Perfect Alt-Country Playlist
There’s something special about the ever-expanding genre known as alternative country. It’s not country enough to be embraced by the mainstream; it’s not rock or punk enough to be heralded in the underground. It exists somewhere in-between, featuring music that’s accessible by fans of many an ilk, but never fully focused in any one spotlight.
And to be honest, we’re kind of OK with that. Part of the allure of alt-country is the fact that it’s not widely accepted. That being said, the genre is rising in support — just look at the work of the Americana Music Association. So, in an effort to continue trumpeting the music we’ve been holding near and dear to our hearts for years, we give you the Perfect Alt-Country Playlist:
Opening with a seemingly nonchalant guitar riff and smooth rhythm, ‘Graveyard Shift’ quickly explodes into a quintessential alternative country track with Jay Farrar’s gravelly vocals built on a punk rock foundation. With the help of Jeff Tweedy, ‘Graveyard Shift’ is just the beginning of Uncle Tupelo’s incredible — but much too short — career.
The opening track to their 1995 magnum opus, ‘Tomorrow the Green Grass,’ the Jayhawks’ ‘Blue’ will forever be one of the most infectious songs in the alt-country world. The sweet blend of Gary Louris and Mark Olson’s vocals creates a groove that, up until 1995, fans may not have known existed.
From Uncle Tupelo to Son Volt, Farrar’s vocals have remarkably never changed; he’s always been able to maintain his signature deep, husky voice. Beyond that, though, his ability to pierce through the noise with poignant thoughts and a delicate touch has only evolved over the years, and is perfectly captured on ‘Windfall.’
Clocking in at two minutes and 45 seconds, ‘Casino Queen’ — from Wilco‘s debut album, ‘A.M.’ — is one of the band’s most rocking tunes, and a beautiful nod to East St. Louis’ casino of the same name. This song clearly shows Tweedy’s Uncle Tupelo roots before he grew and expanded his musical prowess with albums like ‘Yankee Hotel Foxtrot’ and ‘A Ghost Is Born.’
Kicking off with a flat-out dirty guitar riff, Rhett Miller and company’s ‘Victoria’ quickly turned into a fan-favorite at concerts, and nearly 20 years since its release they’re still playing it at their shows. With lyrics like, “She lost her lover to an accident at sea / She pushed him overboard and ended up with me,” there may be no better introduction to the Old 97’s than ‘Victoria.’
In 1997, the iconic Steve Earle released his seventh studio album in the form of ‘El Corazon.’ On it are tracks and tracks of gritty, underground country rock and roll; ‘Telephone Road’ stands out amongst the tunes. A beautiful walk down the guitar and an instantly catchy chorus, ‘Telephone Road’ just might be one of the all-time greatest alt-country songs ever written.
Today, he’s known as a prolific singer-songwriter, but in 2001 (and before), Ryan Adams was simply known as the frontman of Whiskeytown, the now legendary alt-country outfit. As the frontman, he foreshadowed what would come with his solo career: beautifully complex lyrics that tell a story on top of a captivating musical arrangement. That description is ‘Jacksonville Skyline.’
The son of country western author Larry McMurtry, James is one of the most underrated artists today in any musical genre. With a knack for telling stories through his music — and a voice that harkens memories of the late, great Lou Reed — McMurtry’s impact should be significantly more well-known. To help raise him up, we add ‘Valley Road’ to our Perfect Alt-Country Playlist as it showcases his powerful storytelling ability (“Waking up to the cold hard facts / Seems like everybody’s livin’ in the third act / That’s how it happens, it’s kinda weird / The whole scene just disappeared“) along with his unique guitar structures.
‘Just Be Simple’
Opening with a slow pedal steel guitar, ‘Just Be Simple’ is featured on Songs: Ohia‘s final studio album before frontman Jason Molina passed away in 2013 from organ failure. It’s a heartfelt, poetic track that charges listeners with a not-so-easy task: “Try and try and try / Try and try and try / To be simple again.”
If someone came up to us and asked, “What does alternative country sound like today,” we would hand them a copy of Robert Ellis’ ‘The Lights From the Chemical Plant.’ From beginning to end, Ellis’ third studio album is alt-country and Americana at its finest, and there’s no finer song on the LP than ‘Good Intentions.’