Country music gets a bad rap these days — which is understandable. The genre’s contemporary chart toppers are often characterized by tired clichés, shameless pandering and horrible pop production. But of course, not all country music is bad; there’s a wealth of incredibly gifted songwriters within this important American musical tradition. If you find that the social stigma associated with country is hindering a deeper exploration of the genre, these western-inspired alternative acts should offer up a comfortable way to dip your toes in — without sacrificing any of your punk credibility.
“People Like Us” — Talking Heads
David Byrne chose the fictional town of Virgil, Texas, for the setting of his 1986 directorial debut, “True Stories.” The film’s original music, written by Byrne and his fellow Talking Heads bandmates, took a subtle influence from its southwestern setting. “People Like Us” — sung by John Goodman’s character during the film’s climax — keeps the band’s tight new wave production but adds a fiddle and a pedal steel guitar into the instrumentation, rounding out the country aesthetic.
“Piss Up a Rope” — Ween
Ween’s 1996 album, “12 Golden Country Greats,” likely took many fans by surprise. The weirdo alternative rock duo plays the country theme relatively straight for the majority of the album. The band even assembled a group of reputable Nashville session musicians — christened here as the Shit Creek Boys — to flesh out the rustic arrangements. On “Piss Up a Rope,” however, the band’s lowbrow humor comes out in a less-than-subtle way. Its vulgar lyrics work to satirize the misogynistic tone that is sometimes found within the country genre, while the twangy lead guitar amps things up to a cartoonish quality.
“The Lord’s Favorite” — Iceage
Any country influence on the Danish post-punk band Iceage is likely a little more indirect. The band owes aspects of its sound to certain alternative rock ancestors such as Nick Cave and Lou Reed. Regardless of its lineage, “The Lord’s Favorite” — a track from the band’s 2014 album, “Plowing Into the Field of Love” — gives off an undeniable Americana vibe. A slapback echo textures the rough rhythm guitar, while vocalist Elias Bender Rønnenfelt seems to drunkenly slur his words over the song’s bouncy instrumental.
“Viva Las Vegas” — Dead Kennedys
The hardcore punk band Dead Kennedys closed out its iconic debut album with a cover of the Elvis Presley hit “Viva Las Vegas,” adding a darker edge to the song’s original liveliness. Lead singer Jello Biafra adds in a few of his own subtle changes to the lyrics — “Got coke up my nose to dry away the snot” — while putting on an ironic southern drawl. The entire band speeds things up and energizes the original country-style bassline. In the end, the momentum comes to a screeching halt as the song fades out with one final guitar chord.
“Range Life” — Pavement
Pavement’s sophomore record, “Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain,” seems more connected with American roots music than any of the band’s earlier output. “Range Life,” one of the album’s laid back singles, exemplifies this comfy stylistic shift. A subtle piano compliments the song’s acoustic guitar and twangy electric, crafting a relaxed rural landscape. Frontman Stephen Malkmus even works in a pastoral imagery with the song’s chorus — “I want a range life / If I could settle down / Then I would settle down” — in between his lyrical stream of consciousness.
And a few others:
“Country Death Song” — Violent Femmes
“Uncast Shadow of a Southern Myth” — Parquet Courts
“Factory” — Wall of Voodoo
“Rebel Jew” — Silver Jews
“Whiskeyclone, Hotel City 1997” — Beck