Lost Highway is not a country label. Yeah, the burgeoning imprint gets its moniker from a Hank Williams song, released two bluegrass albums based on the movie O Brother, Where Art Thou? and has a roster that skews toward literate, roots-identified singer-songwriters like Lucinda Williams, Robert Earl Keen, Ryan Adams, and Kim Richey. Mercury Records Nashville president Luke Lewis created the company as a safe harbor for such artists—folks who get great reviews but are on a nowhere road when it comes to radio, video, and CBS-televised awards shows.
Still, the context for Lost Highway is broader than the commercial imperatives of Nashville's music-biz machine. The boutique label is nothing less than a symptom of the death of rock 'n' roll.
Now, I realize those particular funeral services have been conducted regularly for years, with writers delivering the eulogy and few actual fans among the mourners. But in the 21st century, "rock 'n' roll" is no longer a universal emblem. It is just one of many musics under the larger cultural umbrella of pop. When rock does make an impact on the charts, it calls for further fragmentation: "alternative," "rap-metal," "punk," and so forth.
But song-based guitar music steeped in blues, folk, soul, and yes, country? The rock 'n' roll of Dylan, of the Band, of Tom Petty, or even R.E.M.? It's a specialty genre, just like jazz or reggae. "Alternative country" (translation: You can successfully carry on a conversation about four of the following five things: William Faulkner, George Jones, Robert Altman, the Clash, and Stax Records) is as good a name as any. It's certainly better than "adult alternative" (translation: You are old and don't like hip-hop), the only radio format supporting this aesthetic.
In Ryan Adams, Lost Highway has the best example of a classic rocker disguised as a twangy troubadour since Steve Earle made such compelling use of Axl Rose's lifestyle and Bruce Springsteen's live show. A sensitive, charismatic bad boy who's worn his share of eyeliner, the 27-year-old North Carolinian made his label debut earlier this year with Pneumonia, a posthumous effort by his band Whiskeytown. He returns Sept. 25 with Gold, his second solo disc. Adams is a prolific, erratic, and eclectic talent who seems determined to put out many, many albums—sometimes solo and sometimes with a band, sometimes misguided and sometimes brilliant, loud and quiet, messy and clean, equal parts New York, Los Angeles, and Nashville. Like Neil Young and Dylan used to.
Back in the day, Adams would have received the full "New Dylan" treatment. Now, the always-understated British press refers to him as "the Kurt Cobain of new country." But he has little chance of living up to either benchmark, and Lost Highway knows it. The label's goal is to combine artist-friendly expectations with corporate muscle, a modest business plan predicated on low overhead (using New York-based staffers of Island Def Jam, another Universal company), a limited roster, and realistic sales goals. Lucinda Williams' latest, Essence, has surpassed its gold-certified predecessor, Car Wheels on a Gravel Road, but her label-mates Adams and Keen know better than to dream of selling millions of records. They hope to grow their sales figures from the low six figures into, well, the middle six figures.
Adams, for his part, has said he simply isn't whorish enough to play the music business game. Lost Highway's Luke Lewis romanticizes his roster with the observation that "if they weren't musicians, they could be poets." The implication being that Mercury Nashville star Shania Twain is not. But Shania exists in the universe of pop: It's as if a tiny fraction of her millions allows Lost Highway to act as a privatized NEA for literate, endangered-species songwriters. Back when the music business consisted of more than five mega-companies (Lost Highway is, like Mercury Nashville, part of Universal Music Group), this happened all the time. Warner Bros./Reprise carried Van Morrison and Bonnie Raitt for years, simply because they were important artists.
Times have changed. There was an uproar when that particular duo got dropped in the early '80s (before Raitt became a star again). Now bands have as much job security as a prime-time sitcom actor. Look at erstwhile hipster-twang heroes Wilco: Last month, Billboard reported that Reprise (which along with the rest of Time Warner is now an AOL subsidiary) is parting ways with Jeff Tweedy's combo, the less predictable of the two groups that splintered off from alt-country pioneers Uncle Tupelo in 1997.
Over the course of three albums Wilco have gotten looser, weirder, and louder, suggesting influences like the Who, T-Rex, the Beach Boys, and even Pavement. Its newest, as-yet-unreleased effort was produced by Jim O'Rourke, a Chicago underground maven who plays in the band Gastr del Sol and has collaborated with the likes of the Red Krayola and Sonic Youth. That couldn't have been music to Reprise's ears—the record company was probably hoping to capitalize on Wilco's trendy neo-traditionalist credentials as the backing band for Billy Bragg on two albums of Woody Guthrie songs.
But Tweedy has never had much time for people who want him to stick with what's familiar. "I'm happy to let other people make that kind of Wilco record now, and there's plenty of them doing it, like Ryan Adams," he told the Chicago Sun-Times recently.
Meow. The guy might want to consider taking that comment back—right about now, he could use a contract with Lost Highway.