I'm trying to figure out what makes Americana/alt-country/roots music different from mainstream country.  Any opinions?  Do they sound different?  How?

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Mainstream "Country" (if you can even call it that) , is bland , overproduced , souless pap , made not for the love of music but to "shift units" . The other one is the opposite , mostly.
That about does the job ! Or Jeff Tweedy v Garth Brooks Or Shania Twang v Tift Merritt
While today's mainstream country is uniformly bad, I would never say that something is great just by virtue of it being "alt-country."  Patty Loveless was once a mainstream country singer, but I'll take her  traditional country and bluegrass outings over Ryan Adams's fakery any day.
Patty Loveless sang 10 years ago like she does today, she just left her record company.

Same-Same Kathy Mattea.  Her mainstream stuff was way above the usual in her Award Winning days.  But, her current work over the last few years, after leaving 'her' record company, is way above even what she did in mainstream.

Like Patty Loveless, she sings just as she did in her 90's wide popularity.  Her song choices have always been wonderful.  Now she includes much material from her own pen.  Lotsa West Virginia and Coal . . . . and Soul

Good Call, I don't care where Kathy's money goes or where she makes it.  She is is a cut above, she can interpret a song like very few can.  No whistles and bells, no gimmicks, just a quiet integrity honoring the material not a viewpoint

Ryan Adams .... Fakery perhaps.  But Whiskeytown was very good. New country is total garbage with very few exceptions. I'm amazed at how disconnected it is from it's roots. 
I'm just curious; what's your criteria for classifying Ryan Adam's music fakery?
Ryan has never claimed to be one thing or the other. He always just does whatever he feels like. I might not always like whatever he feels like giving us (i.e./ that "metal" album) but I admire him for it.

These discussions bring this song to mind...

I second the accurate summary by steviedal and the examples by Andy Riggs.  Let's try one more - Son Volt vs. Brooks and Dunn (it almost hurts to put those two near each other in print).
THAT'S NICE!GOOD ONE:D

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Created by No Depression Feb 17, 2009 at 9:06pm. Last updated by No Depression Sep 24, 2012.