I’ve been a fan of alternative country for decades. Probably because I love the mixing of styles. Alternative country blends rock with traditional country, leaving the listener confused and wondering, “Was that rock or country?” Here are my picks for the best alternative country artists.
Number Ten: Drive-By Truckers. While they aren’t fooling anyone, Drive-By Truckers have a triple guitar assault that will blow you into the third row. The twangy sound that the band generates is akin to the likes of Dwight Yoakam, Buck Owens and Hank Williams Sr. Their debut, Southern Rock Opera, was independently released, but with a four-star rating in Rolling Stone, the band couldn’t keep up with the demand and signed to Mercury Records. Once they got a better deal with New West Records, they began work on their sophomore disc, Decoration Day. The album would prove to show versatility as the conceptual endeavor was stripped down and exposed.
By the time they got to their seventh album, A Blessing and a Curse, they abandoned their southern fried roots and opted for a 1970’s rock sound. While Drive-By went through members like socks, they never let anyone down with their records or live performances. Their latest, 2014’s English Oceans, finds the band getting back to basics with a dose of hard core country mixed with in your face rock ‘n roll.
Number Nine: The Handsome Family. The Handsome Family are a husband and wife duo consisting of Brett and Rennie Sparks. They toured extensively in support of their first two albums, but mainstream success eluded the pair. It wasn’t until their third release, Through the Trees, that they felt like they could dedicate fully to a music career. Accolades followed and the duo built a large following.
The hubby and wife seemingly put out an album a year; In the Light (2000), Twilight (2001), Live at Schuba’s Tavern (2002), Singing Bones (2003) and then they took a break. Each album showed growth, both musically as well as lyrically. Their song from the record Singing Bones, “Far From Any Road,” was the perfect title song for the groundbreaking series True Detective, which was where I found them. Usually, I will fast forward through the opening credits, but with such an intoxicating song, I let it play every time.
Number Eight: Elliott Brood. While you would assume that this is a solo artist, there is nobody in this band named Elliott. The band walks a fine line between rock and country, and from their first release, Ambassador, they showed us what we could expect. The trio describes their music as “death country,” which I didn’t understand at first, but upon listening to the band, I get it. The album had twinges of acoustic folk, traditional country and straight up rock and roll. The second album, Mountain Meadows, was more of the same, but it still enjoyed critical praise and a second nomination from the Juno Awards. The band found a sound on their third release, Days into Years, as they focused more on the electric side of music. The band’s latest, Love and Work, is another stellar compilation of well-crafted songs.
Number Seven: Lydia Loveless. Relative newcomer Lydia Loveless is making her presence be known as she pens well-crafted songs and possesses a maturity of a seasoned veteran. Loveless released her debut, 2010’s The Only Man, when she was just 15 years old. Seemingly unhappy with the over-produced record, she sought out to make a grittier and more exposed album which resulted in 2012’s Indestructible Machine. While she sounds like a young Lucinda Williams, her ability to present a tune is a stellar success as she incorporates elements of punk, garage and country. Her follow-up, Somewhere Else, was again praised by critics and fans as she continued to push the boundaries of country.
Number Six: The Flying Burrito Brothers/Gram Parsons. Way ahead of their time, the Flying Burrito Brothers were possibly the first band to combine the two genres as successfully as they did. Though they weren’t quite as well known at the time, they did develop a huge underground following in the late 60’s and early 70’s and influenced countless others to follow in their footsteps. Formed by ex-Byrds member Gram Parsons, the band issued their first album, The Gilded Palace of Sin.
The band recorded one more album with Parsons at the helm. Burrito Deluxe was issued in 1970 and featured the track, “Wild Horses,” almost a year before it showed up on the Stones’ Sticky Fingers. The album got mixed reviews and Parsons left after its release. While sales were slow for both, the album’s influence was felt in the mid-80’s by such artists as Alan Jackson and Randy Travis. It continues today with artists like Wilco, Son Volt and Drive-By Truckers.
Number Five: Ryan Adams. As a former member of the band Whiskeytown, Ryan Adams was already established when he began his solo career, so it wasn’t a big surprise that his debut, Heartbreak, was met with critical praise. However, it was the singer-songwriter’s next project that made him a “star.” Gold was issued just weeks after 9/11, and the song “New York, New York” became an anthem of sorts, and the track “When the Stars Go Blue” was covered by the likes of Bono, the Corrs and Tim McGraw. He would go on to release an album per year between 2000 and 2005 (in which he offered up three albums in the same year).
In 2004 he began a band called the Cardinals who would go on to work with Willie Nelson. Upon leaving the band, Adams released Ashes and Fire in 2011, which debuted at number seven in the US. The album had a quieter mood than previous releases as Adams’ went acoustic for much of the record. Ryan Adams’ recent project came out in 2014, simply titled Ryan Adams, returning the singer to his rock and roll roots with a little country thrown in for good measure. He garnered two Grammy nominations. Now 40, this artist still has a lot of tread on his tires.
Number Four: Lucinda Williams. Lucinda Williams is a national treasure who has a body of work spanning nearly five decades. We first heard Williams in the late 70’s when she was recording in traditional blues and country. It had been eight years since we’d hear from this gifted singer-songwriter when she released her self-titled third album. The record contained the track “Passionate Kisses,” which was covered by Mary Chapin Carpenter nearly a decade later. The song was nominated and won the Grammy in 1994. She has given us a look inside her soul with each album she has rełeased. I first became aware of her while writing for a blues publication with her 2001 release, Essence.
After hearing her sultry and rugged voice, I made a trip to the record store and bought all her previous works. The album got her a Grammy for the track “Get Right With God” to the surprise of nobody. Never one to stick with a proven formula, her next release, World Without Tears, found her experimenting with electric blues. Her latest came by way of a double album called Down Where the Spirit Meets the Bone, which finds the artist all over the place. From bluesy tracks such as “West Memphis” and “Cold Day in Hell” to the country-tinged “It’s Gonna Rain” and “Big Mess,” she always keeps us on our toes.
Number Three: Hank III. While Hank III isn’t alt-country in the true sense of the genre, he has a rock and roll outlook which has garnered him many young fans. Hank Williams the third has never been shy about telling us how he feels. Whether he’s railing against the Nashville establishment or his views on drugs, Hank III is a rebel. Originally a punk rock drummer, the rebel didn’t immediately embrace his country roots, but when he did, all bets were off. His debut, Risin’ Outlaw, was rather tame in comparison to what he had in store for us later as he relied on his fathers and grandfathers legacy to catapult his career.
Nevertheless, he proved to be a bankable act. He wasn’t pleased with his debut and decided to take a crack at penning his own music for his follow-up, Lovesick, Broke & Driftin’. The album featured all original material with only one cover – Bruce Spingsteen’s “Atlantic City” to close the album. His next release, Straight to Hell, was magical as he now felt comfortable with his writing abilities. With “Country Heroes,” he paid respect to some of his father’s friends, and “Crazed Country Rebel” showed everyone he could party like a rockstar. His latest came in 2013 with Brothers of the 4×4, which is classic Hank III right down to the cover.
Number Two: Neko Case. I adore Neko Case and have since her debut, and while she’s more country than rock, she’s definitely not mainstream. We first met Case with Her Boyfriends in 1997 with The Virginian. She was praised by critics and found success beyond Seattle as she showed her versatility by recording a cover of the Queen song, “Misfire.” We didn’t hear from her for three years, but it was worth the wait as Neko and Her Boyfriends issued Furnace Room Lullaby. The disc was again praised by critics as she dabbled in murder country with the title track. After relocating to Chicago, she would go on to release Blacklisted to mainstream success.
Now a bonafide artist, she would go on to record The Tigers Have Spoken and Fox Confessor Brings the Flood. Both albums found critical and commercial success as she stayed with her roots with just enough twang to remain slotted in the alt country genre. Case doesn’t limit herself to a solo career as you can find her voice on albums by the New Pornographers and the Sadies. Niko’s latest, The Worse Things Get, The Harder I Fight, the Harder I Fight, the More I Love You, is her most ambitious recording to date as she flirts with elements as murder country, rock, soul and folk.
Number One: Steve Earle. Steve Earle is the undisputed king of alt country as he has been involved in the genre since 1974. However, success didn’t happen overnight, and it would take the singer-songwriter a decade to find an audience. His debut, Guitar Town, would do just that as it topped the country charts peaking at number seven. Earle was nominated for two Grammy Awards for his efforts. His follow-up was met with more critical praise. Copperhead Road was a bit of a departure for the singer as he included elements of heavy metal and bluegrass. Earle also showed his politics as he rallied against the war on drugs and the president at the time (Ronald Reagan).
Accolades followed Earle with every release, and his 1995 album was no exception. Train a Comin’ was met with high marks as Earle shared the spotlight with Peter Rowan and Emmylou Harris. The album was nominated for a Grammy. He finally took home the award for his ’07 release, Washington Square Serenade. The disc featured Allison Moorer on two tracks. His latest come by way of Steve Earle & the Dukes entitled Terraplane. The disc is a combination of blues, country and folk and is definitely worth a spin. Shoutouts to the Gin Blossoms, Son Volt, the Jayhawks, Neil Young, Guy Clark, Old 97’s, Uncle Tupelo and Blue Rodeo.