The history of alt-country has been a long one and it all came to a head in the early 90’s. Join Alex in this episode as he goes back in time to the origins with special guest Bryan Daines of local alt-country band, Dainesly.
Listen to past episodes of Secret Societ of Music in the KWNK Archives!
A full transcript of this episode is available below:
Secret Society of Music w/ Special Guest Bryan Daines
Intro: Hey there, everybody. This is DJ Dr. Dankenstein. KWNK is driven in partnership between Reno Bike Project, The Holland Project, Wolf Pack Radio, and yourselves. This KWNK Archive is made possible by you, the KWNK member. Thank you for your support. Enjoy the show!
Alex: Hello, and welcome to the Secret Society of Music. This is your host, Alexander Taylor Korostinsky. With me this week is Reno musician, Bryan Daines.
Alex: We are going to be looking at the popular sub-genre of Country music, known as “Alternative Country.” Bryan, thanks for coming on the show!
Bryan: Well, thank you for having me!
Alex: You’re very welcome.
Alex: Alternative Country is also known as “Insurgent Country,” or, sometimes, “Americana.” It was truly developed in the early 90’s, but has a long history behind it. We’re gonna be looking at bands like Wilco, Uncle Tupelo, and the Old 97’s. We’re gonna go through an in-depth history of how Alt-Country kind of came to be, and that’s why Mr. Daines is here with me today. Let’s talk about Alt-Country, and your relationship with Alt-Country.
Bryan: Yeah! So um, I think Country’s one of those things where like, it’s a little tricky, like Jazz. When you start throwing around that label, there’s gonna be a lot of people that pop out of the woodwork and say, ‘that is Country, that’s not Country,’ and there’s a lot to be said for those debates. I think they’re, a lot of times, pretty valid. But, Alt-Country kinda relates to me… I kinda define it as ‘Country done by people who aren’t really a part of that traditional Country conversation,’ you know? Who aren’t speaking with Southern accents; that are kind of coming at it from a different angle, and trying to play to a different audience – Not trying to play to the “traditional,” again; kind of Country audiences. So, that’s kind of always applied to me a little bit, in that my interest in the music has never really come from ‘authentic Country roots’ or anything like that. But I’m like a lot of these musicians… Someone who really appreciates the sonic palettes that they’re working with… The songwriting structures.
Alex: Right. Alternative-Country artists tend to have almost the same relationship with Alternative Rock as they do with Country music.
Bryan: Yeah, very much. They’re kinda outsiders to both. I think, when you really start getting into the meat and cheese of the genre, you’re looking at a lot of Midwest kids in the 90’s that are kind of being neglected… I don’t wanna say ‘neglected,’ but they’re not part of some the bigger scenes that are happening in bigger cities, and so they’re kinda like, these stop-over places where a lot of the DIY bands and musicians are kind of coming through. So they’re on the fringe of a lot of different things… Country being one of them.
Alex: Right, and that’s kind of one of the big ways you can tell if you’re listening ot Alt-Country; taking those experiences, and having them translated in to their off-kilter lyrics. A lot of the time, Alt-Country lyrics are almost sort of bleak and disconnected, but also super self-aware and hyper-emotional, and really heartfelt.
Bryan: Yeah, I think that the “bleakness” is a good thing to touch on, because, you know, “lonesomeness” is a big theme throughout all Country music. I mean, even Bluegrass, which you can kind of say is where a lot of Country stems from… Called, “The High, Lonesome Sound.” And so I think sadness is a big theme for a lot of that, but… When this is happening, in the early 90’s… That’s when you’re seeing a lot more, like, Garth Brooks. Some bigger, kinda mainstream Country acts. It’s nowhere near as ridiculous as it is today, with like… You know… Florida Georgia Line, or “Red Solo Cup.” But you’re still seeing these kinda shift to, like, “Chattahoochee,” or songs just about, like, “good time!” and, “taking it easy!” Kind of party anthems, almost, rather than songs about, you know, dark, sad, human emotion.
Alex: So… There’s big differences between Alt-Country and Country. I think the similar thread that binds the two is the “twanginess” quotient. But really, they have very different things to say, and although they may come from similar histories, they’re definitely diverging pathways.
Bryan: Absolutely. And I think one of the interesting things I wanted to hit on with the show is that they almost come full-circle a little bit. That Alt-Country becomes this kinda offshoot, but eventually, it kinda gets welcomed back into the fold; and you’re seeing that a lot nowadays with artists, like Jason Isbell… Who was always kind of an outsider to that world… But nowadays, in Nashville, is very much celebrated, almost like they’re trying to champion him and say like, “Oh! He was always part of us!” You know? Which I don’t think is really where he comes from, necessarily.
Alex: I know that a big part of the early Alt-Country movement was that you had these Alternative artists coming out of Nashville and Texas and whatnot, and they were actually not taking credit as calling themselves an ‘Alt-Country Artist,’ They were kind of pushing that label away, but as that genre got more popular, a lot of the mainstream Country artists started calling themselves ‘Alt-Country Artists,’ and it became this thing where the actual Alt-Country artists were pushing that label away. Mainstream guys were using it, and it became this, like, really weird moment, where – Like you said, where it became full-circle – Like, it almost shifted. There was, like, a paradigm shift within all of that.
Bryan: Right, yeah, I think there’s always – with Country music – there’s always this kind of, like, antagonistic relationship with Nashville, you know? In Country itself, so much of the music is, ‘That’s not Country, this is Country,’ and, you know, it’s kind of reacting against Nashville being this big, evil institution that’s kind of controlling it. Which, in a lot of ways, it is. But, yeah, I think, at different times, there are people that very much try to distance themselves from that, and say, ‘No, I’m being this genuine, original force. I’m an outsider.’ Because, to be lumped in with what’s kind of en-vogue in Nashville at the time; maybe is kind of damning to their street cred or career.
Alex: Right. So, that’s very true. A lot of people don’t like to be pigeon-holed in general.
Alex: So, we’re going to be looking at the extensive history of how we got to Alt-Country, in the 90’s and today. But, we need to start somewhere, and we’re gonna be looking at a track from The Flying Burrito Brothers. Tell us a little bit about this song.
Bryan: Yeah! So, they’re kinda credited by a lot of the bands – who kinda make up a lot of the Alt-Country movement – as defining it. A lot of the critics, when they’re writing about Uncle Tupelo, and The Jayhawks, and bands that kinda formed the Alt-Country movement – They’re always kind of comparing them to Flying Burrito Brothers, versus some of the other outlaws or other actual Country musicians. And, I think that’s because what you see with them is they’re the first real, like, outsiders, to make Country music. Gram Parsons is a Harvard-educated, really affluent guy… Very much not the traditional Nashville, or even Country music, character. But at the same time; he has all this cred with, like, Emmylou Harris, and, you know, the actual Country music institutions. But he’s very much more a figure of, like, you know, the Hippie movement in the 60’s… That documentary, Festival Express, you know? They’re on that train; they’re much more aligned with the freaks than they are with the ‘Country music squares,’ if you wanna call them that.
Alex: Very good. Well, let’s jump on into the song.
Alex: This is “Sin City,” by The Flying Burrito Brothers.
-Music Break –
Alex: That was “Sin City” by The Flying Burrito Brothers, from “The Gilded Palace…”
Bryan: “…Of Sin.”
Alex: “…Of Sin,” from 1969.
Bryan: Yeah, so, again; like we were saying, that’s kinda like the prototype for a lot of the genre. And I think the second verse there, you really see what we’re talking about with some of that stark lyrical contrast to a lot of traditional Country music. You’re getting into some kind of bizarre subject matter. I guess they’re something that you wouldn’t necessarily expect to hear, really, in any song… Just kind of a weird verse there. But anyway, so they kinda set up of lot of the 70’s, then. Because, Keith Richards was a good friend of Gram Parsons, and I think he was one of the big influences on The Stones kinda having their honky-tonk sounds. And, really, I think you could say that set the stage for a lot of the 70’s, where a lot of bands started having kind of having some twaginess to them, and that just kind of becomes part of American music at that point.
Bryan: So yeah, I think that the next song we’re gonna play is “Dead Flowers,” which is another one of those songs that got kinda reclaimed by actual Country musicians. Townes Van Zandt actually recorded a version of this song.
Alex: This is off of “Sticky Fingers,” the album by The Rolling Stones that came out in 1971.
Alex: That was “Dead Flowers,” by The Rolling Stones, off of the Sticky Fingers album, from 1971.
Bryan: Yeah, so again, like we were saying, you can really hear the “twang” in that, you know, and a lot of the guitar parts; those are classic guitar – Country guitar – parts.
Alex: Not only that, but the piano style is pretty derivative of honky-tonk piano.
Bryan: Oh, definitely. And you even have Jagger kind of putting on a little like, I would say, ‘Souther affect’ in his vocal delivery in there.
Alex: For sure. And he definitely kept that for a few years…
Bryan: (laughs) Right.
Alex: … But I know that, if you’ve ever seen the Muscle Shoals documentary, The Rolling Stones heard all these great old soul records, about like, Aretha Franklin… They wanted to capture that sound, and so… There were two studios… In Muscle Shoals, Alabama, there was Fame, and there was Muscle Shoals Sound Studio. They went to Sound Studio, and recorded at least this album. I think there might be another one or two after that. They wanted to capture the Southern Sound, which, basically – Unbeknownst to them – kind of progresses what is going to be the Alt-Country movement in the 90’s. And this is all happening in the late 60’s – early 70’s. They recorded that album in 1968, and released it two years later. So, a lot of this stuff is happening early.
Bryan: Yeah, and an interesting thing to kinda tie that back in with the 90’s movement – with Muscle Shoals… Patterson Hood, who’s the founding member of Drive-By Truckers, who played with Jason Isbell – his dad was actually a session musician, and one of the founders of thr Muscle Shoals Sound Studio.
Bryan. Yeah. So, a lot of history there with them.
Alex: Right on. The Muscle Shoals thing is super interesting. There was a very legendary group of studio musicians. Kind of just a ragtag group of guys – all white guys – who played on all of the most iconic Soul records ever recorded in America. They were the original people behind the song “Respect,” by Aretha Franklin.She didn’t actually write that song. It was another song, and then she kind of turned it into her own thing – What’s sometimes called an “interpolation” of a song. But in any case, The Rolling Stones progressed what was going to be the Alt-Country movement in the 90’s, which brings us right into the 80’s.
Bryan: Right. So, you start off the 80’s with some kind of reimaginings of a couple different genres. You know, the 80’s are big on 50’s nostalgia, so you have Rockabilly kind of happening, and one of the big bands that we’re actually gonna kinda hit in this is Jason and The Scorchers. They kinda get credited in more of the Cow Punk side of things… It’s very 80’s to watch; it’s almost looks like a little bit of a parody of Country music. But it’s also got some big Punk influences to it. But then, there’s an undeniable twanginess to it.
Alex: The 80’s were a confusing time.
Alex: You know, there was a lot of good stuff going on in the 80’s. We got a lot of really iconic bands. But since we’re looking at a subgenre now, we’re looking at things that typically went unnoticed, even in the 80’s; during your normal, mainstream Country music phase that was still happening. It’s always gonna happen.
Bryan: Right. So, speaking of things that kind of went unnoticed, I think that sets up perfectly The Jayhawks, who actually had some releases that preceded Uncle Tupelo. But still, Uncle Tupelo gets kinda credited as founding the genre, which is pretty interesting.
Alex: Right. They are the band known as the ‘first Alt-Country band,’ but there’s so many steps needed to set that up correctly, and that includes The Jayhawks, and… I think it’s the late 80’s…
Bryan: Yeah, they were founded in – let’s see – I think they were founded in ‘86… That’s when their first album was out. The track we’re gonna play is off their 1989 release, which I think was a little more polished. But if you listen to the self-titled album that came out in ‘86, “Falling Star” is a great example… It sounds like a real drive-in honky tonk tune, but lyrically, it’s not quite at-home in that same kind of lonesome Country palette. It’s a little off for that.
Alex: So, let’s jump on into it. This is “Dead End Angel,” by The Jayhawks.
Alex: That was “Dead End Angel” by The Jayhawks.
Bryan: Yeah! So, again, we’re still kinda setting the stage for what’s gonna become the Alt-Country movement, and I think one of the reasons they might not get credited so much is, so much of their early catalogue – including that song right there – it almost does feel a little bit “home,” in a more, kinda, traditional Country sense. You know, when you start listening to some of the stuff that Uncle Tupelo was doing, they’re gonna have some kinda twangier songs, and some more, you know, Country-ish songs. They’re gonna have a lot of material that really sounds more, ‘at-home 90’s’ kind of Alternative Rock.
Alex: Right. The Jayhawks didn’t quite yet morph the Alt-Rock and Country styles just the right way yet, at least.
Bryan: Yeah, they’re still kinda like Flying Burrito Brothers, where they could get claimed by either side, almost.
Alex: And that’s kind of the confusing thing about Country music in general, is that there’s so many subgenres, that… They get blended so easily. It’s all about knowing who comes from what; who influenced who – that you can really make out the distinctions sonically about certain things about Country music. As we get deeper into Alt-Country, you really hear the musical difference. A lot of Alt-Country artists rejected the hi-i Nashville machine, and opted more for the lo-fi thing. Their lyrics were, like, very different. They relied way less on Country cliches, and they brought in a lot of the stylings of Alt-Rock that were also getting really popular at the time in the 90’s.
Bryan: Yeah, there’s some really interesting guitar work in a lot of these albums.
Alex: For sure, but they still kept it twangy.
Bryan: Oh, yeah!
Alex: Which is great! You gotta keep it twangy.
Bryan: (laughs) Yeah.
Alex: Okay! Well, that brings us to the big reveal. We’re talking Uncle Tupelo right now.
Bryan: Yeah, so, their breakthrough album, “No Depression” – Well, not their breakthrough album, but their first album, rather – Title track comes from a Carter Family song. Carter Family kind of being like, the first family of Country music.
Bryan: Johnny Cash… (29:48) What is that – granddaughter? June Carter? I should know that. (laughs)
Alex: Okay, I see there.
Bryan: Yeah! Mother Maybelle went on to host a bunch of Country music shows. Anyway…
Alex: Country royalty!
Bryan: Country royalty; yeah, yeah! They’re like, The Kennedys. (laughs)
Bryan: So anyway, “No Depression…” It’s a great album in that it really does straddle the line. You hear a lot of those weird kind of, 90’s Alt-Rock things happening. Kind of a lot of start-y, stopp-y stuff. I don’t wanna say “bad” tones, but I would say “lo-fi,” definitely.
Alex: For sure.
Bryan: Some of it’s sonic choices… And then, you’re also having songs like “John Hardy,” which is a Bluegrass traditional – sometimes instrumental, sometimes with lyrics, that they’re covering. So, they’re really covering a wide sonic palette there, but they’re really starting to… I think this is the first time you see Country music really targeted away from any sort of traditional Country audience, you know? No one in Nashville is gonna like this album. It’s very much geared towards Midwestern kids in the 90’s…
Bryan: … That are, you know, hearing Black Flag and stuff like that. But, you know, the only thing that’s really coming through their town.
Alex: Right. And it’s something that the new generation of young adults can relate to, as well. So, I think that is what makes this whole genre turn more into a movement; is the people listening to it, as well.
Bryan: Sure! So, let’s play the title track of that album; the Carter Family song, “No Depression.”
Alex: “No Depression,” by Uncle Tupelo. So, we can definitely already hear the more, ‘angsty 90’s-guy’ voice.
Bryan: (laughs) Yeah.
Alex: That’s like, the first thing I heard.
Bryan: Yeah, and you know, kind of like we were saying, you can just imagine that song getting played for, you know, some slick Nashville producer, and he’s just gonna not give that the time of day, you know?
Alex: He’s like, “Oh, dang youngsters!”
Alex: That’s what he’s sayin,’
Bryan: Yeah, yeah… But, at the same time, that really resonates with a lot of people, and that track actually becomes the motivator… Or uh, the source title for “No Depression;” the magazine – and kinda now, internet blog – Which really champions a lot of this movement. It kinda becomes like, the gatekeeper, or the ‘Rolling Stone’ of the genre.
Alex: Yeah. And so, Uncle Tupelo stayed active… I think they released three to four albums in a very short amount of time, until breaking up.
Bryan: Yeah, apparently personalities couldn’t really get along there. But, you know, Jeff Tweedy, who originally played bass in that band, and didn’t write a ton in the early albums, started writing more and more, and I think Jay Farrar wanted to go off and do his own thing, so he founds Sun Volt, and Jeff Tweedy goes on and founds Wilco. And, Wilco takes kind of an interesting turn, in that their later catalogue gets kind of really experimental, and I think they kinda become a little more relevant to the Indie world,
Alex: We could even say that that’s ‘Post-Alt-Country…’
Bryan: I like that.
Alex: … In a weird way. Like, I mean, if we’re really going to,you know, classify the sound of the end of the hour. But for now, Uncle Tupelo had some songs.
Bryan: They did, and we’re gonna play one more off that “No Depression” album, and I think this one kinda… You also hear where they’re coming from as like, a 90’s Indie band, where you’re gonna hear, again, just like some production and some writing that’s really kinda left-field for a more Country-sounding band.
Alex: So, this next song we’re gonna play is called, “Whisky Bottle.” It’s off the same album, “No Depression.” Uncle Tupelo.
– Music Break-
Alex: Uncle… Tupelo.
Bryan: Yeah, so again, like we were talking about there… Just, their incredible, meaningful song, that really has one foot in two different times periods, in that those verses are very much at home in twaginess. A lot of Country music; and then it’s just got that huge 90’s chorus. You were saying; almost Eddie Vedder-ish.
Alex: Yeah! They definitely turned on the distortion pedal.
Bryan: Yeah, that’s a big ol’ fuzzy guitar.
Bryan: So, anyway! So, moving on… That band breaks up; the two bands that come out of that, like we said, are Sun Volt and Wilco. I think we should start with Sun Volt, because – Jay Farrar, being more like… I would say, kind of the core – of Uncle Tupelo… There’s probably someone who disagrees with me on that, but… Anyway, I think he kind of moves in the direction where he, really, almost kinda distances himself from the 90’s style of things, where he really started honing himself in as more of, almost, a Country artist; an Americana artist; you know. I think he kind of matures in that direction… Maybe you could say to his own kind of, lack of success, almost.
Alex: And, it also could’ve been one of those cases where… He didn’t want to take on the title of ‘Alt-Country.’ Maybe he didn’t quite like that.
Alex: And that he had to, maybe, find his own true voice as a solo artist…. I don’t know if Sun Volt was a true solo project of his, but…
Bryan: They’re definitely both writing for it.
Alex: Okay. In any case, he might have not enjoyed what came of Uncle Tupelo, which might’ve lead to the breakup of the band…
Bryan: Yeah, I know Tweedy had a – Jeff Tweedy had a big hand in the orchestration and instrumentation of that band. And so, yeah. Maybe he wasn’t… I dunno.
Alex: We should ask him.
Alex: Next time, yeah. So, this is Sun Volt. The song is called, “Windfall.”
Alex: That was Sun Volt. The song was, “Windfall.” But, we’re gonna also look at the brotherband of Sun Volt; you might know them, they’re called Wilco.
Bryan: Yeah! So, this is off of the album “A.M,” which, still, they’re kind of glomming on their kinda more Country roots. They haven’t gone full-experimental yet; they’re not bringing in the gongs and backwards loops, and all that weird stuff that we love about Wilco’s later catalogue.
Bryan: So, this song’s called, “Passenger Side.”
– Music Break-
Alex: That was Wilco with the song, “Passenger Side.” You can tell right off the bat that the production is pretty high. The songwriting is really… It’s clean, it has an Alt-Rock vibe to it with the production style, I think?
Bryan: Yeah, and speaking of that production style, I think that kinda leads us now to the next big titular moment of this discussion, which is Bloodshot Records.
Bryan: And so, they always referred to it as ‘Insurgent Country.’
Alex: That was the record label that was responsible for nurturing a lot of the Alternative-Country acts of the time.
Bryan: Yeah, so at this point, you know, this Alt-Country thing… They’re seeing a lot of bands, you know, they’re also very aware of the Cow Punk movement, which is, you know; kind of happening at the same time. You can argue they’re kinda the same movement.
Bryan: So, they start fostering a lot of bands like Whiskeytown, who we’re gonna play; Old 97’s, a ton of other artists who have a credible catalogue that you can go through. But, they’re also able to provide that high production quality, that was kind of, uh… Not necessarily available to a lot of the pioneers of the genre. So, I think the one we’re gonna start off with here is Whiskeytown, which is the band that kinda launched Ryan Adams’ career, and that’s a whole other episode if you wanna get into his whole catalogue. But anyway, this is off – I think it’s their second album, “Strangers Almanac” – and it’s called “Inn Town.”
Alex: Alright. Let’s check it out.
Alex: That was “Inn Town,” by Whiskeytown. A lotta ‘towns’ going on.
Bryan: (laughs) “I-N-N… ‘Inn-Town,’ for anyone keeping track. So, yeah, as you can hear; a lot more polished-ness to that recording. And, again, we mentioned before – Bloodshot Records has, just, an incredible catalogue. We can’t even really delve into it, ‘cause time is an issue.
Alex: We have to cut a song off of our playlist here for you guys, but, honorable mention out to the Old 97’s.
Bryan: Yeah, and we were talking a lot earlier about, you know, Cowpunk being one of those peripheral genres to this subgenre, and I think some of their early catalogue really ties in some of the more ‘rock-essness,’ of Cowpunk.
Bryan: That band ultimately went on to become a lot more Pop-centered, I guess you would say. They kinda left the genre at a certain point.
Alex: Which, with Alt-Country… A lot of the people in Alt-Country who really are like, ‘Yeah! Alt-Country!,’ really push away a lot of, like, the polished, Pop mentality.
Alex: So, Old 97’s kind of skirt that line a little bit.
Bryan: Yeah, I can see that. So then, to wrap this all up and to kinda tie it full circle, we’re gonna start talking about the Drive-By Truckers; we mentioned earlier – Patterson Hood, founding member – His father was a session musician at (stumbling) Muscle Shoals Sound Studio… (laughs) I say words good sometimes. And so, anyway, this is a song by Jason Isbell, who wasn’t a founding member. He’s only on, I think, two or three of their albums, but… This track was so good, that they named the album after it. Drive-By Truckers is kinda known for championing a lot of Southern Rock and Southern music; they even did a Southern Rock opera, where they really tell a lot of the history of where that music’s coming from. But, with Isbell, I think they really started moving towards a little bit more of the Country side of Southern music, versus the Rock side of it. And um, he obviously went on to have almost a more successful career outside that band, and really kinda got welcomes into Nashville. And I think you could say he’s kinda celebrated by Country music now, which… Totally deserved.
Bryan: So, anyway! This song has got a really good story to it; I actually didn’t get the meaning of the story the first time I heard it, and I saw them play live – We played a show with them in Montana, and for some reason when he said the first lines, it just kinda – It fell totally flat on me. I was like, ‘That’s a weird way to start a song, I don’t get it,’ and it took a couple listens before I really delved into the lyrics, and it was one of those, just like, ‘Oh my God, this guy can tell a story, and then some!’
Bryan: So, yeah. It’s kind of a hat-filled McCoy thing going on here.The songs called, “Decoration Day.”
– Music Break-
Alex: That was Drive-By Truckers with, “Decoration Day.”
Bryan: And for those of you who know the song, we had to cut off the big, epic falsetto ending solo that happens at the end there, but like I said, we’re kinda running out of time!
Alex: Yeah! Well, Bryan, thank you so much for coming on the show, and talking about Alt-Country. You and your band, Dainesly…
Bryan: Yes, I believe you have some ownership in that, as well! (laughs)
Alex: There might be some ownership, but… Bryan, your band, Dainesly, is playing on May 25th?
Bryan: That is correct. At Gremfest,which – for anyone listening, out of state or in-state – It’s one of the best little festivals that happens in the area. Get tickets! You should go; there’s amazing bands, a ton of fun… Yeah. Check ‘em out. Gremfest.
Alex: Alright. Thanks again everyone, this is the Secret Society of Music on 97.7 KWNK Community Radio. Thanks for tuning in.
Big thanks to Sophie Mia for providing this transcript.