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Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Nine things that bug me about alt-bloody-country acts

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.
  1. They all look alike. It's my contention that the acts who get filed under 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".
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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".
  5. They take weeks to get to the point. No 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.
  6. 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.)
  7. 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.
  8. 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?
  9. 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.


  1. Does this include Laura Cantrell?

  2. There's a whole lotta head-nodding going on here. Makes typing bloody awkward, I can tell you. When I was into prog-rock and silly pop bands in the early 70s, several pals of mine held an unhealthy reverence for the Ozark Mountain Daredevils, Flying Burrito Brothers, and all the other culprits. Jackson Browne, The Eagles, they droned endlessly on. When I was seduced by punk, they stuck to their guns, and grumbled about how ZigZag magazine was great until it betrayed country-rock for punk. Nowadays I bet they're alt-country fans. The fools. You're so right - the most squirmingly earnest, worthy-but-dull musical genre ever. Excuse me, I must go and listen to something unsavoury now, to wash the thought of alt-country out of my brain.

  3. Anonymous8:03 pm

    Couldn't agree more. I mean, Wilco? A single memorable tune? Nope.

  4. Have to disagree with you there. I love alt-country! By saying you dislike alt-country, it is like saying you dislike country because you dislike Garth Brookes but at the same time condemning Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard, George Jones, etc.

    Where do you draw the line with alt-country? Do you dislike Lucinda Williams? She is just as much alt-country as Gillian Welch! A lot of my favourite artists have been condemned as alt-country at some time or another. People like Howe Gelb, Calexico, M Ward, Andrew Bird. A lot of alt-country acts have found a lot of space in Word magazine...

    I have been to a lot of concerts in the last few years and Howe Gelb has more stagecaraft than anyone else I've seen and I don't really care if he hasn't sold many records.

    That arguement doesn't really hold much water either. How many modern blues or jazz artists are household names? None, yet do we condemn blues and jazz as well?

    Wilco have made loads of memorable tunes as well!!

  5. I dislike the inverted snobbery which sees the blue of collar or red of neck as 'genuine', and which assumes that being college-educated or middle class renders you incapable of expressing genuine feeling or writing a decent tune. I agree that rock critics are almost always wrong though. Case in point.

  6. i agree with your vented spleen. mind you, i reach for my luger when i hear the winsome, acoustic guitar playing, fey individuals who spoil your otherwise excellent word cd every month.

    it is often said that it would be a boring planet if every one liked the same sort of music. not if they liked mine it wouldn't!

  7. I agree with a lot of this, David (my own personal betes noires in this category are Lambchop, the band with most annoying and mannered singer anywhere). I wouldn't include Gillian Welch though. Time (The Revelator) is stunning and timeless; April the 14th Part 1 is unambiguously "about" something, though it keeps its sting for the tail.

  8. "For Real" by Okkervil River is downright whistle-able. Gillian Welch's "Look at Miss Ohio" could be on a Radio 1 playlist (oh, alright, maybe not).

    And "Fox confessor Brings the Flood" clearly refers to the impact of rampant consumerism on our blighted planet (or summink).

    I know what you mean about the homgeneity of some acts but they bang my drum.

  9. I think the case against Alt-country could be the argument against almost any kind of genre - that 90% of it is godawful. Examine the worlds of metal, hip-hop, jazz, whatever and you'll see a mire of formulaic rubbish, and a few leading lights who make the good stuff which stands a listen more than a decade on - the only objective quality test. Does anyone really think all punk music is deserving of the teary reminiscing we had last year?

    I love Wilco, Cowboy Junkies, bits of the over-prolific Ryan Adams and a few others but the rest fails to move me. That is surely as it should be. To take a swipe at a section of music that is pretty loosely defined in the first place does some passionate and innovative musicians a disservice.

  10. Blimey David, has your daughter run off with one of these darned musicians?

    Your exposure to hundreds of their CD's is way beyond us mere paying consumers and theoretically puts you in a more knowledgeable position, but in some ways aren't you confirming the adage that 90% of everything is crap?

    The "ache to be poor" is somewhat contentious. How much background do you get on these bands to be able make such a statement? It may be true, but you need more than a touch of intuition inspired by the cover photos. In some ways it seems to be a corollary of your position, propounded on your old GLR show, about the inarticulacy of musicians. As I recall you said something like "They come in all sprightly, extend their hand, say Hi my name is Sebastian, but then when it comes to the interview all they can do is grunt and find themselves unable to string two words together".

    Don't artists you have championed like Mary Chapin-Carpenter, Rosanne Cash and Lucinda Williams fall into the oeuvre? People like Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell are former major mainstream country artists who find themselves sidelined into Emmylou claimed years ago that mainstream Nashville had long abandoned her, that she doesn't get played on mainstream country radio. Why else do she and MCC find themselves ejected from contracts with the majors and on much smaller labels now?

    Nobody knows what they're singing about. They take ages to get to the point. They sing in a whiny voice. Sounds to me like you're writing about Radiohead.

    None of them are cover stars. Maybe so, but your colleague Mark Ellen not long ago stated that the only 2 people who can sell out a magazine are Morrisey and Bono.

    Ultimately if the choice is between the likes of Shania Twain, Garth Brooks, Alan Jackson Faith Hill and their ilk or Son Volt, Ryan Adams, Tift Merritt and Gillian Welch I'll go for the latter every time.

  11. Genius. One of the main reasons I cheerfully abandoned Uncut when your lot came along was their consistent championing of what sounded like fantastically dull but (of course) authentic records.
    The only point of reference I have is that the Billy Bragg /Woody Guthrie thing would have been way better if it wasn't for Wilco, but it's enough for me.

    Just heard Hank on the radio. Now that's the way to do it.

  12. Surely this doesn't include Laura Cantrell. I sing along to her records more than anyone else's.

  13. And doesn't the alt. signify where all this came from? Don't you remember the early days of the net when you had all those alt.xx catagories you could chose from? (It was so long ago I'm straining to think how I read them - might have been on the cusp of web browsers). What could be more middle-tech class, Starbucks drinking than coming out of that?

  14. We went to see Gretchen Peters, Matraca Berg and Suzy Bogguss playing together last night at the Union Chapel in Islington.

    Great gig; definitely of country / Nashville origins. Despite writing hits for Martina McBride, Sara Evans and a few other mainstream artist they aren't mainstream themselves. Probably because those running the big labels and the radio stations decided this for them. Not a beard or plaid shirt between them. Nothing in the way of whining voices although Gretchen's latest album has a lot to do with her divorce, she told us. Does this disqualify them from being

  15. Thank God someone has come out and said it. I thought I was alone.