– Old Roots, New Routes: The Cultural Politics of Alt.Country Music, University of Michigan Press

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By Anthony Mark Happel

This timely tome is the first of its kind, as far as I know. By that I mean, it’s a scholarly and philosophical examination of alt.country music (or alt-country music, depending on your preference), that is comprised of challenging, quality essays on subjects ranging from “Selling Out or Buying In?” to the “Regressive Country of Gram Parsons.”

Pamela Fox is a writer and professor at Georgetown University and Barbara Ching is a writer and professor at the University of Memphis, and together they deliver a solid introduction, entitled, “The Importance of Being Ironic – Toward a Theory and Critique of Alt.Country Music” that touches on semiotics, as it explains the intricacies of the subject at hand, not the least of which is explaining what is meant by the term “alternative.” They offer the following as an attempt at a definition: “Popular culture’s inevitable commodification gives rise to many forms of music purporting to be “alternative”… quoting Barry Shank, they go on, “ “a phenomenon defined… as the insistence upon personal integrity and a firm belief in the legitimacy of one’s honestly held and boldly stated tastes.” Alternative music is an antidote to the disease of commodification, or at least it should be, in the view of some.

Fox and Ching spice up their writing with quotes from Susan Sontag, as well as Dale Watson, and they seem to be taking it as a given that in capitalism the vehicle is, ultimately, driving the driver, as it were. They have a good handle on the overall history of which they speak, and a firm grasp of the big picture, within the context of the music world. The writing is consistently crisp and erudite throughout, and all the contributors are sharp knives, to be sure.

Quick-minded insights are whipped out with the ease, like in Diane Pecknold’s aforementioned essay, “Selling Out or Buying In?” wherein she offers this gem: “Paradoxically, though, the alt.country audiences ability to pass more easily through the permeable border between consumers and producers also gives it a far higher stake in the genre’s commercial apparatus than that felt by mainstream country’s early fans.” In other words, a far greater number of alt.country fans are also musicians/songwriters themselves, and this raises the stakes for them as both consumers and producers of music. Seems fairly obvious, but it doesn’t hurt to remind people.

Olivia Carter Mather’s deconstruction of Gram Parsons vocals, in her excellent essay, “Regressive Country”:The Voice of Gram Parsons, probably represents the most straightforward musicology in the book. She deals with music theory and compositional/performance philosophy, focusing less on the politics of the cult surrounding Gram, for example. At the same time, she explains the importance of Gram’s personal biography in comprehending his appeal, not to mention the confusion surrounding him. In one stroke, she explains the historical significance of Gram’s appearance on the music scene, and the proper method for understanding and deconstructing his work. The best part of her writing is her lucid explanations of his singing: “His purpose in singing country was not to execute every note, rhythm, and ornament with technical correctness but to showcase dynamic contrast, smooth legato lines, idiomatic diction, and country harmony singing.”

In general, the contributors incorporate many important players in the alt.country scene, from Steve Earle and Uncle Tupelo to T-Bone Burnett and Neko Case, but there are some fairly glaring omissions, as well. For one, there isn’t enough material on Whiskeytown, and the commercial rise of Ryan Adams as a solo artist, along with the strange contradictory cult that surrounds him.

Likewise, there’s not enough discussion of the country punk/punk-a-billy side of things. The more ragged, underground “alt.country” gets hardly any mention. Dozens of bands that still do get airplay on what’s left of independent college radio, and who play hundreds of shows a year, get no mention at all. And as another writer pointed out in his review, there is, strangely, no sign of Jack White anywhere.

Of course, you can’t do it all in 281 pages, and I should shut up and be thankful this smart object of art exists in our increasingly ice cold digital age that's freezing real books into an endangered species.