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Is Alt-Country Dead?

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From the Dallas Morning News an article on how alt-country became musical roadkill by THOR CHRISTENSEN. Some interesting observations by the genre busting Alejandro Escovedo and Old 97’s guitarist Ken Bethea.

“The exuberance it had in the beginning has faded away now,” says singer Alejandro Escovedo. “I don’t think alternative country really exists anymore. It was just a little spark, and it didn’t really change anything.”

So how did this “next big thing” wind up as just roadkill on the music-biz annual report?

Like so many fizzled experiments in pop music, it was a mix of unrealistic expectations and bad marketing. It was also a case of déjà vu.

In the early ’80s – 10 years before anyone thought to add “alt” to “country” – the movement was known as “cowpunk.” As Lone Justice, Jason & the Scorchers and Rank & File began attracting critics and radio play, predictions of platinum records swirled

“When it started, it was just punk rock,” says Mr. Escovedo, ex-member of Rank & File. “We were listening to Johnny Cash and Marty Robbins and Chuck Berry, just trying to educate the audience and ourselves about all these great things you never heard on the radio.”

The article goes on to site the influence of Uncle Tupelo and the “No Depression” sound.

“Any music that has the word ‘country’ in it, people under 21 immediately think ‘dumb-ass redneck,” says Old 97’s guitarist Ken Bethea. “It’s like a wall: The rock crowd that buys popular music hates country. If Neil Young and Tom Petty came out today, they’d be called ‘alt-country,’ and they’d be doomed.”

More on those alt-country pioneers Uncle Tupelo.

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About Thrasher

  • i can’t agree with that. Alt Country artists continue to produce staggering work. Jim White, for instance. Wether or not they get mass success is immaterial. The music is still amazing. And anyway, Ryan Adams has gone on to sell shitloads. Alt. Country didn’t do him any harm.

  • The Theory

    I don’t altcountry is dead, per se. It’s always been a weird genre. Hard to define. Quite broad in scope. A lot of the altcountry these days (probably thanks to Wilco) is more in the indie rock market than the country market.

  • I would agree with the other comments that alt-country isn’t dead — at least certainly not artistically. From a sales perspective it isn’t doing too well by big corporate label standards.

    The article cites Old 97’s best-selling album, 1999’s Fight Songs, selling only 94,000 copies in the United States – a failure by major-label standards.

    And their new CD, Drag It Up, has sold only about 11,000 copies in the UnitedStates since July 27.

    “Not bad for an underground band but a fraction of what the Strokes or the White Stripes sell. ”

    That’s what is a shame about music today. So much is judged by sales. There are so many great bands that never sell. And there are so many terrible bands that sell boatloads.

    Go figure?!

  • Shark

    alt-country is dead?

    Two words:



    ~end of debate.

    And for what it’s worth, it used to be called “rock and roll”, and it’s about the only place you’ll find that old ‘genre’ still alive and kickin’.

    BTW: By definition, “alt-country” isn’t concerned with total sales and radio play; that’s what makes it alt, fer chrissakes!

    But I do hope guys like Pat Green, Ray Wylie Hubbard, Cooder Graw, Old 97s, Chris Wall, Robbie Fulks, South Austin Jug Band, Kevin Welch, Chris Whitley, Billy Joe Shaver, and about a million other successful artists continue to stay off America’s commercial/pop radar so I can still see and hear ’em in small honky-tonks across Texas.

    Feh. The Dallas Morning News as the epitome of alternative culture analysis?


    double feh!

  • Paul

    I would have to agree in one respect that Alt- Country is dead. Commercially. The Old 97’s, Ryan Adams, Neko Case, and Bobby Bare Jr. have put out albums in the last few years that in my mind rival some of the best the Stones ever did. But out of all the artist that I have mentioned, Ryan Adams is the only one with a album that has had a single to become a blimp on charts. (New York) I do agree that these guys are putting out tremendous music. The only problem- no one is listening. Which brings to point the age old question. If a tree falls in the forest and makes a great album with steel guitars, backwards pianos, and Dylan like lyrics, but no one hears it, did it really make a sound?

  • on Paul’s comment above:
    If the question is “If a tree falls in the forest and makes a great album with steel guitars, backwards pianos, and Dylan like lyrics, but no one hears it, did it really make a sound?”

    My answer is “yes” it made a very loud sound and we blogcritics need to scream loud & clear that this is the case, get your head out of your iPod, and check it out.

  • Scott Butki

    Is Alt Country dead?
    Is John Henry a wimp?
    I don’t think so. Some of the most innovative music – Wilco, Old 07s – is still coming out.
    You can’t judge a movement by sales.

  • Redmond Leininger

    No, Alt. Country is alive and well !
    I’ve been listening to a new CD released by a group called ” The Gousters” from Los Angeles. They have captured the essence of what alternative country is all about.
    Not only is this a beautifully produced CD but it flows from genre to genre, mixing sweet ballads of love lost, angst and all the human emotions of loving and being loved.
    These poignant and heartfelt melodies and lyrics absolutely deserves a wider audience. I can’t say I’ve heard anything as beautiful in quite some time. They have a number of sites you can download the music for free such as Podsafe but they are easily googled for more information.

    Give Them A Listen,
    R. Leininger

  • C. Rickey

    The fact that this hasn’t been touched in nearly 2 years is a good indication that it probably is dead. Shame really.