Music: The country that never went away

Country music is outgrowing its roots and alternatives are spreading on to the Web. It's a long, long way from Nashville.
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Indy Lifestyle Online
While the grunge scene was going on in Seattle at the start of the Nineties, a young St Louis group called Uncle Tupelo were also creating a style - let's call it alternative country - which only now looks like achieving wider recognition. As well as hammering away on guitar, bass and drums, Uncle Tupelo also used traditional roots instruments such as mandolin, fiddle and lap steel guitar.

Like grunge, this wasn't a particularly new sound. In the Eighties, bands such as Rank & File and Green On Red were doing similar things, but what they failed to do was gel together in a grassroots scene. The now defunct Uncle Tupelo (its two main songwriters went on to form Son Volt and Wilco) hid nothing when it came to their admiration for America's country and roots musical heritage. As an acknowledgement of this they named their debut album No Depression after a Carter Family song from the Thirties.

Fans used the Internet to correspond, setting up a messageboard also called No Depression, and there is now bi-monthly magazine. Indeed the term has become shorthand for the broad range of music that lingers on the left side of country and dips into alternative rock, hence other names such as "alternative country" and the cuter, Web-derived alt.country.

The alt.country brigade have worked with each other to set up a network of venues, record stores, festivals and even a new Americana radio format to pursue their vision, even though it ranges from traditionalists like Robbie Fulks to the decibel-pounding Slobberbone. Fulks, recently signed to Geffen, sings in the Fifties honky-tonk style but gains attention through compositions such as "She Took a Lot of Pills (And Died)", perhaps one of the most frighteningly catchy songs to have jumped out of the No Depression story.

On the outer edges comes the most exciting package of all - the wonderfully- named Slobberbone (local slang for a chewed-up dog toy). Led by the throaty roar of Brent Best, Slobberbone blast out metal and punk guitar and then smooth things out with pedal steel or mandolin, singing about trailer parks and heavy drinking.

Occupying the centre ground paved by Uncle Tupelo are two bands making their presence felt in the UK. Son Volt, led by the angsty, sad tones of Jay Farrar, play here next month. Their 1996 debut album, Trace, remains the benchmark, yet their reappearance in the UK, after a short tour last year, has not yet enjoyed the kind of hype bestowed upon second-wavers Whiskeytown, who play a sold-out gig in London tomorrow. Rolling Stone magazine recently suggested that if a Nirvana were to emerge from the so-called alt.country movement, then it could be Whiskeytown. However, their Geffen debut, Stranger's Almanac, although sporting a few classic liquor-soaked songs, lacked the punkish sparkle of their earlier recordings. Nevertheless the attention paid to them is sure to pave the way for other acts, such as the Old 97's and Six String Drag.

The UK rock press now gives decent, if patchy, coverage to alt.country releases. Stores including Tower, HMV and Rough Trade have either special displays or charts, and the capital has at least four club nights. Most significant is the adoption of country sounds by British bands: Cornershop and Morcheeba both included country vibes on their latest albums; Brixton's Alabama 3 have a reputation as one of the nation's best live acts, fusing deep country, blues sounds and techno beats.

And then there was the recent release of Gomez's amazingly eclectic debut album steeped in southern twang. The twist in the tale is that despite the hoo-ha over Whiskeytown, alternative country could come waltzing though the front door, courtesy of homegrown bands such as Witness, Minibar and the Montrose Avenue, who are all waiting to capitalise on Gomez's success.

Listening post

Lo-fi: The Loose compilation (Vinyl Junkie records) is a good place to start. Calexico and Hazeldine pour out eclectic Arizonian bliss, while Songs:Ohia and the various Palace/Will Oldham creations offer folkie mountain vibes.

Loud school: Check out the bands that bothered to think up a decent name: Slobberbone, the Disciples of Agriculture, the Ex-Husbands, the Anglo- Chicago outfit the Waco Brothers, and the sardonic Lonesome Bob.

Nashville: It's not all big hair and sequins down - labels are always on the look-out for the next Steve Earle. Leading candidate is Chris Knight, followed by Jack Ingram. Kim Richey and Alison Moorer are the women to check out.

Revivalists: BR5-49 have already crossed over to wide appeal and Robbie Fulks could follow. Another person plying Fifties music in a Nineties framework is Paul Burch, the drummer for country experimentalists Lambchop.

Weird school: Jim White plays what he calls "hick-hop" and has an album called "Wrong-Eyed Jesus". Johnny Dowd's 'Wrong Side of Memphis' supplies the scariest and most twisted murder tales you'll ever want to encounter.

'No Depression', PO Box 31332, Seattle WA 98103; e-mail: NoDepress@aol.com; web: www.nodepression.net). TWISTED AM CLUB: http://www.delta-music.co.uk/twisted.html. For more Twisted info, e-mail, or call 0181-406 4894 or 0958 778644 (Tim Perry), or 0171 642 8852 (Piers Hawkins).

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