As long as country music as been around, there has been an argument about what it is and isn’t. And, like most genres, it’s managed to grow and change over the decades by incorporating new styles that bubbled up around the edges of the establishment. From Bluegrass and Western Swing in the 30’s to Neo-Traditional and New Wave in the 80’s, the people who make and distribute what get’s played on your local country station have kept up, sometimes unsuccessfully, with whatever new sounds might help sell some records.
I’m going to abandon the term Americana now that I’ve used it to get you in the door. I don’t like it, one, because it’s too vague in the sense that Norman Rockwell, barbecue joints and old Chevy’s can be considered Americana. The other reason is that it’s a way to say you like country music without associating yourself with the idea of country music, or any of the conceptual baggage of country music, like being a poor, rural white person from flyover country. Saying “Alternative Country” signals that yes, you are talking about country music, and yes, there is an alternative to the output of the Nashville behemoth.
Enter these two records I found out combing junk stores not too long ago.
Both hail from the great lost world of the 70’s. These were on small, local labels in Northern New Mexico and Southern Colorado and feature bands that played the bars and dancehall circuits. Tumbleweed has more of a Burrito Bros, jangly country-rock sound, and The Last Mile Ramblers plays songs that mix elements of different country styles in a manner much closer to the alt-country of the late 90’s. Rockabilly guitars with bluegrass banjos, etc. Either one, if released on a bigger Americana label today, with a decent PR push would probably kill. As it was, these were razor-sharp bar bands in their day, guys who could evidently pack a bar and sell a lot of beer, but not enough to catch the attention of anyone in Nashville. They were country groups that mixed traditional elements with contemporary sensibilities and played the same venues as rock bands. It was alt-country before the word existed. The concept of alternative country existed, but the market niche didn’t exist yet. Bands like Tumbleweed and The Last Mile Ramblers are little reminders that there has always been more than one way to do things, and there’s always been an, if not dissenting, then certainly different voice out on the margins.
We can debate where country went wrong, or who is to blame. (I think we’re all way too hard on Garth Brooks.) What is most interesting to me is that these two records are the products of bands trying to fill two needs, the need to provide live music for bars and dancehalls, and the need to play music that was a different take from the radio had to offer. At the time, mainstream country probably hadn’t alienated enough people to create a big enough market niche. The last big Country Music revolution to overturn the status quo from the outside (so far), the Neo-Traditionalists like Dwight Yoakam, was just a few years away. But the alternative sounds were out there, they were out there when Bill Monroe picked up his mandolin, when Buck Owens built his empire in Bakersfield, when Uncle Tupelo played their first show.
Nashville has gone it’s way, and “Americana” has gone it’s own way, and there doesn’t appear to be much reason for one market to overtake the other (except maybe to save the world from this gelded jackass) because they service such different fan bases. And even in the nebulously defined world of Americana, you have Texas/Red Dirt Country, indie-leaning bands, and pop bands like Mumford & Sons. The alternatives to listening to mainstream country are everywhere now, but they’ve always been around. They’ve been in your local dancehall, some backyard party, and sometimes, in the right record bin, waiting for you to blow away the dust and take a chance.