Now Hear This! Alt-Country

Now Hear This!
Music You May Have Missed
By Jonathan “Killstring” Herzberger
Originally published in The Cauldron (2009)

Review time.

Sorry, I just wanted to start with that. Since we’ve started midterms, that simple phrase could well prove enough to scare a significant amount of readers off. Trust me – we understand. But here at the Now Hear This Institute for a Significantly More Awesome Life, we have promised to shore up your education.

And as recent times have shown, said education is significantly lacking in areas your brave staff had taken for granted. Never fear! Your pals at NHTISMAL are pretentious nerds so you don’t have to be!

Consider this Indie Rock: 101. Maybe 102 – the numbering system isn’t exact. Anyway. Step into the rock-fueled wayback machine, and travel back through time with me – first, we’re going to an indistinct point in the late sixties/early seventies. The lines between Rock, Folk and Country are blurry, and acts like Creedence Clearwater Revival, Janis Joplin, Cat Stevens etc. are making music that’s so good, nobody’s really worried about genre just yet.

This time, quite obviously, dies a lonesome death.

Now we go to the late eighties/early ninties, and meet one of our subjects, who at this time are called Uncle Tupelo. The band’s first record, No Depression was influential enough to become a synonym for Alt-Country, as well as the name taken by the genre’s flagship magazine, which published from 1995 through 2008.

This band made four pretty good albums, had problems involving a clash between singer/guitarists Jay Farrarr and Jeff Tweedy, and broke up in short order. Tweedy and the remnants of Tupelo founded a little band named Wilco, but we’ll get to them later.

Our next stop is the mid-to-late ninties, and a band called Whiskeytown. They were fronted by an enigmatic ex-punk rocker named Ryan Adams, and they – are you ready for this? They made four pretty good albums (one of which, Those Weren’t The Days, was never released) had problems involving a clash between singer/guitarist Adams and… well, pretty much everybody, and broke up in short order. Adams founded a little band called – well, to be truthful, usually called Ryan Adams.

It’s ok. He’s crazy, and we’ll get to that.

Now, Wilco goes on to release a flurry of records, most of which are rather good. The most notable of these is 2002’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, which served as an unfortunate example of how well and truly messy the music business was, and remains. Foxtrot is a seminal album, a benchmark if you will. The weird experimentation, unhurried production, and undeniably brilliant songwriting make it one of those rare ‘classic’ albums that actually kind of earns the status.

They’ve done plenty of other notable work – 2005’s A Ghost is Born took home the Grammy for Best Alternative Music Album, 1999’s Summerteeth was a criminally unappreciated gem, 2007’s Sky Blue Sky sounds an awful lot like Tweedy & Co. tried to make a John Lennon solo album, and I mean that in the nicest way – and you get the idea.

They dropped a recored cleverly titled Wilco: The Album, which leads off with “Wilco: The Song,” which is honestly just fun to type. Bottom line? Take a listen – because if you like what you hear, this particular well goes really deep.

Meanwhile, Ryan Adams wasn’t just sitting around being crazy and dating starlets. I mean, he was very, very busy doing that, but he also put out records at an alarming rate. He also happened to be the right guy in the right place at a terrible, terrible time. His 2001 release, Gold, featured a feel-good love letter to New York City, titled “New York, New York.”

Then, of course, 9/11 happened.

And a lot of big-name musicians came in to write about what had happened, and of course, this being America, a lot of capitalists tried to capitalize on the city’s newly invigorated patriotism – but the simple, honest, scruffy ode by an NYC native son seemed to encapsulate the feelings in the city post 9/11 – when we all just desperately wanted to believe that yeah, everything is going to be all right in the end.

Whatever the reason, “New York, New York” got very popular, very quickly. Gold really holds up as a record, too – sort of Counting Crows if they were more country, and didn’t have much in the way of a budget.

Adams just kept going – in 2002, after his label didn’t feel comfortable releasing his lovingly crafted album Love Is Hell, citing that it was too depressing.

To be fair, it’s hardly a cheery pop disc.

Ever the innovator, Adams returned to his label (Lost Highway, if anybody cares) with an album ready to go. That album turned out to be the uncharacteristically polished (and even a little U2-like) Rock N’ Roll – which is every bit as vital, urgent, and raucous as the name and situation would imply. Despite being a big stylistic leap, the record took off, and some critics, by which I mean this one, right here, talking to you now, think that Rock N’ Roll is possibly the best thing Adams has ever released.

Love is Hell eventually came out in 2004, after having been two split EP’s. Also an incredible listen, as is the entirety of his later work with his band The Cardinals, Cold Roses in particular.

Adams is another artist who, if it turns out you like his work, you will never find yourself bemoaning a lack of it. Hell, this is the guy who in 2006, recorded roughly 18 albums worth of original hip-hop, which is floating around the Internet somewhere. The man recently left The Cardinals to get married to Mandy Moore, but a quick look around the Internet will find projects ranging from children’s books, art exhibits, Black Metal (Under the name Werewolph) and more youtube videos than you will ever, ever find the time to watch.

He’s either this generation’s Andy Warhol, or he’s actually mentally ill, or perhaps he’s a total jerk. Maybe a mix of the three. But whatever the reason, Adams – along with Wilco, and fellow indie/emo/country darling Connor Oberst – have successfully blurred the lines between rock and country again that fans of one, the other, or even neither genre can find something to like in their music.

Okay, class is over. You’ve got a lot of music that you didn’t know you loved to get to. Godspeed, brave Audionauts, and we’ll catch you next time.


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