But, you know Dave, as I write this, it occurs to me that I really have no clue as to the boundaries of what be alt. country.
Well, Jack, I've been thinking long and hard about it. And I've generated some ideas. I'll get into the greater Americana deal in a moment, but first we'll get to the smallest definition of Alt Country. The five essentials, plus some connections.
Uncle Tupelo, and the two offshoot band, Son Volt and Wilco. The band formed by their roadie and spare guitarist, the Bottle Rockets. The Jayhawks. The supergroup containing members of Wilco and the Jayhawks, Golden Smog. The third group contributing songwriters to the Smog, Soul Asylum, which only occasionally leans into this genre, but we'll put them in anyway, just for now. And Whiskeytown, which kinda came later and kinda don't fit in this.
I made a mix for the way home yesterday, and between Brian Henneman and Chrome Dreams, I figured it out. All of the above bands, have Neil Young as their primary inspiration. 1970s Neil Young, the Neil from Decade and Rust Never Sleeps. Not Gram Parsons. Not the Flatlanders. Not Waylon Jennings. Not Buck Owens. It's all on Neil Young. There's other influences, of course, but they come from the rock side, I think. UT plays CCR's "Effigy" for the No Alternative sampler, but they play it like Neil would. When they did March 16-20. 1992, they didn't play bluegrass, they didn't play really folky, they played strummy Neil Young style.
As time went on, they expanded their styles. Much less Neil in Anodyne than Still Feel Gone, for example. And when they did country covers, like Soul Asylum doing "Cocaine Blues" and Tupelo doing "Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way?" with Joe Ely, they're trying to get that sound more. I've been listening to more Waylon these days, and I'd be hard pressed to say how their arrangement differed from Waylon's. The bass was certainly root-fifth and way out in front.
But that brings me to the other part. These bands didn't go to LA and get caught up in that scene like Neil did. They didn't go to Nashville and get day jobs at MCA and play bar gigs on Lower Broadway until they got drawn into the Music City machinery, like the Waylon song describes. They set up their own gigs until they signed to minors, toured small gigs until they got enough following to jump to the majors. They didn't do it like Hank. They did it like Hank! Rather, more like REM. They did it like a college-rock band from the 80s, which really is what they were. Alt Country is a heresy of Rock, not Country.
Not that this was the only influence on these guys.