I'm a fan of a music subgenre I tend to think of as "American roots music." But it has many, many names, because it's hard to categorize. If you're goofing around on iTunes, you'll get the general idea of its breadth if you check out the "Alternative Country" and "Contemporary Bluegrass" cuts on iTunes essentials. (There's some overlap with "Modern Folk," too.)
Are any of you also fans?
I am not, in general, a fan of traditional Nashville country music, although of course I do have a fondness for some particular songs or artists (I have a soft spot for Willie Nelson and also The Statler Brothers, for example), and I do very often love traditional bluegrass, blues, and gospel.
But you will not find any country radio stations programmed in my car. :)
The best way I can think of to explain this particular brand of music is to say that it is music played on instruments associated with traditional country or bluegrass music (banjos, acoustic guitars, fiddles, harmonicas, dulcimers, mandolins), but played either by younger musicians who grew up listening to punk and rock, or by older musicians who have allowed newer music to inform their take on "country."
So you have elements of traditional country bluegrass music, mixed up with elements of newer stuff.
The best magazine for this kind of music (it used to be a print magazine but is now just online) has been around for almost fifteen years, and is called No Depression. (The name "No Depression" is from a gospel song called "No Depression in Heaven" which J.D. Vaughan wrote a long time ago and which several folks have covered over the years.)
If an artist is considered "legendary," they can find themselves in this "alternative" category, too, even if they're someone like Dr. Ralph Stanley, who was born in 1927 and is as traditionally bluegrass as you can get . . . lots of singing in minor key, lots of close harmony, lots of banjo, and quite a bit of whining. :)
I suspect another way to define "alternative country" is to say, "country music that Rolling Stone says is cool to listen to." :)
Even if you don't know about or don't like this kind of music, you probably enjoy at least one song that has gone mainstream . . . for instance, T-Bone Burnett produced the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack (Grammy Album of the Year in 2007) as well as the Alison Krauss-Robert Plant collaboration Raising Sand (Grammy Album of the Year in 2009).
Okay, so what was my point with all this enthusiastic rambling about music? I cannot remember. Hold on a second. Oh! I made a list of five "American root music" artists for you to check out if you're new to this genre and are goofing around on iTunes. I am keeping myself to only five because if the list is too long, it's no longer useful or personal, and you might as well just Google "alternative country" and see what you get. I've left off a lot of artists I love, like Lucinda Williams, but five is five.
Please feel free to speak up with your own favorites in this hard-to-define genre if you have any. :) And again, I recommend the iTunes essentials lists for "alternative country" and "contemporary bluegrass" to get you started, although it's not all great.
Here are my five recommendations:
They're my very favorite in this genre, whatever it is, and they're probably the most talented, too. They started playing before "alternative country" or "contemporary bluegrass" or "modern folk" were even terms (Alison Krauss was born in 1971), and Alison Krauss is right up there with Emmylou as a co-queen of traditional bluegrass. But they made bluegrass mainstream in the U.S. with the "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" soundtrack. (Dan Tyminski did the actual vocals for George Clooney when he sang "I Am a Man of Constant Sorrow" and Alison had lead vocals on a few of the tracks.) If you are new to Alison Krauss & Union Station, you need to get this soundtrack because it'll give you a sample of both Alison's and Tim's vocals. (And other folks', too.) (It's available on iTunes.)
I'm a big fan of all their stuff, old and new, and have lost all objectivity, actually. Get their Live album and also New Favorite. It's all good.
Alison's done a lot of solo work and specials with other artists, also. If you just want to hear a good sample of her vocals, download either "I Went Down to the River to Pray," which has those traditional close harmonies, or maybe "When You Say Nothing at All." Besides everything else I've raved about, I favor her "Simple Gifts" duet with Yo Yo Ma, and anything from the Raising Sand album.
Here's Choctaw Hayride, to let you see Dan in action on the guitar and Alison on the fiddle. (This one's an instrumental.) That's Jerry Douglas over there on the left playing the Dobro. He's actually his own legend . . . I need a separate link just for him. And Ron Block is on the banjo. He has recorded with a bunch of other artists you probably know. And Barry Bales is on the bass, and you probably know people he's played with, too. The whole band is awesome. I could watch this all day. :)
The Be Good Tanyas
Reviewer Ken Cox explained them this way: "If a person wants to hear performers who embrace the folk, country, and blues roots of American music with a little touch of the contemporary, then The Be Good Tanyas are voices that come out of the wilderness and onto center stage, performing music that transcends their birthdates and transports their listeners from the past to the present and vice-versa." What do you do, exactly, with a group that has this folksy sound, but covers a Prince song? :)
When people talk about "American Roots Music," they mean "North American," not just "U.S." This band is Canadian. If you are new to The Be Good Tanyas, you can download "The Littlest Birds" on iTunes, which is their most popular hit. I myself favor "Lakes of Ponchartrain." Their first album, Blue Horse, is still my favorite, because Jolie Holland was still with them, but they're great later, too.
The Avett Brothers
It always helps to be from the South if you're going to play any kind of country/bluegrass music. :) They're from North Carolina. They are young, and their style is sometimes called "grungegrass." They are in the current issue of Rolling Stone, so you see how loosey-goosey it can be trying to pin this genre down. I've talked about them a lot before. Here is one of my favorite Avett Brothers songs:
I think they called their own music "Progressive Acoustic." But you can hear the bluegrass influence loud and clear. :) Alison Krauss produced one of their albums. They broke up as a trio in the summer of 2006, but Sara Watkins is doing her own thing, and Chris Thile's new band is called "Punch Creek". A little NPR article and a song ("Helena") are here.
If you are new to Nickel Creek, you can download "The Lighthouse's Tale" or "When You Come Back Down" on iTunes, which are their most popular hits. I myself favor "First and Last Waltz."
Here is a fun video of the Smoothie Song.
He's the world's best banjo player, or at least the most famous, and he really confuses people trying to categorize him. Go to iTunes and check out the cuts on his "Perpetual Motion" album, and you'll see what I'm talking about. Oh how to categorize Bluegrass Paganini? :) Here is a fun video with Steve Martin playing banjo with Béla and also Tony Trishcka. Béla's the banjo on the far right.
Go to iTunes and download the song "Plow to the End of the Row" (and the whole album if you like it), and maybe also the songs "Hills & Hollers" and "The Art of Virtue". See what you think. I love them. (If you're close to Charlottesville, Virginia, you can go hear her live on April 18th.)
Here's a video of The Art of Virtue. The audio is awful, but you get the idea.
Oops. That's six. :) I also highly recommend the albums "Appalachia Waltz" (Yo-Yo Ma, Mark O'Connor and Edgar Meyer) and "Appalachian Journey" (Yo Yo Ma, Mark O'Connor, Edgar Meyer, Bela Fleck, James Taylor, and Alison Krauss), both available at iTunes.