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Radio: Alt Country

Radio: Alt Country

by Linda Ryan  |  May 28, 2014

Radio: Alt Country

Music trends are cyclical, and country music is no exception. History shows us that when country became too syrupy in the ‘60s, the outlaw country movement sprung up in the ‘70s; when urban cowboy took over in the ‘80s, Alt Country sprouted in the ‘90s. Napster’s genre description for alt country says the sound is “basically Hank Williams interpreted by bands who grew up on The Replacements,” and while that might sound a little blithe, it isn’t far off the mark. Who better to relate to country’s outlaws than punk rockers?

Outlaws. Punk rockers. Both operate outside the mainstream, and certainly, both find common ground in the D.I.Y. ethic of doing so. And while Nashville hit-makers were turning country into pop — diluting its sound with horns, string sections and chorus singers — young musicians in the ‘80s were filtering old-school country through the raw intensity of punk rock: offering a sound that was, at its heart, more country than the fluff Nashville was producing. Shunned by commercial country radio programmers, the sound flourished on college radio, where formats were eschewed and experimental genres welcomed. By the time Uncle Tupelo's landmark debut album, No Depression, came out in 1990, college radio had already embraced bands such as Rank N File, Jason and the Scorchers, the Mekons, and the Gram Parsons-influenced Long Ryders, who paved the way.

These days, bearded hipsters have taken over East Nashville, creating some of the most left-of-center sounds in Music City. Texas bands continue to make a living on the rockin’ Red Dirt scene. California groups continue to channel the cosmic American sounds of Laurel Canyon rockers. And English bands are brandishing a fiery version of folk. On Napster’s alt country radio station, you are just as likely to hear Ryan Adams, Steve Earle and Dale Watson as you are to hear Sturgill Simpson or folkie Robert Ellis. It’s a heady mix of sounds, but always rooted in country (with a twist)!