Now clearly we shouldn't generalise but sometimes you come across a whole tribe of musicians who seem so bent on obeying the iron rules of their own category that they beg to be tarred with the same brush. I get sent hundreds of records by alt country acts. Soon as they pop out of the Jiffy bag and you catch sight of the first plaid shirt and the straggly beard you know exactly what you're dealing with. Been working up to this for ages.
- They all look alike. It's my contention that the acts who get filed under alt.country are more homogenous in their appearance than any other species of musical act, up to and including the guys who wear blankets and blow into panpipes in historic city centres. Their look is usually pitched somewhere between The Band round about their second album and the cast photographs from "The Long Riders".
- They sound the way they look. Alt country is the terrible revenge of specialism. Whereas the Flying Burrito Brothers sounded as if they had listened to everything from hillbilly music to New Orleans rhythm and blues to British beat, Son Volt sound as if they've listened to nothing but the first Flying Burritos album. The reissue with the interesting sleeve notes. They live in a tiny airless critical category when they ought to be out in the open air.
- They ache to be poor. Having grown up in the midst of the longest sustained period of prosperity in human history it naturally follows that they like to be photographed in a way that makes them look like undernourished, dust-blown migrant workers from the 30s. With rickets.
- Nobody knows what the bloody hell they're singing about. Whereas the people they purport to idolise, the Merle Haggards and Loretta Lynns of this world, sang about real lives in a way their audience could relate to, these guys wear their obscurity as a badge of honour. Go no further than Neko Case's "Fox Confessor Brings The Flood".
- They take weeks to get to the point. No alt.country record is complete without a long weedy first verse sung by a guy who's trying to sound consumptive, an "impressionistic" instrumental peregrination in the middle that only serves to prove that the steel guitar is a sight harder to play than they thought when they got it off eBay and an ending that takes hours to fade.
- They're about as country as Alan Sugar. They're all college educated middle class brats from the suburbs of America's great cities whose parents are academics or advertising execs. Their act is an attempt to atone for the comfortable circumstances of their upbringing by playing the banjo on the naugahyde bench seat of an old car in a scrap yard, hoping this will make it clear that they are down with the poor and dispossessed (who are actually watching Monday night football on the biggest flat screen TV you've ever seen.)
- They're just not catchy. Has anybody ever heard anything from Okkervil River or the Wrinkle Neck Mules or Corb Lund or Gillian Welch that you could describe as infectious? Has anyone ever found themselves cutting a rug to a bracing jig that turned out to be by Leftover Salmon? I think not. That's because these people are bent on taking something which is supposed to be for everybody and turning it into a narrow vehicle for their own self-image.
- None of them are successful. When you consider how long this whole thing's been around as a movement, when you count the number of specialist radio programmes devoted to its combined output and the number of mash notes addressed to it in the posh papers by clueless nitwits invariably including something along the lines of "think country music is all stetsons and lost dogs? Prepare to think again", what's amazing is that this genre hasn't thrown up one act that could be called a household name. Not one true front rank headliner. Not one magazine cover star. Not one person big enough to be anywhere near the top of the bill at Farm Aid, let alone Live Earth. Why is that? Public wrong again, huh?
- Alt country is living proof that rock critics are nearly always wrong. It's music for people who haven't seen all that much life but have read a deuced of a lot about it, who can sit rapt through "Paris Texas" bu can't understand what anyone sees in "The Dukes Of Hazzard" and wish that the people who like Willie Nelson hadn't voted for George W. Bush. It's a footnote, a commentary, an afterthought, a no-count ante chamber just off an enormous great tent in which educated people try to wrestle with the inescapable fact that some of the things that make popular music popular are some of the things they like least.