Though "alt.country" wouldn't be called that for a few more years, its big bang moment came in 1988, with the release of two of the most significant records the genre ever produced.
In 1988, Steve Earle stood at a career crossroads. He had put out two fairly successful, left-of-center country records, Guitar Town and Exit 0. But, personality clashes and an escalating drug habit left Earle on the outs with his label, MCA. (Legend has it Earle for years refused to get a haircut, just to piss off the MCA suits.) To make peace, he was reassigned to the label's new UNI imprint. His first -- and only -- record for UNI was Copperhead Road. Free of the Nashville label's radio-dependent production ethos, Earle adopted a rock-influenced sound and wrote his strongest set to date. Half the album is about love and family, while the other half is made up of story songs, with a political edge. That includes the great "Johnny Come Lately," on which Earle is backed by the Pogues. Two dozen years after its release, the song still packs a powerful punch, capturing the challenges returning war heroes faced after the Vietnam war and even to this day.
While Earle's career had been steadily building for several years, Lucinda Williams seemed to come out of nowhere. Her 1988 self-titled album was actually her third record. The first two, released on the archival Folkways label, were little noted nor long remembered. Though an accomplished songwriter, Williams had no significant covers of her music. Despite stays in Austin and L.A., she really wasn't part of any music scene. Yet she had already earned a reputation in the music industry as someone who was both extremely good and extremely protective of her artistic vision. Her demos were shopped to major labels for years, but Williams vetoed potential deals. She ended up releasing Lucinda Williams on Rough Trade, a struggling punk indie label. It was an immediate success, garnering glowing reviews and big-name endorsements. Emmylou Harris and Shawn Colvin, among others, sang her praises. Emmylou, Mary Chapin Carpenter and Patty Loveless charted with covers of Lucinda Williams songs. Perhaps the most interesting cover was delivered by Tom Petty, who included the stalker anthem, "I Changed the Locks on My Doors" on the She's the One soundtrack album.
Despite Rough Trade's shaky distribution, Lucinda Williams sold more than 100,000 copies. (Sadly, it's now the only album in the Lucinda Williams catalog that's not available digitally.) Copperhead Road also went gold. Both records inspired a new generation of singer/songwriters, who nestled somewhere between rock and country. Williams' and Earle's paths would eventually cross, when she appeared on his 1997 comeback record, and he produced her 1998 masterpiece, Car Wheels on a Gravel Road. Those records, like the 1988 records that preceded them, helped define alt.country...whatever that means.