Photo: richardwitt74

A term more for people who need terms, Alt Country encompasses a wide and varied group of musicians who ride the line between Rock, Country, Roots, Bluegrass, Rockabilly and sometimes even punk rock (if not even just in spirit). Matador picks ten that might do your iPod well.
Uncle Tupelo “No Depression”

Most often seen as the pioneers of the movement, Uncle Tupelo’s run from 1987-1994 went largely unnoticed by the mainstream but stormed a trail for many bands, including the ones that would form out of this one’s ashes (that’d be Wilco and Son Volt).

The title track from their 1990 album No Depression also became the title for a magazine which covered the scene from the years 1995-2008.

No Depression

Whiskeytown “Houses on the Hill”

Lucinda Williams. Photo by jcbehm

Fronted by Ryan Adams, Whiskeytown made a name for themselves by playing gloriously loose and raucous shows. Always a bit of a soap opera, the band’s inner turmoil turned to electricity during gigs. “Houses on the Hill” features background vocals and violin by member Caitlin Cary, who greatly contributed to the band’s sound.

Houses On The Hill

Wilco “Passenger Side”

Hopefully by now you’re familiar with Wilco and their story. If not, grab a copy of the DVD I Am Trying To Break Your Heart and learn just how rough life can become for a rock band. “Passenger Side” is decidedly townie, a tale about mooching rides and calling shotgun.

“You’re gonna make me spill my beer, if you don’t learn how to steer.”

Passenger Side

Old 97’s “Melt Show”

Old 97’s blew down the doors when they entered the scene, bringing a more rockabilly and punk aesthetic to their shows, which often found singer Rhett Miller shaking and quaking more than Elvis. Now pushing 40, Miller still writes excellent songs and The 97’s still make music together. “Melt Show” is probably the best studio recording to ever capture their live energy.

Melt Show (LP Version)

Blue Mountain “Wink”

Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy. Photo by charlie cravero

Blue Mountain’s Dog Days is one of the best records you’ve probably never heard. Founded by a husband and wife duo (she also John Stirratt from Wilco’s twin sister), the band was never able to crack the big time. This album, chocked full of Mississippi heartbreak, endures as a lost classic.

Wink (Album Version)

Son Volt “Drown”

The “other post-Tupelo band”, Son Volt continues to tour and make great music. “Drown” shows the band’s distorted side but don’t be fooled. The soft stuff is just as powerful. Mark Death Cab For Cutie’s Ben Gibbard as a fan – he recently made an album and toured with SV’s main man, Jay Farrar.

Drown (LP Version)

The Jayhawks “Blue”

There was a moment where Alt Country nearly tipped into mainstream and The Jayhawks’ “Blue” was one of the songs that nearly took it around the corner.

Imagine that this song was once played on radio stations that now blare Linkin Park and System of a Down. It’s also possibly one of the sweetest songs of all time.

Blue

Lucinda Williams “Drunken Angel”

With a drawl all her own, Lucinda’s Car Wheels On A Gravel Road has sold nearly a million copies and earned her a Grammy. The whole album’s a corker.

Drunken Angel

Scud Mountain Boys “Grudge”

A band that formed sitting around a table, Scud Mountain Boys hit the nail on the head with their 1996 album Massachusetts. A song about a breakup and the stalking that follows, “Grudge” features the honest hook, “I would give anything to make it with you just one more time.”

Have you heard The Avett Brothers? Photo by elawgrrl

Grudge

The Avett Brothers “I And Love And You”

The Avett Brothers are one of many bands to take Alt Country’s torch and run with it. They’ll surely be one of 2010’s biggest breakouts, already pulling in big crowds and making them The Band To Watch at this year’s Bonnaroo Music Festival.

I And Love And You (single)

Community Connection

For more “musts”, be sure to check out both our Motown and metal lists. Also not to be missed: Our picks for 50 music sites that matter.