The mid-Nineties were a strange time in lots of ways, but few stranger than the rise of the musical movement known as “alt-country.”
Hard as it is to believe nowadays, but as grunge began its inevitable but too-rapid descent from Mudhoney, Nirvana, and Pearl Jam into Candlebox and thence to a band fronted by the future Mr. Gwen Stefani, some of the more earnest of its fans put our hopes in a set of bands and singers who took the energy of punk rock and channeled it into recovering country music from Nashville corporations. I’ve covered some of this history in earlier posts on The Jayhawks and Wilco, but as my alphabetical tour of albums continues, I’m reminded that, during my grad school years, I went through a phase of buying nothing that wasn’t connected to alt-country (or “y’allternative”).
(At the time I was also starting to play guitar and write songs myself. One tune that has hopefully disappeared forever told the story of a young girl who grew up listening to Replacements records in the suburbs, got turned on to bluegrass, went to Nashville, beat up an A&R rep — “like a young Loretta Lynn” — and basically burned the city down. I called it “Arson Wind.” Ah, the professional path not taken…)
In my typical fashion, however, I didn’t just indiscriminately buy alt-country records. Whether it was because of scant resources, or my basically risk-averse nature, or a quirk of my way of thinking, I decided that I would only buy a CD if I could directly connect the artist to one I already knew. Having worn out my copy of Being There, I realized that Wilco bassist John Stirratt had once been in a band called The Hilltops with his twin sister Laurie and her husband, Cary Hudson… And they had gone on to found a trio called Blue Mountain, whose back catalog I dug into.
Blue Mountain, Dog Days
This wasn’t the first Blue Mountain album (that was their eponymous, self-released 1993 album, some of whose songs are repeated here) or the first that I bought (Homegrown) or even my favorite that I own (Tales of a Traveler), but we’re in the ‘D’ section of my collection and rules are rules…
Mark Deming of AllMusic.com calls Dog Days “a minor masterpiece” of the alt-country genre — I think that’s going too far, but it’s certainly a good listen, and a fine place to start if you’ve never heard of this Mississippi-based trio, which is obscure enough that it comes up fourth in a Google search for its name, behind a greeting card company, a brewery, and a ski area. (This is partly because Blue Mountain broke up in 2002, around the same time as Hudson and Stirratt’s marriage, though a reunion followed in 2007 that has generated only one album of new songs.)
Much of Blue Mountain’s appeal derives from Hudson’s skill on the electric guitar (he was named 5th best alt-country guitarist by Gibson.com in 2008), which can be reminiscent of classic rock stars like Neil Young and John Fogerty, but also bears the influence of the Delta blues. (The album closes with a cover of Skip James’ “Special Rider Blues.”) So you would expect the more electric tracks on Dog Days to be the most memorable, and to some extent that’s true: “Slow Suicide” features some especially fiery Young-like playing from Hudson, and “A Band Called Bud” rocks as much as you’d want in a tribute to musicians who “Strung their guitars with barbed wire.”
But several of the standout tracks on Dog Days are primarily acoustic. “Close your eyes and listen / To the guitars playing,” Hudson tells us on the chorus of the first song, “Mountain Girl,” which is excellent advice: the shimmering strings of Hudson’s open-tuned guitar match the lyric’s rustic wistfulness (as do Hudson’s harmonica solos and some fine harmony vocals from Stirratt). Hudson’s arrangement of the traditional “Epitaph” is gently powerful. And “Jimmy Carter” is probably the best (only?) folk song yet written in tribute to a much-maligned, one-term president (“with honest peanut roots”). Though I’m sure there’s a great Millard Fillmore ode out there that I haven’t heard yet…
There aren’t too many obviously weak tracks on Dog Days, even if anything called “Soul Sister” is just going to make me think of Roger McGuinn’s embarrassing line about “bringing my soul brothers down” on “Bad Night at the Whiskey” (from another ‘D’ album in my collection), which pretty much killed the Sixties if they weren’t dead yet. But Dog Days does illustrate the limitations of Hudson as a songwriter. Too many songs with unmemorable melodies are carried by the passion and distinctiveness of his voice, and as good as “Mountain Girl” and “Blue Canoe” are, there are probably a few too many trips to the well of nostalgic yearning for a simpler, purer, more pastoral past. A songwriter who hails from (and has since returned to) a small town in Mississippi can pull this off with more credibility than some of his suburban competitors in the genre, but a certain sameness sets in pretty quickly. (I listened to the album twice and had to go back again to remember which song was which.)
All in all, Dog Days is a good reminder both why alt-country seemed so appealing at the time (and, to an extent, has endured) and why that genre/movement was never really going to change the world of pop music.
Release Date: 1995
Three Favorite Tracks: “Jimmy Carter,” “Mountain Girl,” “Special Rider Blues”
Other Nominees: Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers, Damn the Torpedoes; Bruce Springsteen, Darkness on the Edge of Town; PFR, Disappear; R.E.M., Document; The Replacements, Don’t Tell a Soul; Golden Smog, Down by the Old Mainstream; The Minus Five, Down with Wilco; The Byrds, Dr. Byrds & Mr. Hyde.