The Ken Burns-produced Country Music documentary that premiered on PBS last week is predictably great. It’s also giving me fits of nostalgia remembering the time I tried to be an “alternative country” singer.
It was a very late-1990’s thing to do, especially if you liked roots-music and were getting bored with “grunge” or Lollapalooza bands. It’s just outside the era Burns covers in his documentary, which ends in 1996.
Most of the “alternative country” material that came out in the 90s was positioned (by promoters and journalists) as a remedy for the Shania Twain and Garth Brooks-driven suburbanite garbage-country sounds of that era. A lot (though not all) of the alt-country bands were converts–artists who started in indie, hardcore, or even metal bands who’d discovered older country and grew into it.
Now, I never considered myself a country fan. I’d grown up loving the earlier generation’s first wave of rock and roll (Buddy Holly, Chuck Berry) and I’d grown up obsessed with bands channeling roots music through punk or bar-band lenses (The Blasters, X, The Beat Farmers, and, yeah, Bruce Springsteen). I’d heard George Thorogood covering Carl Perkins and Huey Lewis covering Hank Williams. Twangy roots rock was my thing before (and during, and after) I discovered alternative music.
By the time people started throwing the term “alternative country” around, I’d kind of sworn off playing live music. The band I’d played with in college had dispersed around the country and life/work balance became a challenge.
But, man, the music coming out that kept being labeled “alternative country” was so damn good. They had sweet melodies, powerful guitars, intelligent lyrics, some edge. And twang. “Timebomb” by the Old 97s jumps out of the stereo and grabs you by the lapels every time. So does “See Willy Fly By” by the Waco Brothers (on stalwart label Bloodshot Records). Songs like that convinced me that it was time to get a group, learn some covers, and write more songs.
It feels weird saying that in hindsight. It sounds like “cashing in on a trend” when it felt more like “holy shit, people are finally listening to the stuff I actually like.” And no real “cashing” happened. We barely broke even, never got a real record deal, never saw a royalty check, and toured outside our hometown only a handful of times. (On the plus side, we got airplay from deejays we respected and a good review from No Depression magazine, the alt-country Bible.)
Looking back, I was scared and a little snarky. I felt the lack of 80s hardco re street-cred that other bands had. I wrote a self-parodying Onion “Area Man”-inspired press release when our bands album came out. I wasn’t brave enough to send it out, but I cleaned it up a little and have it here.
I also obsessed about what made our band more “poppy” than “country.” My favorite bands made poppy records, but usually only after they’d done something more traditionally honky tonk or folky.* I wrote “Top Ten” lists on bar napkins pondering this stuff. Example:
Top Things Rockabilly Bands Never Say (But “Roots Rock” Bands Will)
5. I prefer James Burton’s textured guitar playing to Scotty Moore’s picking.
4. Those burlesque dancers are too fat.
3. I really need a Vox AC-30 for this song.
2. We’re heavily influenced by Big Star.
1. When you get right down to it, all of Johnny Cash’s Sun Records singles sound the same.
For a better example, this is a bit of our live show: bad sound, bad music, NSF anyone ever anywhere. Self-defeating humor aside, I loved playing the material and am still proud of some of the songs we wrote. It wasn’t fun, but it was real. That’s country enough.
*I’m thinking of Wilco’s Summerteeth, Old 97’s Fight Songs, Robbie Fulks’ Let’s Kill Saturday Night–all great records preceded by equally good but more traditional albums.