Country music has a problem. More accurately, country music has a new problem. Jason Isbell’s excellent Something More Than Free hit number one on Billboard’s country chart and number one on the rock chart . . . in addition to spending some time in the top ten on the Billboard 200.
It probably wasn’t supposed to work out this way. More about that later.
That Don’t Impress Me Much
Country has been defined by the “contemporary country” or “country pop” sound, look, and feel since the arrival of Garth Brooks, Shania Twain, and Billy Ray Cyrus between 1990 and 1993.
It started off innocently enough – each of those artists are talented, each in his or her own way. There is no debating this fact. But, the powers that be got greedy when they saw just how much money could be made with country music after years of slow country sales and the “new traditionalist” country of the 1980’s.
Bad Rock With a Fiddle
Tom Petty once called it “bad rock with a fiddle.” And, that’s exactly what country music – as it is now generally accepted – started to become in the early 90’s.
With time, the color that our friends in low places had was lost. The jokes grew stale. Conversation became a bland re-hash every time: God, country, family, pickup trucks. S.O.S. different day. Same beer. Same bar. Slightly different chorus.
In this case of (extreme) arrested development, we grew apart. You know, like, when you grow up and they don’t.
Eventually, that’s also how we ended up with Keith Urban on American Idol.
Alt-Country and Americana
Several things the powers that be couldn’t explain began in the mid-90’s. For one, there was Johnny Cash’s “revival” with the help of Rick Rubin and the American recordings. It was often explained away as simple nostalgia. But, the demographic that embraced those records and went to the concerts weren’t old country fans looking to relive the past. It was a new – and very different looking – group of fans. In fact, many of those fans were likely still mourning the death of Kurt Cobain who passed away loudly on April 5, 1994. The first of Cash’s American recordings was released only weeks later that very same month.
It was about this same time, the term “alternative country” – now often also referred to as “Americana” – was born. One of the glaring issues with this label is that many alternative country artists also happen to be new traditionalists: Lyle Lovett, Dwight Yoakam, and Steve Earle, for example.
And, there are the artists that actually pre-date new traditionalism: Loretta Lynn and Emmylou Harris. Don’t forget Willie Nelson – also now usually lumped into alternative country.
Interestingly enough, there is also Shooter Jennings (yes, that Jennings), Hank III (yes, that Hank), and Bobby Bare Jr. (yes, that Bobby Bare).
Still, early alternative country artists such as Uncle Tupelo and Wilco are largely credited with defining alternative country. Drive-By Truckers with their Muscle Shoals ties – and with whom Jason Isbell played – have helped further the sub-genre. Somehow though, bands like Wilco can also “graduate” from alt-country to alt-rock. Or, in the case of Drive-By Truckers, southern rock.
It all gets very confusing.
More importantly, what happens when the alternative goes number one?