Indie music redefined: Alternative country breaks free from tradition

It’s bizarre to think of bands like Alice in Chains, Pearl Jam or The Smiths as indie music today, but from the 1980s to 1990s, that was the up-and-coming independent fare. Indie music is one of the most dynamic genres a band or artist can fit into, and since the days of Pearl Jam, the genre has ebbed and flowed with huge waves of change.

The 1990s saw indie rockers defining themselves with their lo-fi recording methods, railing against selling out to the mainstream rock scene, and general stepping back from conventional music and its topics. This was the time of Liz Phair, Blonde Redhead, Belle & Sebastian and all of those folks cutting with The Elephant 6 Recording Company.

By the 2000s, independent music shifted from a heavy punk bias to slightly more convoluted sub-genres. Bands that brought classical elements into their music, like The Decemberists, Sufjan Stevens and The Arcade Fire, who were deemed ‘baroque pop.’ The term ‘post-rock’ described groups like Sigur Rós, and Godspeed You! Black Emperor, who, by definition are “characterized by the use of musical instruments commonly associated with rock music, but [use] rhythms, harmonies, melodies, timbre, and chord progressions that are not found in rock tradition. It is the use of ‘rock instrumentation’ for non-rock purposes,” according to Things started getting really interesting around the ‘new-folk’ and ‘freak-folk’ sub-genres, where artists like Devendra Banhart are paired acoustic instruments with surreal or naturalistic lyrics.

Somewhere out of this primordial indie mix has come the most recent of the titled sub-genres – alternative country.

Alternative country isn’t what you think. Toby Keith is not involved, Brad Paisley is not invited and there are no tractors. This music is genuine and raw. Groups use mostly acoustic instruments matched with harmonized vocals to blend “traditional folk, Americana, gypsy, blues, bluegrass, country, and rockabilly with punk and alternative rock. Traditional instruments such as fiddles, banjos, harmonicas, accordions and mandolins mix with amplified guitars, powerful drumming and upright bass to create a dynamic, raw sound,” according to

Two of the best alternative country bands to-date are Good Old War and The Snake The Cross The Crown.

Good Old War is a small group from Philadelphia, Pa. made up of Keith Goodwin, Daniel Schwartz, and Tim Arnold. The band members say their name “represents our feeling about the struggle in making music so we are throwing our hats into the Good Old War again and can only hope people will enjoy the music we make.”

Their debut album “Only Way to Be Alone” was reviewed on with atypical indie accolades. “Unlike the recent trend among indie rock artists who have visited the country/folk genre, Good Old War makes no attempt to assimilate its music for the sake of novelty. There’s no fake twang in Keith Goodwin’s soft vocals, nor does the band try to overindulge itself by adding sounds by the harmonica or mandolin just for the sake of having them. Instead, this trio from Pennsylvania retains the intimate storytelling nature of folk-song structure, playing music for those who desire an emotive, lyrical experience without having to wade through pretentious or unnecessary musical gimmicks to get it,” said

Another reviewer at the same Web site wrote, “What I love about the album ‘Only Way to Be Alone’ is that it really doesn’t follow any particular trend. If I didn’t know better I’d think their music came from my Dad’s old 8-track collection. With their indie-folk throwback sound, Good Old War prove that it doesn’t matter what genre you play – good music is simply just good music.”

The Snake The Cross The Crown’s 2007 album “Cotton Teeth” marked a departure from the group’s previous musical endeavors. The band from Huntsville, Ala. comprised of Kevin Jones, Franklin Sammons, William Sammons, Mark Fate, and Nate Higley had experimented with several different styles but couldn’t seem to settle on anything cohesive for their first album, “Mander Salis.” After a short hiatus, the band regrouped and refocused and got to work on their second album, “Cotton Teeth.”

“One of the problems that the band ran into during “Mander Salis” was the attempt to blend classic rock elements into their country style. Sometimes it worked, but other times it fell flat. The flat elements were cut and the softer side of their sound was embraced, proving that The Snake The Cross The Crown can write some truly beautiful music when utilizing their strengths. This instantly noticeable departure from the previous album can be heard in the opening finger plucked notes of the lead-off track that are a subtle example of what is to come. The haunting vocals of “Cakewalk” are sung with a lazy style that can only be described as honest. The quietest notes are held to produce a vibrant melancholy creating an atmosphere that would please any fan of Iron and Wine or similar neo-folk artists,” write the review staff at

“Cotton Teeth” has been on repeat on my iPod for the past week, and I still cannot get enough of it. This music is soothing, nostalgic and honest in a world that’s far more complicated than it needs to be. Come join me in the respite, things are good back here.

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