Aquarium Drunkard recently commented – Grieving Angel (or, What Happened to alt.Country) – on the demise of No Depression magazine as a sign on the wall that alt.country, and all its various strains is headed for a well deserved dirt nap.
Everybody wants to be Nietzsche and be the one to get the “God Is Dead” headline. So Jeff Tweedy decided to chase the hipsters and ape Radiohead and Al Green instead of pursuing his inner Jimmie Rogers. Good riddance. His work in Uncle Tupelo will always be respected but making Tweedy the canary in the alt.country coal mine a like holding up John Lydon as the torchbearer for punk. Public Image Ltd.? Punk is dead! Artist champion then abandon, or simply just cross for a spell, genres every day with questionable intentions and to mixed success. Their movement across genres doesn’t leave the genre left dead.
Yes, No Depression magazine was the go to messenger for the genre and its many branches, but their demise seems to be more a reflection on external forces – the economy, paper prices – and internal business opportunities not pursued – changing editorial direction, overlooking the power of advertising on the web – rather than a symbol of a genre’s demise. If Rolling Stone magazine pulled the plug tomorrow would people assume rock is dead? Hardly. We’d think that somebody at Rolling Stone really screwed up.
Some see the embodiment of the genres extinction in its commodification and acceptance by the mainstream. Abercrombie and the Gap start selling pearl snap western shirts. Urban Outfitters starts to sell John Deere caps for $30. the same ones you could once get for free with two bags of feed at the local supply store. Bullshit. When leather jackets with safety pins turned up in the windows of Macy’s New York store and Hot Topic sprang up in malls across the Nation many beat the drum of punks demise. Punk didn’t give a shit what they said and gave us Green Day, the Offspring and Rancid.
And as far as the acceptance of the mainstream, this is still music with folk and country in its DNA. It is made to be appealing and to be related to by all people living a workaday life. With troubles and families and simple joys. It is made to be accessible so mainstream acceptance is a sign of success. This isn’t alt.rock where where the rules appear to be when there is mainstream acceptance it’s a sign for the hipster herd to move on.
This is America, The sincerest form of flattery in our hyper-capitalist culture is to be co-opted by trend-spotters and sold to middle America by the yard. So what? For every Flying Burrito Brothers there will be an Eagles. There are plenty of thrift shops and seedy bars for those that know the real, better thing from the Plexiglas replica. A genre that is so rarefied and precious as to wilt at the first sign of filthy lucre was never a legitimate genre anyway. It was just a gleam in some PR agents eye that once obtained was cashed in and abandoned. Grunge anyone?
It used to be that sub-genres were prohibited by physical space to thrive. Tower and Peaches only had so many shelves to hold album, cassettes and CDs and a minimum wage staff that know nothing about music didn’t help to perpetuate the hidden gems. But that hurdle didn’t stop indy boutiques from filling the void by bringing expertise and products that could not be found at the big box music stores. Now the rules and economics have all changed and physical space for product is not an issue. Online retail can adapt and support genres and sub-genres as they establish themselves to be financially viable. Amazon offers an alt.country and Americana section featuring the likes of Tift Merrit, Neko Case and the Drive By Truckers and iTunes offers an essentials alt.country play list featuring Ryan Adams and Johnny Cash. For those that prefer the boutiques expertise and selection can head over to Miles Of Music.
The whole argument might just be moot. Country music as a singular entity is really just a newfangled marketing artifice. What we have come to think of as country music is a mongrel beast of Celtic tunes, sea shanties, blues and gospel music. Hell, what we know as country and rock music today cross pollinated in the 50’s at a little studio at 706 Union Avenue in Memphis, Tennessee and changed the music world forever.
People that argue that alt.country and its cousins Americana and roots music is some way diluting “true” country music ignore the genres history as already existing and enduring sub-genres Honky Tonk, Bakersfield Sound, Bluegrass Traditional Country, Yodeling, Country Boogie, Country Rock, Close Harmony, Square Dance, Jug Band, High Lonesome Sound and Western Swing. Like the English only crowd, they ignore the history of cultural evolution in an attempt to erect a legislative dam to keep the genre pure. I say put on the Rolling Stones “Sticky Fingers” and watch their heads explode.
Livestock breeders often practice inbreeding to “fix” desirable characteristics within a population. However, they must then cull unfit offspring, especially when trying to establish the new and desirable trait in their stock. Alt.country, roots, Americana are the unfit offspring of the Nashville and corporate play list cultural breeders. These castoffs, misfits and outlaws make their own way in places across the globe. They make American music healthy and thrive by allowing a level of flexibility and brave experimentation that evolves the art and lays the groundwork to be culturally relevant to a new generation of fans.
Every day I’m contacted by new artists like the Dexateens, Twilight Hotel and the Whipsaws or their representatives that are taking alt.country, Americana, roots and Country music in exciting and sometimes unusual directions. Are they representative of country music? No, not in the officially sanctioned Nashville and mainstream radio sense, but there they are, listening to Johnny Cash and Kris Kristofferson and playing in their bedrooms and down at the the local bar. The are putting up a MySpace and Facebook page to allow people all over the world to discover them, refer the bands to their friends, and the artists can accumulate a list of fans so that they can serve them directly going forward. These artists have much to say and prove. Alt.country in and of itself is a merely a label that is only useful if representing a thing. Judging by my email, mailbox and experiences with local performances and conversations with artists and fans there is certainly a thing thriving out there that will not be denied, not matter what Nashville or cultural critics (me included) thinks.
I have to concur with the Twin-Cities country music critic Jack Sparks when he said “It’s important that I end this thought by saying everyone leading up to this, and everyone after, who writes an article about how “alt country” is dead, is a fucking moron.” Amen partner, amen.
Uncle Tupelo – Chickamauga