Alt-country, like pop and indie, is a difficult genre to tie down. Its artists often combine folk’s aptitude for moving storytelling, country’s structural simplicity and blues music’s ability to meet struggle and sorrow with resilience. In other words, it’s a genre that’s better off felt.
While the U.S. champions being the home of alt-country, claiming pioneers like Uncle Tupelo (a Wilco-predecessor band), Gillian Welch, Townes Van Zandt, Pavement and Neko Case, Australia has its own deep ties to the genre: from Australiana-inspired acts from Midnight Oil and Nick Cave And The Bad Seeds to highly esteemed protesters of indigenous rights like Archie Roach and Kev Carmody.
And now, we can hear the genre rising in our country’s ever-diversifying indie scenes. It’s there in the take-no-shit attitude, and the rough and ragged blues of Courtney Barnett and Cash Savage and The Last Drinks; in the softening sentimentality of Dick Diver and Thelma Plum, and in the charming folk of Julia Jacklin and Emily Wurramara – that’s just to name a few acts that are storming the country right now.
One artist in particular who plans to make waves with the genre is Charlie Collins, the ex-frontwoman of Tigertown. She recently released ‘Wish You Were Here’, a breezy, starry-eyed track lifted from her forthcoming debut solo record. Collins has been itching for the opportunity to express herself in the form of alt-country. “I picked up acoustic guitar for the first time in a long time and just started writing – I couldn’t stop. I wrote my record in a week,” she explains over the phone.
Even in the midst of Tigertown’s success, the desire to make an alt-country record was playing on her mind. “The people that we came across [in Tigertown] really helped shape who I wanted to become. I don’t ever regret it – those were some of the best years of my life. But there was a part of me, I think towards the end, where I felt like I didn’t feel like I’ve been true to myself musically,” she says.
“I loved the music we were writing, I loved what we were doing, but I could tell that it was coming to an end purely just because of how I felt being on stage – it just didn’t feel real.”
Having grown up in Australia’s capital of tradition country music Tamworth, Collins started performing in pubs and bars since she was just 12 years old, learning how to play guitar by keenly listening to Alison Krauss and practising bluegrass. Her songwriting is influenced by the likes of Gram Parsons, Johnny Cash, Bob Dylan, Neil Young, and Patsy Cline.
“I’ve never heard a voice like Patsey Cline,” she explains. “She paved the way for a lot of women in country music – she was quite bold. And her songs, I mean are just, so beautiful. They’re heartbreaking. It’s that storytelling that I love about country music.”
When asked what inspired ‘Wish You Were Here’, she says, “It sounds like a love song, but it’s not necessarily. I find it really hard to connect with people. So it’s about meeting someone that you just connect with and everything seems so easy.”
Having spent a lot of time in country pubs around adults, Collins didn’t have many friends her age growing up. She notes that she still struggles to connect with people. “I lot of people think when they meet me that I’m an extrovert, but actually, I’m an introvert. I get bad social anxiety, meeting new people freaks me out,” she explains. “When you meet someone and when you just click straight away, it’s like oh my god, this is so good.”
Storytelling through songwriting can be a boon for people with social anxiety –it allows artists to self-edit and tidy up their thoughts, so that they can communicate clearly. “When something’s wrong I find it so hard to actually explain to people what’s [going on],” explains Collins. “I just write songs to talk about my pain, and experiences – or just life in general. I find it so much easier to write things down than to actually verbalise them.”
Artists in particular that excite Collins are Middle Kids, Courtney Barnett, Soccer Mommy and The War On Drugs: “Their new record, A Deeper Understanding, it’s just honestly been such a big influence for me,” she says.
Her record covers a bulk of Collin’s life experience over the past 15 years: from witnessing a family member’s divorce to how she felt towards the end of seven years with Tigertown. “I went through a point of being like, ‘do I just give up [making music]?’ I mean, I’d been doing it for so long,” she says.
She rekindled her passion in merging alt-country music with an experimental, indie sensibility; she enjoyed the way it holds sadness in a delicate, beautiful manner and the simplicity of country’s lyricisms. “I remember when I started out, country wasn’t cool,” says Collins. “And I still don’t understand why country wasn’t cool, because personally, I think it’s the most honest, real genre. It’s really exciting to see that new wave come through. It excites me a lot.”
Here are the best new wave alt-country artists:
The ex-Tigertown frontwoman is leading carving her own unique path in the Australian indie scene. Having grown up on a hefty diet of the country classics, the alt-country luminary has taken both inspiration from her roots, as well as modern indie darlings like The War On Drugs, culminating in a narrative-driven, sentimental sound.
Combining soaring indie soundscapes and folky-tinged, Middle Kids are currently dominating the Australian touring circuit and airwaves with their fresh take on alternative music. Frontwoman Hannah Joy’s warbling vocals paired with star-eyed drenched instrumentals make for a nostalgic affair – having shared the stage with alt-country royalty Ryan Adams, Middle Kids are truly taking the style to the next level.
Bursting onto the scene in a lo-fi storm of angsty and glory, Soccer Mommy is a all-feeling force to be reckoned with. Making her debut trip to Australia for Splendour In The Grass 2018, Soccer Mommy unleashed their emo-twang onto an unsuspecting world in 2016, with 2018’s Clean causing huge hysteria upon release.
Is an Aussie songwriting mainstay at this point. The alt-rocker has solodified her status as being one of Australia’s most poised story-tellers and guitarists. Combining honky-tonk riffs with a hefty helping of 90s-fuzz, Courtney has created her own niche within the Australianrock-sphere that oozes with vulnerability and earnestness.
No artist has made a cross-over quite like Kacey Musgraves in 2018. The country-turned-pysch-pop star has stunned critics and music fans alike with 2018’s Golden Hour. Taking cues from psychedelia and radio-pop the album is a journey through heartbreak, womanhood and growth.
Phoebe Bridgers is hype personified – and for good reason. Getting the tick of approval from Ryan Adams himself, recording her 2015 EP Killer at the lauded PAX AM studios, Bridgers’ idiosyncratic approach to folk is a refreshing burst of life into the genre.
Hailing from the home of alt-country, Austin, Texas, Hovvdy take the genre to its atmospheric best, with 2017’s Taster acting as poignant proof of this.
Heartstring-tugging lyricism and lo-fi simplicity drench Girlpool’s stunning 2017 effort Powerplant. The seamless blend of plucked guitars and open, sprawling chords make for a totally butterfly inducing affair.