Chet Flippo on 'The Genre-Bustin’ Rise of Insurgent Country' (From The Billboard Archives)

With the passing of longtime music writer Chet Flippo, Billboard’s Nashville Bureau Chief from 1995 to 2000, we went back to our archives to read his voluminous music writings. Here we discovered a perfect example of Chet's shining long-form journalism in a piece from 1996 entitled "The Genre-Bustin’ Rise of Insurgent Country." Flippo meticulously documented the rising alt.country scene, from forbearers like “Hank Williams (the prototypical depraved and doomed rock star), Gram Parsons (an even more doomed and romantic version of Williams), Rank & File and Jason & the Scorchers (heretical country-rockers in Nashville in the early '80s) and Steve Earle (the third version of Williams, who fortunately outlived the jinx)" (his words) to next generation torch bearers like Uncle Tupelo, Lucinda Williams, Robbie Fulks and Whiskeytown to industry insiders (HighTone president Larry Sloven, Dave Durocher of Bug Music in Nashville), new labels (Bloodshot Records and Dead Reckoning) and even Austin's old-school "big-voiced yodeler" Don Walser.

Billboard, December 28, 1996

By Chet Flippo

There's a new musical tent under which are gathering all the performers the big top doesn't have room for these days. The big top shelters mainstream country music; the side tent is harboring those performers going by the name 'alternative country,' 'insurgent country,' or 'progressive country,' and it's starting to draw a crowd.

For years, it has been a critically important but commercially overlooked side of country music. Now, significantly, its appeal to a disenfranchised country audience and a curious pop and rock audience is beginning to make it a vital musical force and is drawing the attention of major labels.

It's a movement that has its own revered elders, its own magazine, its own nationwide circuit of clubs, its own Nashville live radio show, its own cookbook, its own string of gritty indie labels, its own young guns being supplanted by even younger guns, and even its own cruise.

Two recent musical events may illustrate and depict the movement's character and its appeal and musical diversity. One was Hank Williams' 73rd birthday party at the Sutler in Nashville. This was the night of one of the weekly 'Western Beat Roots Revival' radio broadcasts live from the Sutler, and it featured many special guests paying tribute to the father of modern country music, and perhaps of 'alt.country' music. His daughter, Jett Williams, opened the show, setting the tone for the across-the-board country talent to come afterward.

Singer/songwriter Paul Burch, a graduate of Nashville's Lower Broadway scene, followed, as did Jason Petty, who accurately and eerily portrays Hank in the show 'Lost Highway' at the Ryman Auditorium. Songwriter supreme Jim Lauderdale sang tribute, along with such roots artists as Tracy Nelson, Mandy Barnett, Victor Mecyssne, and Neal Coty, who shared the stage with Hank's original steel guitar player, Don Helms. There were also such progressive performers as Lucinda Williams and Harley Allen, not to mention the radio show's host, Billy Block; former E-Street band member and Nashville indie-label exec Garry Tallent; and Fleetwood Mac alumni/Nashville cats Rick Vito, Bekka Bramlett, and Billy Burnette. That's the sort of musical diversity with which alt.country music is comfortable.

The second happening was a taping in Austin, Texas, for the TV show 'Austin City Limits.' The participants were all stalwarts of alt.country, but their styles were wildly divergent: old-timer Don Walser, jacked-up honky-tonkers the Derailers, the achingly pure purist Wayne Hancock, classic-country chanteuse Libbi Bosworth, truck-stop hero Dale Watson, and gritty-rootser Mary Cutrufello.

Another definition of alternative country, easily deduced, is that it comprises artists who are not played on mainstream country radio, so it's even more unusual for them to get TV exposure.

Alt.country's elders are Hank Williams (the prototypical depraved and doomed rock star), Gram Parsons (an even more doomed and romantic version of Williams), Rank & File and Jason & the Scorchers (heretical country-rockers in Nashville in the early '80s), and Steve Earle (the third version of Williams, who fortunately outlived the jinx).

The movement's magazine is No Depression: The Alternative Country (Whatever That Is) Bimonthly, around which a cohesive scene has coalesced. Its club circuit includes the Exit/In in Nashville; Austin's myriad clubs; New York's Mercury Lounge; Seattle's Tractor Tavern; Ann Arbor, Mich.'s the Ark; Chicago's Schubas; and Chapel Hill, N.C.'s Cat's Cradle (see story, page 5).

Its live radio show, the aforementioned 'Western Beat Roots Revival,' is broadcast on WRLT Nashville two hours every Tuesday night from the Sutler. Its cookbook is 'Let's Eat: The Original Alt.Country Community (Wherever That Is) Cookbook' (available via America Online). Its quirky indie labels include Chicago's free-wheeling Bloodshot; Nashville's trend-setting, artist-owned Dead Reckoning Records; Austin's diverse Watermelon Records; Carrboro, N.C.'s Mammoth Records; and the West Coast's bedrock country label, HighTone Records.

Its cruise is the Delbert McClinton & Friends' Sandy Beaches Cruise 3, which is headed for a week in the Caribbean in January with McClinton and pals Joe Ely, Al Anderson, Hal Ketchum, Asleep At The Wheel, Lee Roy Parnell, Marcia Ball, Wayne Toups & Zydecajun, Stephen Bruton, Gary Nicholson, and Nick Connally.

Again, if you're not played on mainstream country radio, you're alt.country. Nashville's senior songwriter, Harlan Howard, has long been a punk cult figure because of his stated goal to write a country hit using one chord.

'Western Beat Roots Revival' is significant in that it's the first live radio show dedicated to the new country mix, and it comes at a time when live country radio is nonexistent, save that from the Grand Ole Opry. Its ringmaster, Billy Block, has an alt.country band, the Bum Steers, on his Western Beat label.


FOUR SCHOOLS

Although most bands hate being categorized, it is possible to spot four roughly defined schools of alt.country. First is the hot-eyed rockers venturing over from punk, discovering roots country, and adapting it--either the songs or song sensibility--and some of its instrumentation. Uncle Tupelo is a prime example, as are its offshoots Son Volt and Wilco. Denton, Texas' Slobberbone and Colorado's 16 Horsepower have a similar approach, as does Whiskeytown (a Raleigh, N.C., band just signed to Outpost/Geffen), whose leader formerly led the band Patty Duke Syndrome.

The singer with the biggest buzz in alt.country now, Robbie Fulks, is part mad scientist and part country punker. His classic song 'She Took A Lot Of Pills (And Died)' has already passed into alt.country lore. He's on Bloodshot but is talking to Geffen.

Second is the purist/traditionalist approach, with BR5-49 as a good example. There's some trad material and some original material done in trad style. Austin's Derailers are another example, as is Burch, who began on Lower Broadway with BR5-49. Greg Garing, who also started there, moved to New York and is recording a 'trip-hop bluegrass' album for Paladin/Revolution. Lauderdale also fits here.

Third is the traditionalist, who has been doing the same thing for years and is finally being recognized by the hip crowd. Country icons Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, and Waylon Jennings are good examples, as is Walser, who didn't start his professional music career until age 59. Bluegrass performers such as Del McCoury, Sam Bush, and Peter Rowan have a new generation of fans, as does Charlie Louvin. Honky-tonk singers like Wayne Hancock and Dale Watson also come to mind.

Fourth is the folkie, who is attracted to alt.country because of its emphasis on the song. Iris DeMent is one. Kim Richey is too. (See Music To My Ears, page 7.) Amy Rigby, who manages to maintain a hip country sensibility in the big city, is another. Is Lyle Lovett a folkie? Categories don't work for him.

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