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Rockie Country High

This time in Don's Root Cellar, does anybody really know what "alternative country" is? And does it matter? Also, Nick Lowe croons again and we finally find a pro athlete whose musical taste doesn't suck.

1. What is "alternative country?"

The thing about it is, even though it's what I listen to most nowadays, I really can't answer that question. I just kind of know it when I hear it. The term encompasses so much diversity - much more than what would be reasonably included in, say, the terms "grunge" or "brit pop" or "garage rock" - that fans and music writers have been spilling blood over the question for quite some time now. I mean, when a "genre" can encompass everything from the austere, traditional acoustic laments of Freakwater to the Skynyrd-esque rawk of Drive-By Truckers, is "alt country" really a definable genre at all?

The "no" side has a lot of takers, and I'm one of them. They rightly say that rather than being a "something," alt country is really more about not being something - that something being corporate Nashville dreck. So, ultimately, I think, "alt-country" isn't a particular style of music so much as it is an attitude. I'd say that attitude predominantly consists of a rejection of the right-wing politics and phony TV preacher kind of sheen that Nashville has been reveling in ever since Reagan was king - along with a simultaneous embrace of real American values that have been all but lost, such as honesty, social justice and, yeah, even religion - but the old-fashioned kind that preaches love thy neighbor.

But still people try to categorize it, most often by inventing multitudes of cleverly named subgenres in an effort to impose some kind of order. I get a laugh every time I read the way the San Antonio public radio station KSYM-FM describes its Third Coast Music Network alt-country show: Americana / roots / Independent / blues / western / Cajun, Zydeco, Creole / Adult Album Alternative (AAA) / Swamp rock / Punk Bluegrass / Hillbilly-Surf / rock 'n' roll / Texas music / classic country / REAL country / underground Nashville / anti-NashVegas / Twang / / CRINGE?(country fringe) / insurgent country / cowpunk / psychedelic country / y'all-ternative / Eclectic . . .

darrek_anderson.jpgThat covers a lot of ground, but may still not define it. Recently I came across one of the best attempts at an alt-country definition ever. It comes from Darrek Anderson, a Canadian twangster from Edmonton whose band, Darrek Anderson and the Guaranteed, plays a well-written and heartfelt kind of country - nothing spectacular, but real and satisfying in a way that makes you feel connected to something simple but somehow very right. His singing voice reminds me of Roger Clyne, formerly of the Arizona band the Refreshments.

In an interview with the Gateway, the student newspaper from the University of Alberta, Anderson had this to say about what "alternative country" means to him:

"I don't think I could sell the country genre as a whole. There are parts to it that I really like and there are parts that I can't stand at all. I like the honesty and the angle that a lot of the newer alt-country is taking. It's just really honest music, and it can be a little bit mean and pretty much anything you need it to be. It's not fake and it's never commercial and it's not written with any kind of marketing in the back of anyone's mind. It's just true music. I appreciate any kind of music that's like that.

"I guess it's an alternative to the mainstream. Mainstream country music is one of the best examples of pop culture, marketing and image right now - the makeup and the glossy photos and writing with a team. Alt-country is just an option that's against all that. It's pretty much the opposite, but still soul-driven music, simple and defined by an acoustic guitar."

Very, very true. Soul-driven, rather than market-driven. I like that. It's nice to hear someone make some sense out of all the nit-picking and incessant debating over semantics that goes on in the music blogosphere and press all the time about alt country. Hey, if it feels like you're kicking Alan Jackson in the ass, and if makes your soul feel better, then it's alt-country. Let it go at that!

2. Excellent news. Nick Lowe is coming out with a new album.

Why this isn't cause for a national holiday I don't know, but I will celebrate in my own little way every day until June 26, when the fine folks at Yep Roc Records will release At My Age, the British roots master's first studio album in six years. Finally.

Lowe's last album, 2001's The Convincer, also on Yep Rock, completed his mid-life transformation from rockabilly hellion to a laid-back lounge crooner who somehow was able to bring his signature wit and perfect songwriting touch into a considerably different arena. The new Nick certainly won't make you forget the bash and pop of the Rockpile Nick, or the proto-alt country/Carlene Carter/Cowboy Outfit-era Nick of the '80s. But what it does allow the listener to do is focus in unimpeded on the expressive instrument that is his voice, and on how he's now been able to use it to enter that Johnny Rivers world of country soul singing. Like all great "alt" music both rock and country, you aren't quite able to tell if the work is a homage to the genre it's working in or a subtle send-up of it . . . probably both, and that's the genius.

nick_lowe.jpgAccording to the label, the new Lowe effort will brandish "a nuanced musical palette, colored with horns, strings and country flourishes." That, I'm sure, means he'll still be in a crooning mood. Later on in the album will be banjos and "even more horns." The lyrics will also continue in his "diary set to music" style seen on earlier Yep Roc albums, which is good news because few living masters can turn a lyrical phrase like Nick, with one song, the album's closer, described by him as "a bit like a Dean Martin country record." Little Ole Wine Drinker Nick?

There will also be covers of Charlie Feathers and Farron Young and guest shots from Chrissie Hynde and Bill Kirchen. With that kind of pedigree, I have to say I'll be extremely disappointed if this long-awaited disc turns out to be a mutt.

3. Being a former sportswriter, and having read more pro sports media guides than I care to acknowledge publicly, I can tell you that the most hilarious/depressing parts of those things are where they list "personal information" about the athletes, including their favorite music and/or bands. From having to study them, I know for a fact that if Dave Matthews ever becomes desperate for a gig (a vain hope, I know), there are about 12,000 millionaire jocks who'll gladly rent out the local VFW hall for a command performance and pay him whatever he wants.

To give you a better idea of what I'm talking about, here's a sampling of some jock faves I dug up on the Internet, which to me really about sums it up: Toby Keith (Kevin Millwood of the Cleveland Indians); Metallica (Pavol Demitra of the Minnesota Wild); George Strait (Brad Eldred of the Pittsburgh Pirates); Rascal Flatts (Josh Brown of the Seattle Seahawks); etc., etc. There are a few Led Zeppelins, Coldplays, Red Hot Chili Peppers and Pearl Jams thrown in there, but for the most part, it's the Matthews band and "anything country." And by "country," none of them mean Uncle Tupelo . . . or don't they?

An interesting exception seems to be (hold it, hold it . . . ) Colorado Rockies Manager Clint Hurdle. Really. Clint, according to one blogger, is an alt-country fan. This vital information is gleaned from Mark T.R. Donohue writing on the Denver section of the Baseball Toaster blog (called "Bad Altitude," I love it). Mark says:

"Saturday night, I was at Denver's Oriental Theater engaged in conversation with a comely young record store manager who counted Clint Hurdle among her regular customers. I don't know about you, but I feel much better about the guy holding the reins in the Rockies' dugout now that I know Hurdle likes alt-country. Every time he sacrifice bunts in the second inning with the Rockies already down three this year, I'm going to be saying myself, 'Oh, it's OK, he's into Uncle Tupelo, he can't be all bad.'"

Makes me wonder what kind of music Sweet Lou likes. Who was the Dave Matthews of the '60s? God, I wouldn't even want to guess.


See what else is in Don's Root Cellar. Contact him at


Posted on March 29, 2007

MUSIC - Millions Of New Guitar Players.
TV - "One America News" is AT&T.
POLITICS - When Wall Street Came To My Mobile Home Park.
SPORTS - Skytober.

BOOKS - China Holding Swedish Publisher.


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