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Alternative country, indy scene grows

By Jeffrey B. Remz, May 1996

Son Volt, Wilco, the Old 97's and BR5-49 are not exactly the mainstream type of country music infiltrating today's radio waves.

Except for the very adventuresome country station or college radio, in fact, these bands receive little airplay. In the case of Son Volt and Wilco, rock stations played their albums.

The sound these bands play has been labelled alt (as in alternative) or insurgent country, grange rock and No Depression after an album by the seminal alt-country band Uncle Tupelo.

For the most part, the styles of the bands include both a twangy, rootsy type of sound to one with more of a rock edge. The sound also is a throwback to a bygone era with bands such as BR5-49 playing music from the 1940's along with originals.

At times, the sound is really traditional with lots of pedal steel and winsome vocals. The only alternative part of it may be alternative to is what is played on commercial radio nowadays.

Influences may include everyone from Hank Williams to Gram Parsons.

In any case, don't expect to find any hats atop these heads or dance routines worked out to go with the song.

And while the sound is talked up in such areas as a discussion group on American On Line called No Depression, a quarterly Seattle-based magazine of the same name and other on-line groups, is there much more than talk spurring on this brand of country?

Whether a small blip on the musical airwaves or part of a growing trend is open to conjecture. Some at record labels and radio stations see this type of music as the future, while even musicians considered at the fore are not so sure that they are or want to be part of the alt country scene.

Jeff McKee, disc jockey at Boston's WKLB radio station, said, "It's exciting. Maybe it's been identified as a new sound. All you got to do is go back to Gram Parsons. It's been around, but it's being addressed with renew vigor. I don't think that music is going to go away at all. Whether mainstream country embraces it, I can't tell you."

"I don't know if all of country radio gets it, and that may be the ultimate to very significant detriment of mainstream country radio," he said.

The general picture of mainstream radio is many play Hot New Country with an emphasis on danceable songs with a big drum sound. And forget about hearing established artists, like George Jones or Willie Nelson.

The thinking seems to be that they are no longer hip in trying to attract a younger audience.

The trend could be changing, however, at least about HNC vs. traditional music. Many record publicists describe their most recent signings as traditional musicians.

Arista signed BR5-49, which plays a spare, but quite lively form of country amidst at times risque lyrics. The band just rush released a live-EP in an effort to get the word out about the band. A full-length CD is due later this year.

Most of the emphasis on the alt country scene comes from small independent labels, such as Bloodshot of Chicago, Watermelon of Austin and Hightone of Oakland. "It's politics," McKee said. "If it comes from Nashville on a major label, it's country. But if it comes from anywhere else, it's not country. And that's wrong. That's just not true."

"I think Nashville is a talented and very credible music town, but there's more out there than just that," McKee said.

Eric Babcock, an owner of Bloodshot, said he thought different forces brought the alt country sounds to the front." On the easiest level, it's a reaction to the bastadardization of country music by Nashville"

"It has a great deal in common with that classic country, real simple chords and real direct lyrics, a sense of desperation, just a real sense of urgency," he said.

"There's been a lot of talk - is this is the next big thing?" he said. "It could be. I've seen a couple of bands would hold up under that sort of strain, but my gut feeling is that if it ever breaks out anything like the level of a Green Day...it will be a band that has gone further away from us towards mass acceptance."

"The first thing that gets traded in is the faithfulness to the form," he said.

Not everyone wants to be grouped within the alt-country scene. Jeff Tweedy, formerly with Uncle Tupelo and now fronting Wilco, said he simply did not consider himself to be country. "I don't really care for it too much," Tweedy said.

"I never intended to be played on country radio," he said. "I don't really think it's country music."

"I'm a songwriter, a rock songwriter, a pop songwriter," he said. "I've been interested in country music for a long time."

But first and foremost, he said he was a rocker with an interest in punk as well.

And Kieran Kane, an owner of musician-driven and critically acclaimed Dead Reckoning Records in Nashville, did not want to be sidetracked by labels. "I don't think it's a reaction to anything really," Kane said of interest in his label. "It's just music. Hopefully, it's music that people will like. I don't think it has anything else to do with anything else that's going on. Maybe for some people it does."