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The Spin Record Guide: Alt Country

Meat Puppets, Mekons, Uncle Tupelo and Jayhawks alt-country album covers

Starting in the 1980s, punk rockers in search of their roots and honky-tonk outlaws looking for something more real than Nashville’s focus-group pop created a new sound out of down-home twang and rock rebellion. Here’s a 30-plus-year retrospective of the insurgent country spirit.

The Flying Burrito Brothers, The Gilded Palace of Sin (A&M, 1969; Edsel, 1994)

Gram Parsons invented “country rock,” a utopia where the working folks back on his daddy’s Florida orange plantation split a beer with the hippie aristocracy he found in “Sin City,” California. Featuring an Aretha Franklin cover, an anti-Vietnam ditty, and a mess of Buck Owens twang, Gilded Palace was Easy Rider in reverse, a vision of America where rednecks and Deadheads sing the same song.

The Flatlanders, More a Legend Than a Band (1972; Rounder, 1990)

These ’70s West Texas acid cowboys met the Age of Aquarius with an existential hoedown–“You say we’ll all stand as brothers / I guess till then we’ll just stand around,” sang Jimmie Dale Gilmore in his strangled wildflower of a voice. The band hammered on the Dobro and the singing saw, hoping the universe would collapse before they lost their recording contract. ALSO TRY: The outlaw coke boogie of Joe Ely’s Honky Tonk Masquerade (MCA, 1978) and Gilmore’s weeping, willowy After Awhile (Elektra/Nonesuch, 1991).

Meat Puppets, Meat Puppets II (SST, 1983)

Cris and Curt Kirkwood were wide-eyed kids from Phoenix, playing psychedelic bluegrass thrash, and II is their unlikely masterpiece of desert mysticism. The boys looked for “New Gods” in the “lake of fire” and came out picking and grinning like the house band at Los Alamos. ALSO TRY: Rank & File’s Long Gone Dead (London, 1984), the meaner, straight-ahead side of ’80s underground rock.

Mekons, Fear and Whiskey (Sin, 1985)

They were from England (like Depeche Mode); they used a drum machine (like Shania Twain); they were dead-eyed sluts (like Hank Williams). And on the most intoxicatingly dank honky-tonk record of all time, they rode a glass-bottom Cadillac straight to the heart of darkness.

Steve Earle, Guitar Town (MCA, 1986)

Rolling into Nashville with “a two-pack habit and a motel tan,” rolling out with a crack habit and a rep as an unrepentant loudmouth, Steve Earle was the screwup amid the new traditionalists–a Bruce Springsteen too down-and-out to believe that the American myth could be anything but a hollow promise.

Lucinda Williams, Lucinda Williams (Rough Trade, 1998)

No one since the Rolling Stones has sung so honestly about the heaven and hell of human desire–and the Stones don’t have too many songs written from the perspective of a Corona-slamming waitress. Here, Williams dissected small-town romance like Flaubert in heat.

Uncle Tupelo, No Depression (Rockville, 1990)

Jay Farrar and Jeff Tweedy trademarked ’90s “alt country,” introducing the Carter Family to the Minutemen, reinventing skate punk for combine kids, and turning the horrible realization that you’re never gonna get out of your hometown into a raison d’être. In Tupelo country, you take solace in the sounds of the past because the future’s foreclosed and boredom is your best buddy.

The Jayhawks, Hollywood Town Hall (Def America, 1992)

The greatest Lutheran bar band ever, transplanting Gram Parsons’ gilded palace to the windswept nowhere of rural Minnesota. Mark Olson and Gary Louris sang about wide-open spaces, love, death, and waiting for the weather to warm up. Their forlorn, high-plains blues rang out as clearly as the coldest day of the year.

Palace Music, Viva Last Blues (Drag City, 1995)

The slow kid from The Sound and the Fury reborn as an indie-rock savant, Will “Palace” Oldham worked out his Southern aristocratic angst (and latent sexual issues) with odes to sloth, morbid jealousy, and backwoods amour, rendered in a beautiful faux-inbred croak. ALSO TRY: Songs: Ohia’s The Magnolia Electric Co. (Secretly Canadian, 2003), which buries the Palace sound in a noise-rock mudslide.

Drive-By Truckers, Southern Rock Opera (Lost Highway, 2002)

In the spirit of Gram Parsons, Alabama belligerent Patterson Hood dreamed of a populist rock that could fuse the punk of his misspent youth with the denim jams of his high school parking lot. Opera–a two-disc travelogue of Southern angst–excavates a nasty history from the Civil War to George Wallace to Lynyrd Skynyrd without irony or shame.