In the 1990s, however, "alternative country" came to refer to a diverse group of musicians and singers operating outside the traditions and industry of mainstream country music. In general, these musicians eschewed the high production values and pop outlook of the Nashville-dominated industry, to produce music with a lo-fi sound, frequently infused with a strong punk and rock & roll aesthetic, bending the traditional rules of country music. Lyrics are often bleak, gothic or socially aware. In other respects, the musical styles of artists that fall within this genre often have little in common, ranging from traditional American folk tunes and bluegrass, through rockabilly and honky-tonk, to music that is indistinguishable from mainstream rock or country. Indeed, many alternative country artists come from punk and rock backgrounds. This already broad labelling has been further confused by alternative country artists disavowing the movement, mainstream artists declaring they are part of it, and retroactive claims that past or veteran musicians are alternative country. No Depression, the most well-known magazine dedicated to the genre, declared that it covered "alternative-country music (whatever that is)".
Despite this confusion, it is generally agreed that alternative country resulted from two opposing influences. The first is traditional American country music, the music of working people, preserved and celebrated by practitioners such as Woody Guthrie, Hank Williams, and The Carter Family. The second is country rock, the result of fusing country music with an aggressive rock & roll sound. The artist most commonly thought to have originated country rock is Gram Parsons (who referred to his sound as "Cosmic American Music"), although Jason and the Scorchers, and Steve Earle are frequently identified as important innovators. These two styles merged in Uncle Tupelo's 1990 LP No Depression, and this album is widely credited with being the first "alt-country" album. The bands Whiskeytown and The Old 97's continued in this tradition, and former Whiskeytown singer Ryan Adams continues to shape the genre to this day in his solo career.
Alternative country is popularly referred to, especially in print, as "alt-country" or sometimes "alt.country". The genre is also referred to by many other names, including "americana", "rockabilly", "trashcan americana", "insurgent country", "neotraditional", "no depression", "cowpunk", "progressive country", "regressive country", "lo-fi country", "roots rock", "twang core", "rural contemporary", "country-punk", "y'allternative", "hick rock", "count-rock", "alternative country-rock" and many others. Neologisms such as "citygrass and "deathcountry" have also been coined to describe some artists within the genre.