Urbane Cowboys: alt.county in the 1990's

Molinaro, John , Department of English, University of Virginia
Howard, Alan, Department of English, University of Virginia

Over the past few years I began to develop a new interest in Country music; although I had been raised on it, I had by high school, come to dislike both the music and its social implications. So I became curious why a few friends and I had returned to this style from which we had spent years distancing ourselves. Some of the stars were familiar, but many were new, or new to me. These were my first encounters with alt.country, before I had even heard that name or known that a scene was developing. It soon became clear that I was not the only non-Country fan who was intrigued by this new strain of music. I also became curious about alt.country's use of the past. While many of the bands were mixing newer forms of music with traditional country sounds, the images associated with this movement were being drawn from the black and white Farm Security Administration photography of the 1930s. So why was this resurgence of rural, anachronistic music so resonate with a seemingly foreign audience? The artists were writing in interesting ways, mixing different styles and playing with expectations, which helped to explain the interest but still left questions of why this was happening unanswered. I came to believe that this was in part due to the current social and economic climate; for people my age things look a lot like they did in the Depression. Whether these fears are accurate or not, the images of our peers moving back home or taking jobs they are overqualified for are strong. Alt.country also came at a time when a series of "back-to-basics" fads, like the "Simplification" movement or Back-Country sports, were gaining popularity in response to the perceived excesses of the last decade.

To say that this project is about country music is misleading; alt.country musically resembles traditional country music but has set itself in opposition to that style. The term alt.country is actually an empty label that encompasses a wide range of artists. I have chosen it precisely because of its openness- it is an alternative to Nashville country, NPR bluegrass, and MTV rock and covers both country songwriters who exist uneasily within the Nashville framework as well as bands on the edge of the independent rock scene. Alt.country does not designate one particular style but indicates a sensibility and an audience. The March-April issue of No Depression, a fanzine, lists a top 40 album chart which includes Steve Earl, Bob Dylan, B.B. King, and Ricky Scaggs as well as emerging artists like Whiskeytown, Slobberbone, Southern Culture on the Skids, and Will Oldham (all of whom are as musically diverse as the older stars). While it may be argued that alt.country is simply a reinvigorating spirit within the larger world of country, it diverges from the Nashville mainstream in too many ways (including marketing, songwriting, and the creative process) to be dismissed as just another phase in the cycle between outsiders and pop stars in country music. Alt.country establishes a link between the present and the era when country first emerged in mass media, the 1920s and '30s, and it functions to link these two periods.

MA (Master of Arts)

Originally published on the XRoads site for the UVA American Studies program. Years range from 1995-2005. Content is captured at the level of functionality available on the date of capture.

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