The ten best alt-country acts of all time
Alt-country is the stepchild of the traditional country scene. Born, arguably, when Gram Parsons plugged in his guitar and sang the finest ode to infidelity, "At the Dark End of the Street," or maybe when the Rolling Stones recorded "Dead Flowers," the sub-genre came to be characterized by its decidedly unvarnished, un-Nashville vibe. Later acts broadened alt-country's appeal by integrating punk, and in 1995, alt-country gained legitimacy with the publication of No Depression, a magazine whose title was ripped from alt-country titans Uncle Tupelo's first album (yes, it's also a Carter Family song). Here's a rundown of the ten best alt-country bands of all time.
See also: The ten most brutally honest songwriters
10. Gillian Welch
Like Uncle Tupelo, Gillian Welch sings imagined first-person accounts of some of America's least wanted. The first song on her first album is called "Orphan Girl." Pretty much every song sounds like a John Steinbeck novel put to music and features sparse accompaniment. Welch's music is rewarding and powerful, but not the kind of thing to listen to on a first date. Time: The Revelator is the best of her albums; Soul Journey is the only one that rocks a little.
9. Will Oldham
The man also known as Palace, Palace Music, and most famously Bonnie "Prince" Billy has released more albums than folks have fingers and toes. Oldham's music is best characterized by the title of his 1999 debut, I See a Darkness, one of the sparsest, eeriest records this side of... well, anybody. Oldham has the market cornered on shadowy acoustic music that sounds as if it were made by a gnarled old toothless codger in a cabin in the woods who your childhood friends told you lived on mashed roadkill and beer. Check out Master and Everyone if you're feeling tender; Beware if you're feeling sinister.
8. Neko Case
Neko Case's voice is expressive in a manner that puts her next to Elvis Costello and Marvin Gaye. That good? Yes, that good. She may never be a pop star, though, because she's consistently refused to cash in on her good looks (she once turned down an offer to pose for Playboy), and she's similarly uncompromising in her lyrics. Who else sings songs about what it's like to be a tornado? Fox Confessor Brings the Flood just barely edges out Middle Cyclone as Case's best album, both of which exist in a bizarro underworld where alt-country gets the pop treatment. Get Blacklisted if you want more of the country torch song vibe.
7. The Jayhawks
The Jayhawks are the odd birds on this list. Mark Olson and Gary Louris sing harmonies that even Graham Nash could get behind, and produced some of the greatest non-Prince/Replacements albums to come out of Minneapolis. They were also known for producing some of the slickest, least grimy records in the alt-country universe. Olson left the band circa 1995, leaving his bandmates semi-permanently handicapped. He rejoined the Jayhawks in 2011, but the band's latter day work paled in comparison to Tomorrow the Green Grass and Hollywood Town Hall.
6. Drive-By Truckers
Patterson Hood, the son of Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section bassist David Hood, formed Drive-By Truckers in 1996 with Mike Cooley. These were Alabama boys who did not give a shit about being trendy, and their early albums reflected that attitude. They were alt-country when alt-country wasn't cool. Decoration Day rocks like no other, thanks largely to the addition of Jason Isbell to the lineup.
5. The Band
A band with this much facial hair cannot be ignored. These guys -- all Canadians, save for Arkansan Levon Helm -- had famously never heard of Bob Dylan before the singer asked them to play a gig at the Hollywood Bowl in 1965. When Dylan went electric, the Band was his backing band. And, like Dylan, the Band in its own right influenced countless alt-country acts that followed. Watch The Last Waltz. Right now.
4. Townes Van Zandt
Let's start at the obvious: Townes Van Zandt sang perhaps the most heartbreaking song about Colorado that's out there ("Colorado Girl"). Then there's the fact that lived the outlaw lifestyle to the fullest, frequently loving and leaving women, boozing to excess (a pastime that ultimately killed him in 1997), and penning some of the saddest songs this side of Mahler's "I've Become Lost to the World." Get High, Low and in Between. Make sure you have a hankie handy.
3. Ryan Adams
As the frontman for Whiskeytown, Ryan Adams established himself as a man-child prodigy with a penchant for self-destruction and blatantly ripping off country-era Rolling Stones. He once imagined an album called Doing That (a direct response to Wilco's Being There). He smoked on Charlie Rose's show and generally acted like a dick. He also recorded some truly iconic alt-country songs: "Hallelujah," "Come Pick Me Up," and "Magnolia Mountain" among them. Heartbreaker is Adams's most famous record, but 2011's Ashes and Fire is his best.
2. Uncle Tupelo
Does this one really need explaining? This band spawned two of the greatest alt-country acts of the late '90s/early 2000s, Wilco and Son Volt. The band's pedigree is legit, too -- the original three members (Jay Farrar, Jeff Tweedy, and Mike Heidorn) were high school friends who hailed from the factory town of Belleville, Illinois. They sang about miners and factories, and in concert, the band played Black Flag and Neil Young covers. Anodyne is the pinnacle of alt-country music.
1. Gram Parsons
Any band on this list owes a great debt to the man, whose birth name was Ingram Cecil Connor III. His contributions to the Flying Burrito Brothers and the Byrds would have easily put him in the alt-country pantheon, but it was his solo work that sealed the deal. This is a guy who was born into a Florida citrus dynasty and later dropped out of Harvard, and who hated the term "country rock." He also stayed at Keith Richards's French villa while the Stones recorded Exile on Main St.. The fact that Parsons made Grievous Angel by the time that he died from an overdose at age 26 only testifies to the man's rightful status as the progenitor of alt-country.
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