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Little Big Town

The Duhks

Antigone Rising

Marc Broussard

Rodney Crowell

Steve Earle

Ryan Shupe and the Rubber Band

Gillian Welch

GETTING YOUR GROOVE ON WITH ALTERNATIVE COUNTRY
A Top 10 Artists

Michael Lohr

Most of the country music you hear on the radio is rubbish. It is no different from pop rock, top 40, etc. However, there are certain elements of country music such as big & rich that are fun and enjoyable to listen to, and very musical. That being said, most mainstream country is intolerable to listen to these days. If you even have an idea about bluegrass but are not sure what to listen to, I will address the genre of bluegrass and its top acts like Nickel Creek and Alison Krauss & Union Station in another article. Also, for the sake of the alt. country scene we will avoid any redneck elements so that nothing discussed here will have Foxworthy overtones. There has been a rather surprisingly wonderful movement in country music that has developed over the last few years. It's a fusion of rock, folk, blues and jazz strewn together with traditional forms of country music.

Nashville was reluctant at first to accept the new forms of music. Because of this reluctance places such as Austin, Texas and Tulsa, Oklahoma as well as Minneapolis, Minnesota became hotbeds for alternative forms of country music. College campuses suddenly became places that bands like Son Volt and Uncle Tupelo would play on a regular basis. Rock groups like Dave Matthews Band (DMB) started to incorporate instruments such as fiddle and mandolin into their arrangements and crossover acts began forming everywhere. By the mid to late 1990s, country acts such as Garth Brooks, Dixie Chicks and Travis Tritt were routinely charting at the top of the Billboard popular music charts. The stage was set for a revolution in country music. Soon the influence of The Rolling Stones and The Eagles were not only being heard on country radio but were being extolled by the artists themselves.

Within the last five years the alternative country music scene has exploded with a plethora of new, exciting and talented bands. In the last two years musical acts such as Bruce Springsteen, Neil Young, John Mellencamp and Sheryl Crow, musical acts that had once been considered rock 'n' roll acts and only been seen on VH-1 now have videos on the top country music television stations in America. In fact the whole musical genre of Southern rock (Lynyrd Skynyrd, Molly Hatchet, .38 Special, The Allman Brothers, Marshall Tucker Band) is now considered under the umbrella of country music. In fact earlier this year, the Van Zant Brothers, Johnny and Donnie of Lynyrd Skynyrd and .38 Special fame, released a top selling country music record.

The advent of the alternative country music scene has not only made country music palatable in general, but has made alternative country a viable subgenre where some of today's best music is being made. Here is a top ten list of bands that make great music and are definitely not singing with your grandpappy's or even daddy's country twang.

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LITTLE BIG TOWN
Imagine folk Abba meets The Allman Brothers. Beautiful harmonies fill each song. Musically, imagine a combination of wondrous muddy river bluegrass music, Eagles' vocal melodies, Allman Brothers' guitar licks and a down home folk vibe. Check out the songs Boondocks, Good As Gone and Live With Lonesome from their record The Road To Here for an extraordinary musical experience.

CROSS CANADIAN RAGWEED
I call them grunge country. This talented group recently had a hit single duet with female country crooner Lee Ann Womack, but don't let that stop you from checking them out. Their sound is something between Screaming Trees, Uncle Tupelo, the String Cheese Incident and George Jones. Songs like 17 and Alabama are anthems that can define a career.

THE DUHKS
Pronounced 'ducks', they produce beautiful Celtic-tinged folk music. Combining musical genres such as world music, bluegrass and folk elements, their sound is as refreshing as meandering brook on a summer's day. I first saw their video for their song Mists Of Down Below on the world music show on the Link TV channel here in the states a few months before CMT's Wide Open Country show started to air it. Think of a sound that falls somewhere between Shawn Colvin, The Chieftains, Loreena McKinnett and Alison Krauss & Union Station.

ANTIGONE RISING
Lilith fair chick folk; a comfortable style of music. One listen and you'll know why Starbucks signed an exclusive distribution deal for the band's latest record, From The Ground Up when it came out. Echoes of Bonnie Raitt, Trick Pony and Shelby Lynne permeate their music.

MARC BROUSSARD
Delta blues and jazz, what could be better? This dude can kick a song out! Check out his hit Home - it's about the bayou and New Orleans. After Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans, CNN had Mark play an acoustic version of Home live in their studio - it was a very stirring rendition.

RODNEY CROWELL
The hillbilly Bob Dylan. He is a legendary songwriter in Nashville and one of America's true poet laureates. He makes his money writing commercial fodder to mainstream country stars like Faith Hill, Keith Urban and Toby Keith, but uses his most poignant, musically diverse songs for his own records. His song Fate's Right Hand is a juggernaut of a musical statement about the world's poor state of affairs.

STEVE EARLE
He is the country Neil Young. Get his records Jerusalem and Copperhead Road now. He is one of the most important artists of our day. His controversial John Walker's Blues was a song he wrote about the US citizen that was captured fighting alongside the Taliban in Afghanistan. Steve looks at the world from a very different angle than most. Too bad more people can't create a paradigm shift that is so musically vibrant.

OLD CROW MEDICINE SHOW
Imagine punk mixed with all-acoustic old time folk. They make a wonderful noise. Their vibe is sort of like O Brother, Where Art Thou? bluegrass meets barbershop quartet with a touch of a sideshow circus. They are very diverse musicians; they write excellent songs in many genres, everything from traditional gospel bluegrass to rockabilly.

RYAN SHUPE & THE RUBBER BAND
Wonderful music; REM meets DMB meets country folk: Dream Big, Banjo Boy and Rain Falls Down are just a few of the many pleasant acoustic mixes that highlight their debut record. Theirs is a musical combination of bluegrass fiddle, slap bass and mandolin brought into an amalgam of fusion rhythms.

GILLIAN WELCH
She makes wonderful bluegrass folk. She also looks and dresses like she fell out of a time warp from 1945. Listen to Rock Of Ages from her record Hell Among The Yearlings - it will give you goosebumps. Her voice is a melancholy enchantment. It is no wonder she was cast as a siren in the Cohen brothers' produced cinema classic O Brother, Where Art Thou?

Most notable... Hank Williams III
Like your music with little more than a few shots of outlaw rebel country with a whisky edge? Then you'll love Hank Williams III, the son of Hank Williams Jr and the grandson of the legendary Hank Williams Sr, this Hank is certainly cut from his grandfather's cloth. Minnie Pearl allegedly told Hank Williams III after they first met, "Lord, honey, you're a ghost." His songs recall the days of old time country, whisky soaked misery and heartache. Listen to Cecil Brown from his excellent sophomore record, Lovesick, Broke & Driftin', and you'll know where he's coming from.

Other notable artists that will make you excited about music again would be The Warren Brothers, Hootie And The Blowfish. Yes, you read that right. Hootie and company have just released their new record Looking For Lucky, and it is a country folk tinged album in the vein of Dave Matthews Band that may very well be the best musical release they have ever done. I would also recommend anything from Hank Williams III and The Bastard Sons Of Johnny Cash. The rascally and gnarly group, The Kentucky Headhunters, have released a new record with a Southern rock jamming cover of the Elvis Presley song Big Boss Man to rave reviews.

Almost anything on Rounder records, Lost Highway records and Sugar Hill records is worth your money and musical adventure. Also if you would like to try some neo-traditionalist music you cannot do better than Brad Paisley (Mud On The Tyres is a classic album). If you like country with more jazzy melodies then get into some Lyle Lovett.

Faith Hill is from Possum Sack in Mississippi. Tim McGraw is from Gator Turd in Florida, and neither have anything to do with this type of music. Do you even have possums in Britain?


Edited by Tony Lee
for PIGASUS Press