The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

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July 12, 2013

Jeremiah Tucker: Alt-country a solid music genre, in theory

JOPLIN, Mo. — On the Fourth of July, I played a lot of modern country. There were explicitly holiday-appropriate tunes such as Brad Paisley's "American Saturday Night" as well as songs that spoke to the spirit of the Fourth, such as Lee Brice's "Beer."

While at a public park waiting for the fireworks to begin, I blasted them as loud as my iPhone would allow. Soon I noticed a lot of people giving me dirty looks. Apparently, I was surrounded by freedom-hating communists.

Over the years I've found that among people with strong musical preferences, no genre elicits more qualifiers than country. Rarely does anyone hate it outright. Rather, they hedge their appreciation: "I only like the old stuff;" "I like the music but can't stand that exaggerated country twang;" "I like real country, not that crap about dogs and pickups they play on the radio."

Regardless of the complaint, the one uniting factor is their distaste for modern country music.

As for me, I'm the guy still hoping Juliette Barnes, the fictional young country star played by Hayden Panettiere on the primetime soap opera "Nashville," overcomes the shame alt-country snobs have made her feel for her pop-crossover success and embraces her inner Taylor Swift.

I'm also the guy who watches "Nashville."

I understand the qualifiers though. In my wayward youth, I held similar opinions. Not that I ever really tried to listen to country music back then, but I understood implicitly that the Shania Twains of the world weren't to be trusted. That was the whole message of the outlaw movement, right?

But if Waylon, Willie and the lesser-well-known artists who inspired the outlaw movement wanted to make weirder music than the Nashville machine allowed, why do the latter-day artists hearkening back to this style of "real" country sound so safe and conservative?

In theory, I should love alt-country, Americana, roots-rock or whatever label you want to apply to artists playing a sparer, more traditional style of country music. In practice, however, I find most of it incredibly dull, despite deep affection for its influences.

I'll admit much of it sounds pretty. This is why it works so well in small doses, such as on "Nashville" or any other soundtrack overseen by alt-country eminence grise T. Bone Burnett. But over the course of an album I find the reverence and humorlessness so endemic to this genre tedious. Give me the gaudy bluster, professionalism and tight songwriting of modern country any day.

But anytime I read about a newly feted alt-country artist, I'll usually check it out. Here are the best I've listened to this year.

 

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