10 Essential Alt-Country Albums

540x340

Alt-country isn’t over. It’s barely even alt anymore. In addition to reissues of albums by foundational acts Uncle Tupelo and the Jayhawks, this year has seen strong new albums by the Old 97’s and Kelly Willis. Jeff Tweedy and Ryan Adams recently announced new releases slated for the fall. Here are 10 albums from the 1990s that defined the movement.

The Jayhawks, Hollywood Town Hall (1992)
The Jayhawks had been plugging away in Minneapolis for six years before they signed with Rick Rubin’s American Recordings label and released their third — and arguably best — album. Full of songs about drifters, wayfarers, roustabouts and jilted lovers, Hollywood Town Hall was country-rock at its stateliest, from the plaintive harmonies on “Two Angels” to the eloquent guitar outro on “Take Me With You When You Go.”

Uncle Tupelo, March 16-20, 1992 (1992)
This Belleville, Illinois, trio started it all with 1990’s No Depression, which mixed industrial guitars with folk songwriting. But it was their third album, named after the period of time during which they recorded it in Athens, Georgia, that truly showed Uncle Tupelo’s range and demonstrated that alt-country didn’t have to rely on electric guitars to get its message across. It’s not hard to hear the roots of string bands like Old Crow Medicine Show and Trampled by Turtles in “Coal Miner” and “Satan, Your Kingdom Must Come Down.”

Bottle Rockets, The Brooklyn Side (1995)
The Bottle Rockets’ second album plays like a short-story collection written by an irascible Southern writer (maybe George Saunders or Daniel Wallace). Dexterously mixing the humorous and the humane, The Brooklyn Side is chock full of memorable characters like the overenthusiastic cop on “Radar Gun” and the single mother on “Welfare Music.” While many alt-country bands looked to the past for inspiration, the Bottle Rockets found their truest subjects simply by looking around.

Freakwater, Old Paint (1995)
Death looms over every song on this Louisville outfit’s fourth album. On “Smoking Daddy,” a man commits the slowest, most painful suicide imaginable. On “Gone to Stay,” a grieving mother hears her dead infant crying in her grave. Even the chatty narrator of “The Waitress Song” understands she’s wasting her life pouring coffee. Old Paint might be too much of a downer, then, if it weren’t for the graceful harmonies of Janet Beveridge Bean and Catherine Irwin, two of the most underrated vocalists of the alt-country movement. They add enough life to the songs to counter all the tragedies they sing about.

Gillian Welch, Revival (1996)
Gillian Welch didn’t come out of nowhere. Before she even released her debut album, none other than Emmylou Harris had covered her song “Orphan Girl” on 1995’s Wrecking Ball. But Welch didn’t really spring from any particular music scene, which meant her odd twang and eye for historical details were unique in the mid-1990s. She may have recorded her 1996 debut, Revival, in Los Angeles with producer T Bone Burnett, but songs like “Annabelle” and “Tear This Stillhouse Down” sounded like they emanated from some deep, dark Appalachian holler circa 1927.

Old 97’s, Too Far to Care (1997)
Right out of the gate, the Dallas quartet’s major-label debut sounds like a monster. “Timebomb” opens with a heraldic guitar lick and a drumbeat that sounds like a runaway train carrying nothing but TNT. Amazingly, the band maintain that go-for-broke gusto throughout the entire album as Rhett Miller sings about dating strippers, signing record deals and holding onto good luck charms that don’t work. It ends with “Four Leaf Clover,” a ferocious duet with X singer Exene Cervenka that sounds like the wreck of the Old 97’s.

Whiskeytown, Strangers Almanac (1997)
There was a lot riding on Whiskeytown’s second album. Their debut, Faithless Street, had established the band as a potential crossover act and frontman Ryan Adams as a gifted, albeit precocious songwriter, but were they the real deal or alt-country Johnny-come-latelies? Strangers Almanac argued persuasively for the former, doling out catchy pop choruses, sharp guitar riffs and tales of wasted lives and broken hearts. Sadly, the band would endure numerous lineup changes and record only one more album before they broke up.

Billy Bragg & Wilco, Mermaid Avenue Vol. 1 (1998)
One of the most influential songwriters of the 20th century, Woody Guthrie left behind a trove of unrecorded lyrics — some fully formed, others mere fragments. In the late 1990s, his daughter Norah Guthrie approached Irish singer-songwriter Billy Bragg and Uncle Tupelo offshoot Wilco about putting some of these lost tunes to music, and the results were revelatory. Named for the street in Brooklyn where Guthrie penned these songs, Mermaid Avenue is alternately playful and serious, lusty and outraged — but always hopeful and humane. It’s hard to imagine Woody doing them better.

Lucinda Williams, Car Wheels on a Gravel Road (1998)
It took Lucinda Williams six long years to make Car Wheels on a Gravel Road. During that time, the notorious perfectionist fought with Gurf Morlix and Steve Earle, abandoned several sessions and scrapped numerous recordings, leaving fans to wonder if she’d ever release another album at all. It was worth the wait. A country-rock landmark, the album is a marvel of plainspoken lyricism that finds poetry in everyday experience — names carved into a bar table, the “smell of coffee eggs and bacon” and the town of Lake Charles, Louisiana. But it’s that indelible warble of a voice — instantly recognizable and always welcome — that imbues those details with so much poignant life.

Kelly Willis, What I Deserve (1999)
This Texas native gave the Nashville system a shot, releasing three albums on MCA Record in the early ‘90s. None of them garnered much attention. It took nearly the rest of the decade, but she finally declared her independence with What I Deserve, which made her a hit with the alt-country crowd by showing off both her singing and songwriting chops. It doesn’t get much better than “Wrapped,” which was covered by George Strait on his 2006 album It Just Comes Natural. No other album on this list is more deserving of a deluxe reissue.

RELATED POSTS