A Ten Song Introduction to Alternative Country Music

Less yeehaw, beers, and trucks, and more timeless American songwriting, Cameron Chadwick offers a one-stop introduction to the world of alternative country.

1. Wilder Days – Morgan Wade (2021)

A rollicking introduction to country’s surefire next female star, Morgan Wade’s Wilder Days is a nostalgic, Springsteen-esque dashboard thumper. Her voice is both throaty and powerful, both driven and unstable as it soars above distant guitar licks that recall Born to Run in all its euphoria. “You say you hate the smell of cigarette smoke” ties the bait onto the hook of an album opener with all the grandeur of a dive bar an hour past closing time.

2. If We Were Vampires – Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit (2017)

Whether it’s Americana or alt-country, soft rock, or just all-time great American songwriting, the posits on life, love, and impermanent existence that litter Jason Isbell’s 2017 full-length The Nashville Sound prove to be timeless with each passing year. If just one were to find its way into a time capsule, though, it’d be If We Were Vampires – a sombre acceptance of death’s undying reality. It locates the precise moment of realisation that what is in front of us is all we get and surrounds it with campfire-like guitars and restrained backing vocals from Amanda Shires, Isbell’s wife.

3. Gin, Smoke, Lies – Turnpike Troubadours (2012)

An Oklahoma classic from the most revered country band outside of Tennessee, Gin, Smoke, Lies is as haunting as it is caustic. The leading actor is the paranoia of frontman Evan Felker’s vocals and lyrics, while the underlying banjo bags an award for Best Supporting Role as it stretches the tension of suspected infidelity across the four-and-a-half-minute runtime. On the track’s origins, Felker stated in 2012 that one night he was sat on his parents’ porch when it occurred to him that he “couldn’t keep one woman and the rooster in the backyard had twenty.” What ultimately manifested was a tale of deceit, shrouded in mist and soaked in alcohol. Gin, Smoke, Lies makes for a barnburner of a red dirt rocker.

4. How Lucky Am I – Kaitlin Butts (2021)

The iridescence of the alternative country broad church is exemplified no finer than by the juxtaposition of Kaitlin Butts’ latest single to its forerunner in this list. A strong contender for song of the year in the genre so far, everything about How Lucky Am I is charming, from its anecdotal lyrics to its just-shy-of-goofy bass and finger snaps. “With every drink I’m scootin’ closer to your side” Kaitlin confesses with a candidness that sells the track from the outset. One’s awareness of the song’s inception and Butts’ marriage to Flatland Cavalry frontman and Texas staple Cleto Cordero adds a knowing smirk to some of its lyrics, but How Lucky Am I stands alone in its inimitable charisma and irresistible melody.

5. Loose Change – The Highwomen (2019)

Crossover superstar Maren Morris leads the vocals on this deep cut from The Highwomen’s 2019 watershed moment debut, demonstrating that she’s just as country as her supergroup collaborators. Made up of seminal songwriters Brandi Carlile, Natalie Hemby, and the aforementioned Shires and Morris, the pronouncement of a contemporary female counterpart to the legendary outlaw country group was backed up by a diverse twelve-song set. Loose Change isn’t the topical statement of the title track or the lead single Redesigning Women; instead it adds a welcome novelty to the tracklist, centred around a satisfying metaphor for romantic abandonment and mistreatment. The melody is tight and earworm-y compared to the vaster statements elsewhere on the record, and that makes it an underappreciated standout.

6. If You Ain’t Happy Now (You Never Will Be) – Jesse Daniel (2020)

Jesse Daniel is a dark horse in modern country music if there ever was one. His modern reinvention of the Bakersfield sound boasts a relevance and lust for positivity seldom found among independent country artists. While Daniel’s 2018 debut was rough and weathered in its expression of his self-aware songwriting, 2020’s Rollin’ On is a crisp and revitalised series of contoured California jams, with If You Ain’t Happy Now an unknowingly necessary hit of optimism upon its release just a couple of weeks into quarantine measures in the United States. Its commitment to the present stands true today as a reminder that waiting around in expectance of better times is a fine way to waste a life: “If you’re living for tomorrow, it’s now that you’ll never see.”

7. Better With Time – Emily Scott Robinson (2019)

“We couldn’t wait, a year was all we needed/To know the love we found was something rare” opens the second verse of Emily Scott Robinson’s Better Than Time with all the sweetness of blossom falling off a honey plant. But Better With Time, and Emily Scott Robinson’s songwriting, is something rarer. Better With Time would be a once-in-a-lifetime piece of art if the album it lands on, Traveling Mercies, wasn’t already an artisan gallery full of them. It’s beauty in simplicity; the accentuating strings, the brushstroke detail of a line like, “you’d bring home bottles of good vintage that a table didn’t finish/Then we’d drink a midnight glass and fall asleep,” the serenity of just getting by without straying into idealisation. Better With Time is proof that a song can be wholly personal and intimate and still speak a universal truth.

8. Emmylou – Gabe Lee (2020)

Everything that can be said about Better With Time can be said about Emmylou, except in the negative. So many country songs have been written about heartbreak and the feeling of despair following an irreconcilable break-up, but Emmylou feels written within that heartbreak and despair. There is no bigger picture for Gabe Lee between the lines of this song, and there doesn’t need to be. Somewhere on a newfound boundary between Elton John and Merle Haggard, Lee displays as much vocal conviction as either of those artists on their best day, yet with a unique perspective and cadence of his own. As with so much of his music, Gabe Lee feels frozen in a purgatory between the retrospective of his sound and the struggle of a twenty-something musician. For these four minutes, all sight of the years beyond him is lost as he wades in an immovable depression.

9. In His Arms – Miranda Lambert, Jack Ingram & Jon Randall (2021)

While her sleeper hit single Bluebird was gliding through the airwaves of mainstream radio, the female figurehead of twenty-first century country music Miranda Lambert was busy reinventing herself once again through an excursion into the West Texas desert with stalwart songwriters Jack Ingram and Jon Randall. The result was The Marfa Tapes, easily the most low-key addition to Lambert’s catalogue and made up of Voice Memo-like recordings from those ‘magic’ nights. And yet her voice sounds spectacular, the songwriting is comfortable and cozy and the recordings, while raw, capture all the sparsity of the wilderness in which they came to be. One can almost visualise a lost Lambert by the light of a fire, calling out across the wastes, “Is he praying for rain out in West Texas?/Is he lost in the Marfa lights?”

10. The Long Haul – American Aquarium (2020)

Where he was once a scrawny, North Carolinian kid yelling in dark rooms on Saturday nights, BJ Barham is now the working man’s songwriter; an imperfect man who’s always the first to call out his own imperfections. But after sixteen years in the game, those imperfections are getting fewer and fewer, to the point that we arrive at last year’s landmark release Lamentations and the establishment of American Aquarium as champions of hard work, relentless live performances, and honest storytelling. The Long Haul is the culmination of all of these efforts, the celebratory plaque on Barham’s six years of sobriety. Yet he’s as defiant as ever – “Solid as a redwood and she’s standing by my side” – determined to continually better himself as a result of his past mistakes as if AA weren’t already held in extremely high regard by members of the Americana community in the know. Lavish pianos and pedal steel lather the instrumental arrangement to elevate Barham’s four chords and the truth shtick to a new high with an assist from producer Shooter Jennings. But as long as he’s got lines like, “The hardest part of getting sober is learning a drinking buddy ain’t the same thing as a friend,” BJ will never need a leg up.

Written by: Cameron Chadwick

Edited by: Olivia Stock

Featured image courtesy of Emily Scott Robinson via Facebook.