“alternative rock, indie rock, roots rock, bluegrass, neotraditional country, punk rock, rockabilly, punkabilly, honky-tonk, outlaw country, folk rock, indie folk, folk revival, hard rock, R&B, country rock, heartland rock, and Southern rock.”
Country music that isn’t pop…isn’t mainstream. Some smart ass on Wikipedia provided the quote above about what influenced Alternative Country (AC). I was too lazy to see who wrote it. Didn’t feel like getting into an overly-semantic discussion about the incestuous nature of the words above and how they overlapped one another…or how some of them were different words for the same sound. I’ve gotten older and online arguments about subjective shit isn’t worth my energy or time.
Definitions and top 10 lists of anything are subjective…especially if the top 10 list is for songs that fall into a musical subgenre that seems to be part rock, traditional, and country music. Anyone can come up with a list of songs that define a sound. This one is a good list…but the writing around the songs seems rushed. AC is primarily about mood and story-telling. If there is no story…there is no good discussion about AC. Here is my story and my top 10 AC songs. Music isn’t listened to in a vacuum and it’s definitely not sterile…music is part of history…our culture…our lives. Music provides the soundtrack to our lives…which is so fucking cliche…but it is so true. I find it easier to tell a story and the music associated with it…I find this is a good way to describe life.
April, 2000…Texas. Bluebonnets are in bloom. When bluebonnets bloom you know spring is on its way in Texas. Robert Earl Keen lets you know this…Robert Earl Keen is not AC…he is part of his own musical subgenre…Texas Singer/Songwriters. I was a 30yo Army captain stationed at Fort Hood. Fort Hood is in the Texas Hill Country…it is described as the geographical area where the American Southwest meets the Southeast. That’s a good definition for Alternative Country…until you realize the boys of Uncle Tupelo (later Son Volt and Wilco) were from Illinois. But hey this is my story…so back to the Hill Country. Part green, part brown…scrub vegetation and sand vying for dominance. I love Texas…I like Texans individually, but collectively they braggadocios and set in their ways. Everything is bigger in Texas and that includes egos.
My dad was 60. He had just retired from a second career working for the state of Alabama…after a 27 year Army career. He wanted to go backpacking and camping in Big Bend National Park. He came out to Texas…I took week off. We threw way too much shit in the back of my pickup…a trait I had inherited from him. Tying shit down in the bed of a truck was always optional for my dad. Who doesn’t want to drive halfway across Texas while having to nervously eye the rear view and wondering when a sleeping bag, a hastily-shoved jacket, or partially-ripped cardboard beer case was going to go flying outta the truck?
It takes 8 hours of straight driving to get from Fort Hood to Big Bend National Park. Directions are pretty simple…get on Highway 190 and head west. After you pass through Iraan, you get on I-10 and shortly you hit Fort Stockton. At Fort Stockton…turn left and head south through Marathon on Highway 385. Keep driving through the desert…it was April…so Texas was in bloom…a multi-hued carpet spread out as far as our eyes could see.
This is one of those trips that a son will always cherish. This trip was our redemption. This trip was a way for us to complete a circle…a time to look at a life he had lived and one I was firmly moving forward in. My dad had a wayward youth in the 1950s…Army of jail. He chose the Army. I was born when he was 30. Today I am the same age (48) as he was when I was graduating high school. Now…now I understand why my dad spent my teenage years looking at me with more disappointment than pride. He saw himself…he saw a young man that I was then as an almost identical version of him in his youth. Now I understand the quiet response to some stupid shit I had done. As you push toward 50, it is easier just to sit back and let people do stupid shit…and hope they learn from it. As you approach the half of a decade mark…you realize wisdom has to be learned…it can be given through advice. Fortunately, I didn’t have to decide Army or jail…I just had to decide whether I was going to quit fucking up my life or get my shit together. I chose the Army too…and now almost a decade later…my dad and I were rolling across west Texas in my overloaded pickup eating Lil’ Debbies, guzzling Cokes, and listening to Uncle Tupelo and Son Volt.
Somewhere around Iraan (Ira-Ann) my dad said loudly (we were running about 80mph on Highway 190 with the windows down) “This is some damn good music.” I laughed and pointed out that obviously my musical tastes had been influenced by his love of 1970s Outlaw Country. That single sentence encapsulated everything perfect about the trip. We were two grown men…bonded by love and history and blood. When I was a kid I had always sat beside him in his pickup as we tooled toward some camping or fishing trip…as he eyed the rear view nervously …wondering when some shit would go flying from the truck’s bed. He’d play Waylon, Willie, and the boys as we crammed Lil’ Debbies in our mouths and guzzled Cokes.
Right there at Iraan, with an over-packed pickup bed, and blaring music (coupled with a dozen Lil’ Debbie wrappers flying around the cab of my truck in an endless aerial loop of sticky plastic) made the perfect moment. As we entered the town…with a giant billboard boasting Iraann’s overly-talented high school boys’ baseball and girls’ softball teams…multiple state championships…my version of country music met my dad’s version.
Some men are connoisseurs of art, wine, or literature. My dad was a connoisseur of hamburger dives. The more dilapidated and dirty the hamburger joint…the more my dad was convinced how delicious the hamburgers must be. My dad saw a gas station that boasted the “Best Burgers In Texas!” Naturally the place looked like shit…naturally the burgers were damn good. We stuffed a few down and then climbed back in my pickup…after I walked around the back stuffing shit back in the truck bed’s crevices. We had already lost a sweatshirt to the Hill Country between Killeen and Iraan. Just another piece of the flotsam and jetsam we were leaving in our wake across west Texas.
As we got in and I turned the key, Uncle Tupelo’s “Anodyne” came on. We pulled out of the gas station/burger dive in Iraan…and soon bluebonnets were lining the sides of Highway 190…and later it was I-10…and music serenaded us. Alternative Country is a lot of things…and for me it is a greasy, but delicious, burger from a gas station in Iraan, Texas, and a colorfully carpeted desert in west Texas with my dad beside shoving another fucking Lil’ Debbie in his mouth as he tapped his booted feet on my pickup’s floor board.
My Top 10 Alternative Country Songs*
10. Uncle Tupelo, “Anodyne“
9. Bottle Rockets, “Turn For The Worse“
8. Lucinda Williams, “Righteously”
7. The Gourds, “El Paso“
6. Jayhawks, “Waiting On The Sun“
5. Cross Canadian Ragweed, “Sick and Tired“
4. James McMurtry, “Out Here In The Middle“
3. Old Crow Medicine Show, “Wagon Wheel“…yes I know it’s a Dylan cover
- Son Volt, “Tear Stained Eye“
*Best listened to while driving across Texas…feeling a sugar high from too many Lil’ Debbies, and eyeing the rear view wondering when shit is gonna fly outta the bed of your truck. A great dad beside you is optional…but it does enhance the experience.