In 1985, a garage rock band got together in Belleville, Illinois, and named themselves the Primitives. The Primitives was made up of Jay Farrar (guitar, vocals), Wade Farrar (vocals, harmonica), Mike Heidorn (drums), and Jeff Tweedy (bass, vocals), and focused mainly on playing covers of 1960s rock songs. A year or so later, the band changed its name to Uncle Tupelo. Wade Farrar left the band, resulting in his brother Jay and bandmate Jeff Tweedy taking over the vocal duties and songwriting. They started playing more originals that showed the diversity of their influences, which included everyone from Gram Parsons to Black Flag, and from Buck Owens to Husker Du. By 1990, they had been featured in Rolling Stone and voted best unsigned band in 1989.
In 1994, Uncle Tupelo split and its members formed new bands - Wilco and Sun Volt - that have become alt.country's most influential bands. Members of Uncle Tupelo have also played with other alternative country bands such as the Gourds and Swag.
Even earlier than the Gourds was new country artist Townes Van Zandt and other rogue country artists like Willie Nelson, Guy Clark, and Gram Parsons, who easily laid the groundwork for a new generation of derelict "outlaw country" singers, songwriters and bands.
Nobody's really sure where the alt.country name developed, but it's more along the lines of something that has evolved largely based on the influence of the members of Uncle Tupelo and its satellite bands. Though there are still a handful of bands who could only be categorized as alternative country, what had been considered a decisive "alt.country" movement has since given way to the evolving category of Americana music.
For all intents and purposes, alt.country was a stylistic movement - an attempt among country musicians to distinguish themselves from the Nashville Music Row machine and solidify a place in contemporary music for rural artists to maintain their artistic integrity. Rather than purchase their songs from Music Row publishers, alt.country acts largely wrote and performed all their own music, for better or worse. It was, in a way, a punk movement within the country aesthetic, and has given way to the emergent Americana music scene.