A long, long drive from the clean, virtuosic twang of Nashville, alt-country guitar heroes are more noteworthy for digging into the grit and gristle of electric guitar tone than for trying to display how fast human fingers can move across a fretboard. There are some serious players working in this genre, make no mistake, but the players listed below are notable for their contributions to the songs, rather than for how they can rip when their solo rolls around. This Top 10 takes in many of the artists at the center of the movement, but also acknowledges some seminal players at the fringes, without whom the younger generation’s interest in twang might not even have survived. Note: These are listed in no order of honor, but simply as they come to me; these guitarists are all worth hearing, and this isn’t the kind of music that inspires cutting-contest type competition.

1. Drive-By Truckers Triple Threat

 


I’m cheating already, but it’s difficult—arguably impossible—to credit just one guitarist with the ladling of the sauce on this Southern-tinged alt-country outfit’s best work. On Drive-By Truckers’ great Decoration Day, Patterson Hood, Mike Cooley, and Jason Isbell (recently gone solo) share not only lead guitar duties but vocals and songwriting credits too and, amazingly, weave it all together to create a belting, muscular whole that lacks any whiff of the disjointedness you might expect from such a cooperative effort. Check out … well, all of it, but start with the short, sharp, evil Southern death fantasy “Sink Hole,” thrill to the jam-infested “Marry Me,” then swoon to the deliciously interwoven rhythm and arpeggio lines of “My Sweet Annette.” 

2. Gary Louris (Jayhawks and Golden Smog)

 

 


Best known as the major creative force behind Minneapolis Americana and alt-country sensations the Jayhawks, Gary Louris is also one powerful, if understated, guitarist. Wielding an unlikely alt-country instrument in his much-loved ’60s Gibson SG Standard, Louris is as adept at squeezing out edgy, overdriven, blues-rock based lead work that similarly contrasts the organic rootsiness of the music as he is at weaving compelling jangle and arpeggio lines that hook you like the best of the Byrds or early R.E.M. Look, for the latter, not only to Jayhawks tracks like “Save it For a Rainy Day” from Rainy Day Music, but check out his work with alt-country supergroup Golden Smog, exemplified on “Won’t Be Coming Home” from the debut album Down By the Old Mainstream, or “Until You Came Along” from the sophomore release, Weird Tales.

3. Jay Farrar (Uncle Tupelo, Son Volt)

 

 


Sure, Jay Farrar has settled mostly for rhythm guitar credits whilst holding down lead vocal and songwriter duties with Son Volt, but his frenetic, unhinged electric guitar work on the more amped-up Uncle Tupelo outings helped to define the genre. Check out, in particular, the compelling lead lines that kick Anodyne’s “Long Cut” into overdrive, or the sweet, edgy, neck-vibratoed solo of “Chickamauga,” a solo Farrar still takes when Son Volt rolls out this old favorite live.

4. Dave Boquist (Son Volt)

 

 


Which leads us to a well deserved nod for the lead guitarist from the original incarnation of Son Volt. From the stab-and-crunch of “Route” or the juicy bent signature riffs of “Drown” from SV debut outing Trace, to the beautifully blooming and dirtied-up “Driving the View” from Wide Swing Tremolo (the third and final release of this band before Jay Farrar’s long break and subsequent restructuring of Son Volt), Boquist turns his ’70s Gibson Les Paul Goldtop with humbuckers and Bigsby vibrato to in some of the sweetest, most nuanced lead work in the genre. Credit due also, however, to latter-day Son Volt studio lead guitarist Brad Rice and touring sidemen Chris Frame and Chris Masterson, who fly the flag most admirably in the new lineup.

5. Cary Hudson (Blue Mountain and solo)

 

 

 

For bringing a rollicking, Southern-mountain energy to the guitar-driven music of Blue Mountain, Cary Hudson earns a place in the Top 10. For definitive moments, check out the rolling, infectious riffing on “Poppa” from 1999’s Tales of a Traveler, or the fuzzed-out neo-Southern-rock of “Room 829” from the same album. This is the kind of playing that offers a one-hit definition of alt-country guitar; the twang is there, for sure, but it dwells amid equal helpings of amped-up dirt and devil-may-care punk energy. The good news: after breaking up in 2002 following the divorce of Hudson and Blue Mountain bassist Laurie Stirratt (twin sister of Wilco bassist John Stirratt), Blue Mountain reformed last year to play some live dates, and a new CD is reportedly in the works.

6. David Rawlings (Gillian Welch)


This is the one predominantly acoustic player in the list, but David Rawlings’ consistently stellar work with Gillian Welch deserves mention in any list of Americana and alt-country six-string artistry. Weaving heartwrenchingly eloquent support lines and breathtaking solos on a 1935 Epiphone Olympic archtop guitar, Rawlings provides the gravy to the sausage-and-biscuits comfort food of Welsh’s authentically primitivist musical yearnings. Check out the interwoven lines of “Caleb Meyer” or “Rock of Ages” from Hell Among the Yearlings, or the masterly flatpicking of “Red Clay Halo” from Time The Revelator. Gorgeous stuff.

7. Steve Earle (solo)

 


While new-country co-founder and alt-country godfather Steve Earle tours with lead guitarist Eric “Roscoe” Ambel in support, he lays down the majority of the guitar solos himself while in the studio, and injects a whole boatload of guts and gusto into his sound in the process. You can find examples of the big man’s fiery lead work on any of his albums, but for a quick dip into some of the vim and variety Earle can muster, dig out El Corazon and spin “Tanneytown,” “NYC,” or “Here I Am” for cranked-up kicks, and “If You Fall” and “Somewhere Out There” for archetypal Earle acoustic thumpage and jangle respectively.

8. Dale Watson (solo)

 

 


We’re climbing out the side window for a moment to visit a guitarist whose name is touted more in circles espousing the survival of “old country” or “real country,” than alt-country, but whom I’m going to rope in here simply because I feel more people need to hear this guy’s playing. This isn’t the slick virtuosity of a Johnny Hiland or, from the previous generation, an Albert Lee, but genuine Bud-soaked Texas roadhouse honky-tonk twang that is far more addictive than anything the Nashville scene can sling at you. Next time you hit the road for a long haul, put on Watson’s album of trucking-themed tunes, The Truckin’ Sessions, cruise to “Good Luck, Good Truckin’ Tonight,” “Makin’ Up Time,” and “Exit 109” to hear why Hank Williams III calls this Tele picker “the savior of country music.” That in itself’s as alternative as you’re gonna get.

9. The Anti-Alt-Country Offerings: Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy and Nels Kline

 


I was originally going to leave Wilco’s current guitar threat off the list entirely because, as much as an impact as this band has had on the genre, they have done so more, arguably, by moving away from it—and taking plenty of fans with them—toward a compelling breed of experimento-pop that is really a long way from Uncle Tupelo’s alt-country roots. But you know, that in itself deserves acknowledgement. Between them these guys weave major atmospherics with tones that are still rooted in the raw and gritty sounds at the heart of the best alt-country electric guitar playing, while teaching pigeonholers out there that there’s a lot to be had from musical growth and evolution. Check out the rolling, slow build of “Either Way,” the hypnotic cycling of “Impossible Germany,” the bombastic ramble of “Walken,” or the pseudo-progressive jam of “On and On and On”—all from Sky Blue Sky—to hear what these guys can do.

10. Luther Perkins (Johnny Cash)


I’m willing to argue for Johnny Cash as the original alt-country hero (you want to argue with me? Talk to Johnny … ). And with that nomination on the table, look to Luther Perkins for some of the most compelling twang ever laid to vinyl. Understated, limited of chops, Perkins nevertheless established a sound and style that largely defined rebel-country guitar lead playing in the ears—and all across the AM radio dials—of the mass of blue-collar music fans of the late 1950s and ’60s, and did so in the face of countless hotrod session guitar slingers whose names are all but forgotten. “Folsom Prison Blues” … ’nuff said.

For more alt-country goodness, check out: 

Top 5 Essential Alt-Country Albums

3 Great Alt-Country Obscurities