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Oh brother, where alt thou?

A popular cult genre searches for its lost highway
By FRANKLIN SOULTS  |  August 2, 2006

ON THE RISE: The Drive-By Truckers’ string of Southern-rock-steeped releases has amassed fans as steadily as accolades.
In the summer of 1995, Grant Alden was documenting “the tail end of the grunge years” as managing editor of a Seattle music weekly, the Rocket. Then in the mail came a compilation by Chicago’s brand new Bloodshot Records that included “She Took a Lot of Pills (And Died),” a cynical hillbilly romp by oddball bluegrass vet Robbie Fulks. As Alden explains by phone from his current home in eastern Kentucky, “I played it all day, every day, at high volume, for a week at a time.”

By that fall, Alden and business partner Peter Blackstock had published the first 2000 copies of No Depression magazine. Its title referred to the 1990 debut by Uncle Tupelo, a band who symbolized the hopes of a scene that No Depression named in its tag line: “The alternative-country (whatever that is) magazine.”

Eleven years later, “alt-country” is an industry commonplace, Bloodshot has released some 135 discs, and No Depression has grown from a 32-page quarterly into a 128-page bi-monthly with a circulation of 34,000. As for Robbie Fulks, last year he released his best album yet, Georgia Hard (Yep Roc), finally balancing his joky/sneering side with his talent for writing first-rate country songs.

Even so, all’s not well down on the alt-country farm. A few weeks ago, I went to see an upbeat Fulks perform before an audience that was significantly downsized from years past and made the 43-year-old look young by comparison. More troublesome, the singer’s quips about both mainstream Nashville and pop suggested the double bind that has caused some major alt-country acts to leave the fold, like Wilco, Uncle Tupelo’s far more popular descendant, or just fold up, like the Jayhawks, whose sales never matched their reputation. On July 16, the Sunday New York Times ran the feature “Recalling the Twang That Was Alt-Country.” As the article noted, No Depression has dropped its “alt-country” tag for something much vaguer: “Surveying the past, present and future of American music.”

“Let me explain about ‘alt-country,’ ” says Alden. “We chose the phrase because it was funny. Nobody ever got that part of it. . . . And then of course it became a marketing tool. And then it became a tool of derision.” He blames that derision on the late-’90s major-label consolidation that cost alt-country acts their star shot, the impatience of rock musicians who never had the chops to master country, and the artists’ natural resistance to being typecast, “and so you end up with Wilco sounding like Radiohead.”

“Well, that’s artists for ya,” says former Jayhawks drummer Tim O’Reagan over the phone from his St. Paul home. “That’s my only answer to that. Any pigeonholing or pressure from an audience causes a reaction in the opposite direction.”

O’Reagan’s solo debut reveals the pros and cons of that artistic law of thermodynamics. Tim O’Reagan can remind you how soporific the Jayhawks were when they left alt-country for the broad plains of mid-tempo melancholy guitar pop. But it also tightens the formula with heartbreakers that sting like tear-in-your-beer honky-tonk and sway like the Beatles’ Rubber Soul mixed with Dylan’s Nashville Skyline.

“I think I home in on that era,” the 47-year-old explains, “because that’s the era I grew up listening to music, and that’s the era where songwriting was the best, and the production was the most interesting and creative — and things weren’t formulaic. They were new and vibrant, unlike they are now, to me.”

AUTHENTICITY: Former alt-country supergroup Golden Smog have shed their self-appointed “roots” for their real ones.
It’s a common sentiment in one prominent shard of the aging and fragmented alt-country vanguard. On their first album in eight years, Another Fine Day, the members of formerly alt-country supergroup Golden Smog have also shed their self-appointed “roots” for their real ones. On the surface, this mishmash of ’60s genre exercises and loose mood experiments by Gary Louris and Mark Perlman (the Jayhawks), Dan Murphy (Soul Asylum), Kraig Johnson (Run Westy Run), and occasionally Jeff Tweedy (Wilco) is accomplished and enticing. But listen close and few cuts get as far as, say, the meaningless but beguiling ’60s stew dished out by the New Pornographers (the escape vehicle from the alt-country label for diva Neko Case).

Tim O’Reagan and Golden Smog are both on the major-affiliated Lost Highway Records. Although label president Luke Lewis has made it the home for alt-country’s biggest icons, from Lucinda Williams to Ryan Adams, he prefers the broader “singer-songwriter” trademark. “We always hoped that we had a brand,” he says over the phone from his Nashville office, “that people could at least know that — oh shit, this is tricky — that the artists can read. Anyway, look, I don’t think that somebody can count on picking up a Lost Highway record and sonically hearing alt-country all the time. But hopefully, you know, it’s got other kinds of cred.”

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