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Essential alt.country Artists

Overview of the alt.country movement via its most essential players


Marrying the sensibilities of the punk movement together with the devil-may-care attitude of classic-style country music, the major players in the alt.country music that spanned the late 1970s to the late 1990s distinguished themselves from the grasp of the Nashville country music machine. Though their efforts have distilled a bit with the advent of Americana (which is more far-reaching in its classification and appeal), the pioneers of alt.country music have left a serious impact on the independent music scene and the public's expectations about what country music can do. Learn more about the alt.country movement by beefing up your collection of these essential alt.country artists.

Steve Earle

Steve Earle
photo: Cindy Ord/Getty Images
Perhaps one of alternative country's most indefinable troubadours, Steve Earle picked up Townes Van Zandt's torch and ran with it. His songs range from lonesome cowboy numbers to the blues to damn-the-man siger-songwriter dirges, and he's definitely not one to miss. He dragged alt.country into the realm of the political, too, with his raging topical tunes and even those not carrying an overtly political theme. Needless to say, he's hardly a country singer Nashville would have run with.

Lucinda Williams

Lucinda Williams
photo: Robert Mora/Getty Images
It's hard to know just where to categorize Lucinda William, but no place seems more fitting than alt.country (or, these days, Americana). Her Car Wheels on a Gravel Road record (Mercury/Universal, 1998) rocked the country, rock, and folk worlds, and her work continues to resound today. Just about every album she's released has been well-received by critics and her songs have been covered by everyone from Tom Petty to Emmylou.

Uncle Tupelo

Uncle Tupelo
promo photo
Uncle Tupelo is often credited as being the first, most important alt.country band. Of course, their debut album in the mid-1990s came long after Parsons' debut and about halfway into Steve Earle's career. No doubt, their decision to pair their punk rock ideas with the twangy music they grew up on, helped define the genre, though. Further, when they finally split, the bands they became helped the case for alt.country along even more.

Son Volt

Son Volt
© Emily Nathan
Son Volt was one of the first spin-offs of Uncle Tupelo, and since dropping their debut album late in 1995, they've been rocking the alt.country world. Frontman Jay Farrar has also enjoyed a fruitful solo career, making his own records and collaborating with Ben Gibbard from Death Cab for Cutie. If any band can still claim the alt.country title, Son Volt has it on lock. Their 2013 release, Honky Tonk, sits solidly within the genre.

Gram Parsons

Gram Parsons
promo photo
You might say it all began with Gram Parsons, whose approach to country music back in the 1970s walked a line between rock and roll, folk, and straight-up country and western. Together with his duet partner Emmylou Harris, Parsons delivered a collection of music which has been hailed as some of the best songwriting of his generation. It certainly influenced a generation of writers who followed him, including alt.country torch bearers like Uncle Tupelo and Ryan Adams.

Ryan Adams (and Whiskeytown)

Ryan Adams
photo: Samir Hussein/Getty Images
With his band Whiskeytown, Ryan Adams made an indelible mark on the contemporary music scene. Though he has since gone in several different directions - from straight-up rock and roll to folk and beyond - his music is still closely followed by those with allegiance to the alt.country movement. And, arguably, some of his finest work was made with his first, most popular band.

Bottle Rockets

The Bottle Rockets
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The Bottle Rockets - led by their incredibly dynamic singer/guitaris Brian Henneman - have been representing for the ever-vibrant St. Louis, MO, alt.country scene since 1992. Along with Uncle Tupelo, the Bottle Rockets were one of the strongest forces in the cultural explosion that resulted in the name "alt.country music." Though their '90s albums were formative for the genre, the Bottle Rockets continue to release relevant, provocative albums, carrying on the vision of the alt.country movement.
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