting shines through in everything she does and her powerful voice accentuates the power of her words.


Few contemporary singers are able to embody the sound of American roots music as completely as Kasey Chambers. What makes this so odd is that Chambers is actually Australian. Her first two albums The Captain and Barricades and Brick Walls made some ripples on the American country charts but she soon faded away into being a cult artist in the US, while at the same time being a massive celebrity in her own country. Chambers recent albums, Rattlin' Bones and Little Bird show that her songwriting and soulful voice have not lost a thing.


The Drive-By Truckers play a mix of alt-country and Lynard Skynard style Southern Rock. They had a bit of a break through with their third album Southern Rock Oprea, which tells the story of a Skynard-like band over an epic double album. Later works like Decoration Day and The Dirty South have gotten similar acclaim. Seemingly like a band that has been transported straight out of the 70s, their sound is out of vogue with both country and rock radio but they have gained a passionate following over the years.


Earle was working as a Nashville song writer but was never given the chance to record his own material. He finally decided to record an album independently and the result was Guitar Town, the number one country album when it was released. Earle was never satisfied with the sound of mainstream country music and he began to drift away from it, never having the mainstream success he did with his first album but gaining a passionate following anyway. Other works like the Bruce Springsteen inspired Cooperhead Row and the experimental Transcendental Blues have been hailed as alt-country masterpieces.


Formed by Gram Parsons and Chris Hillman after they left The Byrds in the late 60s, The Flying Burrito Brothers may be the first true alt-country bands. Though their first two albums were brilliant they couldn't get any radio play because their sound was "too rock" for country radio and "too country" for rock radio. After their second album the rest of the band kicked Parsons out due to his drug use and the band went through a number of line up changes. By their fifth album not a single original member remained and they were never as good as when they started out. Their first two albums are available on one disc and an anthology charts the bands whole convoluted history.


Former child actress Lewis, fronts the rock band Rilo Kiley, a rock band that itself has had heavy country influence, but her solo albums have fit into the alt-country mold much better. Her first solo album with the Watson twins is a mix of country and strip down folk, while her second Acid Tongue builds off of that sound to go into other directions. Lewis has most recently done an album with her musician boyfriend Jonathan Rice, that has split the difference between her work with Rilo Kiley and her solo work.


Oberst is often compared to Bob Dylan, because of his complex and often allegorical lyrics. As an artist he has been in a number of bands, starting with his own band Bright Eyes, before starting a solo career and playing with six other bands over the course of just a few years. Oberst work is eclectic to say the least, so his associations with alt-country could be considered sketchy but his songs have been heavily influenced by country and folk artists of the 70s, giving him clear connections to those sounds and styles. His work as Bright Eyes, a band consisting of himself and a revolving door of musicians, has been his best.

OLD 97's

In the 90s the Old 97s were part of the re-emergence of alt-country and while all the other bands have since broken up, they are still around. There sound has evolved over the years, from a more straight country, to a peppy country-rock. Lead singer Rhett Miller, sings and writes lyrics with his tongue planted firmly in his cheek. With nine studio albums they haven't wavered much on their quality. Fans consider Wreck Your Life and Too Far To Care to be the best of their early work and there most recent album Grand Theatre Vol 2 has received similar levels of praise.


Snider has a pranksters spirit that is infectious and hilarious but he can always surprise you. While many of his songs are funny, he is just as capable of writing songs that are deeply moving and heartbreakingly sad. Snider's first album, Songs for the Daily Planet, got him on the map with the satirical Talkin' Seattle Grunge Rock Blues but also featured songs that were sad (You Think You Know Somebody) and spiritual. (Somebody's Coming.) After suffering depression in the late 90s, Snider came back with a left wing political bent and while not outright forsaking his Christianity, began to rail against evangelicals as much as he corporate greed and big business.


One of the bands most responsible for the alt-country resurgence of the 1990s, Whiskeytown only released three albums in their short period of existence (1994-2000) but have had an enormous influence on a number of rock and country bands that have come after. Fronted by Ryan Adams, who has since had a successful solo career, the band features the same soulful singing and heartfelt lyrics that Adams would become successful with as a solo artist. Unlike Adams solo career, which is uneven, there is a consistent sound and dedication to a country aesthetic on the Whiskeytown albums, that keeps Adams eccentricity as a performer and artist much more grounded.


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      5 years ago

      I'll trade you one picture of me with the Rangers gnome for one Puck Head t-shirt. I'll throw in a shot of me and the gnome at the Garden when we get down to a game. Just think...your blog could be the "Home of the Gnome."


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