There are people who will tell you that this is the first ever alt country album. They are wrong about that. They have apparently never heard of the Jayhawks or any of the alternative rock bands incorporating country into their music in the 1980s. (I just finished reviewing an album also credited with inventing this genre that was released 5 years earlier to the month. So…)
But you shouldn’t hold that misconception against this album. It may not have invented alt country, but it certainly helped make it the “next big thing” for a while. (And then it never was the next big thing, but that’s another story.)
Farrar’s songs in particular sound like they are the work of a country songwriter, possibly one who is now dead. Tweedy’s are a little more modern in lyrical content – to put it mildly but the band still gives them enough of a country tinge to make them sound country. There were those who accused these guys of being inauthentic because they were twenty somethings from metropolitan St. Louis but kids have been adopting the sounds of previous generations and different places since music first existed. It doesn’t bother me that I know where these guys are from, the songs are good.
But it’s the aesthetic that really caught on. Aside from being far more country than most of the alternative bands that flirted with country in the ’80s, and so much less punk than any cowpunk band, they are also noticeably more “rock” than bands like the Jayhawks, at least on their loudest songs. (It should go without saying that this music is louder than country rock. By a lot.)
By upping the distortion but still managing to include country instruments, they gave the fledging genre a more recognizable sound. (The Jayhawks, for example, can sound straight-up country at their softest. There’s no “alternative” there.) It’s the sound of distorted guitars playing country music at a speed that is more recognizably classic country than cowpunk – again, with country instrument flourishes, but also with a singer in Farrar who sounds like a country singer – that makes people think this is the first ever alt country album.
That’s why the record is a big deal. It’s what many people think alt country should sound like.