As explored among earlier posts, country music has a problem. If Jason Isbell is accurately capturing the rural southern experience, then there isn’t really anything alternative about alternative country.
Add the fact that his Something More Than Free has spent time at number one on the country chart, and it isn’t even alternative in a market or business sense.
There are countless other acts in the “alternative country” space that are producing extremely good work: Amanda Shires, Ryan Bingham, Bobby Bare Jr, and Hayes Carll come to mind. All are expanding on themes that have run from country music’s inception through its blues, R&B, and soul influences. In their music, contemporary humor meshes with traditional thematic material, and though it may not always aim for the emotional or psychological impact that is a consistent component of Isbell’s work, it doesn’t have to.
Alternative? If anything, it’s just the next logical evolution in country music. Or, what “country” really is.
Isbell took some well-deserved trophies home from 2014’s Americana Music Awards. Here are lyrics from a song that helped earn those awards – “Elephant” – about a friend dying from cancer:
She said Andy you’re better than your past,
winked at me and drained her glass,
cross-legged on the barstool, like nobody sits anymore.
She said Andy you’re taking me home,
but I knew she planned to sleep alone.
I’d carry her to bed and sweep up the hair from the floor.
If I had fucked her before she got sick
I’d never hear the end of it
she don’t have the spirit for that now.
We drink these drinks and laugh out loud,
bitch about the weekend crowd,
and try to ignore the elephant somehow.
John Hiatt, another artist classified as “Americana,” painted this picture in “Master of Disaster” – a blues rock trip through the LA area (with a shoutout to Madame Wong):
Close one there
Choking in clean underwear
8-ball pounding in my lungs
I still don’t know what Americana as a genre really is. To me, Americana is the flea market ephemera that decorates the dining area of Cracker Barrel. All that the Americana label does is keep the more intellectually challenging country-influenced music conveniently away from the trough of fodder that distributors and big box stores can easily peddle as “country.”
These are lyrics penned by contemporary human beings wrestling with contemporary pain.
The Real Alternative?
Logically, the real alternative country sound is what emanates from the alternative universe created by musicians mimicking thick southern or country accents native to nowhere. They stick to themes that are now industry standard and keep convenient stereotypes of country life and southerners alive.
Why kill the golden goose anyway?
If Americana is the decorative ephemera in Cracker Barrel’s dining area, what has become identified as country is the Chinese-made shlock pushed in their waiting area “gift” shops. It feigns authenticity . . . just enough.