Years before the term “alt-country” was conceived, something a little uglier and grimier was festering in Nashville. Jason & The Scorchers—led by explosive frontman Jason Ringenberg—released a couple of EPs before dropping their best record Lost & Found in 1985. It’s a punk rock album at heart, but guitarist Warner Hodges has plenty of twangy licks up his sleeve. Songs like “Lost Highway” and “I Really Don’t Want To Know” showed off Ringenberg’s wry sense of humor, while also confounding audiences for being too country for some and too punk rock for others. The band never found any major success early on, however, three decades later Lost & Found proves that Jason & The Scorchers were light years ahead of their time.—Mark Lore
Though some younger fans might not truly appreciate just what Eddy Arnold brought to the format, his down-home personality along with his slightly more sophisticated tone made him one of the format’s most bankable crossover stars. With a reign on the country top 40 that lasted for close to four decades, Arnold managed to keep a career going from the days of 78 RPM to the digital age.
The turn of the millennium was a time of incredible nationalism, at least as far as Canadian radio is concerned. The 1971 CRTC rules (30% Canadian content on Canadian radio) finally come into full effect and by the end of the 20th century radio stations would have to play 35% Canadian content. This led to an explosion in the 21st century of Canadian pop musicians dominating the airwaves unlike any era before. In 1996, VideoFACT launched PromoFACT, a funding program to help new artists produce electronic press kits and websites. At about the same time, the CD (cheap to manufacture) replaced the vinyl album and Compact Cassette (expensive to manufacture). Shortly thereafter, the Internet allowed musicians to directly distribute their music, thus bypassing the selection of the old-fashioned "record label". Canada's mainstream music industry has suffered as a result of the internet and the boom of independent music. The drop in annual sales between 1999 - the year that Napster's unauthorized peer-to-peer file sharing service launched - and the end of 2004 was $465 million.
Sometimes it takes a bunch of Canadians to write some of the most quintessential American songs in music history. While the band is 80 per cent Canadian (with one Arkansan in drummer Levon Helm), they remain one of the most influential acts in 60s rock and their concert film, The Last Waltz, stands as one of the greatest moments in rock history. With their 1968 debut, Music From Big Pink, the Canadian troubadours (Robbie Robertson, Rick Danko, Garth Hudson and Richard Manuel) gave definition to the genre of ‘Americana’ with their blues-meets-country-infused R&B. Even the most casual music fan knows the chorus to ‘The Weight’ and their song, ‘The Night They Drove Ol’ Dixie Down’ is one of the best rock songs ever put to tape about the Civil War.
During the mid-1970s, Dolly Parton, a successful mainstream country artist since the late 1960s, mounted a high-profile campaign to cross over to pop music, culminating in her 1977 hit "Here You Come Again", which topped the U.S. country singles chart, and also reached No. 3 on the pop singles charts. Parton's male counterpart, Kenny Rogers, came from the opposite direction, aiming his music at the country charts, after a successful career in pop, rock and folk music with The First Edition, achieving success the same year with "Lucille", which topped the country charts and reached No. 5 on the U.S. pop singles charts, as well as reaching Number 1 on the British all-genre chart. Parton and Rogers would both continue to have success on both country and pop charts simultaneously, well into the 1980s. Artists like Crystal Gayle, Ronnie Milsap and Barbara Mandrell would also find success on the pop charts with their records. In 1975, author Paul Hemphill stated in the Saturday Evening Post, "Country music isn't really country anymore; it is a hybrid of nearly every form of popular music in America."
Singer/songwriter Bill Mallonee changed lineups to his Athens, Ga., outfit like some frontmen change hairstyles, and with the personnel moves came a variety of styles from alt-folk to indie rock and even Americanized Brit-pop. But one of the band’s best album’s was a straight-up alt-country gem. Audible Sigh benefitted from Kenny Hutson’s versatility on mandolin, guitar, pedal steel and dobro, production from Buddy Miller and backing vocals from Emmylou Harris on standout track “Resplendent.” It’s Mallonee’s vivid songwriting that elevates the album to “overlooked classic” status, though. Audible Sigh trades in Dustbowl imagery more than most of his catalog, but he can’t stay completely away from the personal demons he’s spent a career turning into confessional songs, like on “She Walks on Roses”: “They say that pride, well it’s the chief of sins/Well I know all of his deputies, I’m well acquainted with them.” Song titles like “Hard Luck and Heart Attack” and “Black Cloud O’er Me” fit well on the twangiest album of his impressive catalog.—Josh Jackson
There’s a long tradition of African-Americans playing old-time music, from blues legends Blind Blake, the Reverend Gary Davis and Josh White to artists such as the Mississippi Mud Steppers and Howard “Louie Bluie” Armstrong, whose early ragtime outfit, the Tennessee Chocolate Drops, has provided a lasting influence—and this modern-day act with its name. The Carolina Chocolate Dropsformed in 2005 at the Black Banjo Gathering in Boone, N.C., and since then the young trio has been determined to prove that “black folk were a huge part of the stringband tradition.” What they’ve also done is dust off a musical form seen today as either a novelty or the exclusive provenance of ethnomusicologists. To paraphrase Rakim’s immortal words, these Drops ain’t no joke: Their enthusiasm for the tradition is obvious even as the trio spans from traditional arrangements (the rollicking fiddle rave-ups “Trouble in Your Mind” and “Cindy Gal”) to self-penned works (the particularly terrific “Kissin’ and Cussin’”) and stringband makeovers of modern-day works (a hip-hop influenced cover of Blu Cantrell’s “Hit ’em Up Style (Oops!)” and Tom Waits’ “Trampled Rose”). Several generations removed from the origins of their chosen idiom, the Carolina Chocolate Drops are nonetheless the genuine article.—Corey DuBrowa
Leo, the Royal Cadet a light opera with music by Oscar Ferdinand Telgmann and a libretto by George Frederick Cameron was composed in Kingston, Ontario in 1889. The work centres on Nellie's love for Leo, a cadet at the Royal Military College of Canada who becomes a hero serving during the Anglo-Zulu War in 1879. The operetta focussed on typical character types, events and concerns of Telgmann and Cameron's time and place.
Distinctive music scenes have been an integral part of the cultural landscape of Canada. With Canada being vast in size, the country throughout its history has had regional music scenes, with a wide and diverse accumulation of styles and genres from many different individual communities, such as Inuit music, music of the Maritimes and Canadian fiddle music.
Sometimes it takes an ‘American Woman’ to break into the US charts, and that’s what Canadian powerhouse rock group, The Guess Who did in 1970, being the first Canadian group to have a US chart topper since 1954. Powered by the soulful vocals of Burton Cummings and Randy Bachman’s driving guitar and sardonic songwriter, the Winnipeg-based band found international success throughout the 60s and 70s, until disbanding when Bachman left the group and went on to form the hugely successful, Bachman-Turner Overdrive, with their hit single ‘You Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet’.
Canadian women at the end of the 20th century enjoyed greater international commercial success than ever before. Canadian women set a new pinnacle of success, in terms financial, critical and in their immediate and strong influence on their respective genres. They were the women and daughters who had fought for emancipation and equality a generation before. Like Alanis Morissette and most notable is French-Canadian singer, Celine Dion, who became Canada's best-selling music artist, and who, in 2004, received the Chopard Diamond Award from the World Music Awards for surpassing 175 million in album sales, worldwide.
It was only a short, exhaustively well-rehearsed and well-recorded step away to the Eagles and Ronstadt (and Asylum Records). Their careers proved central to those of surrounding singer-songwriters like Jackson Browne, Karla Bonoff, and Warren Zevon, whose simultaneous countryesque confessions creatively fed both the band and the singer. For Ronstadt, country rock progressively gave way to a wide variety of other styles, always approached from the point of view of her American sources, always mounted with the painstaking studio finesse exemplified by producer Peter Asher. For the Eagles, working first with the English producer Glyn Johns and later with Bill Szymczyk, the style became so full-blown that the band’s multimillion-selling album Hotel California (1976) both dramatized the Los Angeles milieu that underpinned the country-Hollywood connection and reflected the growing significance of the symbolism of country rock. Surrounding these careers were a number of other key figures. In addition to founding the influential Flying Burrito Brothers, Parsons introduced former folksinger Emmylou Harris to the music of George Jones, spawning her pursuit of a vernacular vocal art of operatic seriousness and intensity. Neil Young, formerly of Buffalo Springfield, began the traditionalist part of a gnarled, varied body of music that grew into a stylistic cosmos of genius unto itself. Like the Dillards, who came to country rock from a bluegrass background, all three chose not to work as commercially as the Eagles, Ronstadt, or Poco, whose driving force, Richie Furay, was another former member of Buffalo Springfield. Instead they preferred to have their music felt over time in ways less direct and less oriented to mass culture.
Artists from outside California who were associated with early alternative country included singer-songwriters such as Lucinda Williams, Lyle Lovett and Steve Earle, the Nashville country rock band Jason and the Scorchers and the British post-punk band The Mekons. Earle, in particular, was noted for his popularity with both country and college rock audiences: He promoted his 1986 debut album Guitar Town with a tour that saw him open for both country singer Dwight Yoakam and alternative rock band The Replacements.
In the 1990s the term alternative country, paralleling alternative rock, began to be used to describe a diverse group of musicians and singers operating outside the traditions and industry of mainstream country music. Many eschewed the increasingly polished production values and pop sensibilities of the Nashville-dominated industry for a more lo-fi sound, frequently infused with a strong punk and rock and roll aesthetic. Lyrics may be bleak or socially aware, but also more heartfelt and less likely to use the clichés sometimes used by mainstream country musicians. In other respects, the musical styles of artists that fall within this genre often have little in common, ranging from traditional American folk music and bluegrass, through rockabilly and honky-tonk, to music that is indistinguishable from mainstream rock or country. This already broad labeling 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 best-known magazine dedicated to the genre, declared that it covered "alternative-country music (whatever that is)".
Derived from the traditional Western and honky tonk musical styles of the late 1950s and 1960s, including Ray Price (whose band, the "Cherokee Cowboys", included Willie Nelson and Roger Miller) and mixed with the anger of an alienated subculture of the nation during the period, outlaw country revolutionized the genre of country music. "After I left Nashville (the early 70s), I wanted to relax and play the music that I wanted to play, and just stay around Texas, maybe Oklahoma. Waylon and I had that outlaw image going, and when it caught on at colleges and we started selling records, we were O.K. The whole outlaw thing, it had nothing to do with the music, it was something that got written in an article, and the young people said, 'Well, that's pretty cool.' And started listening." (Willie Nelson) The term outlaw country is traditionally associated with Willie Nelson, Jerry Jeff Walker, Hank Williams, Jr., Merle Haggard, Waylon Jennings, Joe Ely, Steve Young, David Allan Coe, John Prine, Billy Joe Shaver, Gary Stewart, Townes Van Zandt, Kris Kristofferson, Michael Martin Murphey, Tompall Glaser, Steve Earle, and the later career renaissance of Johnny Cash, with a few female vocalists such as Jessi Colter, Sammi Smith, Tanya Tucker and Rosanne Cash. It was encapsulated in the 1976 album Wanted! The Outlaws.
After the 1760s, regular concerts became a part of the cultural landscape, as well as a wide variety of dancing. Operatic excerpts began to appear, and before the end of the century Canada had its first home-grown opera. A "Concert Hall" existed in Québec by 1764 and subscription concerts by 1770, given, one may presume, by band players and skilled amateurs. Programs for the Québec and Halifax concerts of the 1790s reveal orchestral and chamber music by Handel, J.C. Bach, Haydn, Mozart and Pleyel. Canada's first two operas were written, ca. 1790 and ca. 1808 by composer, poet, and playwright Joseph Quesnel (1746–1809). The instrument of favour for the lower class was the fiddle. Fiddlers were a fixture in most public drinking establishments. God Save the King/Queen has been sung in Canada since British rule and by the mid-20th century was, along with "O Canada", one of the country's two de facto national anthems.
Drawing at the well alongside Randy Newman and Townes Van Zandt, the laconic, demure Lovett is a hard-luck romantic unopposed to good humor or the occasional murder ballad. Rarely eliciting emotional extremes, he’s a superb magician nonetheless; with a quick turn of phrase listeners are transported into new skin. When Lovett sings, “put down that flyswatter, and pour me some ice water” on the five-star Joshua Judges Ruth, I’m rising early for carpenter’s work on a hot July morning in southeast Texas. If alt-country takes traditional country songs and adds new elements, Lovett pulls the genre in a more soulful direction with his wry wit always on full display.—Jeff Elbel
Alternative country, or alternative country rock (sometimes alt-country, insurgent country, or Americana) is a loosely defined subgenre of country music and rock music, which includes acts that differ significantly in style from mainstream country music and pop country music. Alternative country artists are often influenced by alternative rock. However, the term has been used to describe country music bands and artists that have incorporated influences from alternative rock, indie rock, roots rock, bluegrass, neotraditional country, punk rock, rockabilly, punkabilly, honky-tonk, outlaw country, folk rock, indie folk, folk revival, hard rock, R&B, country rock, heartland rock, and Southern rock.
During the second generation (1930s–1940s), radio became a popular source of entertainment, and "barn dance" shows featuring country music were started all over the South, as far north as Chicago, and as far west as California. The most important was the Grand Ole Opry, aired starting in 1925 by WSM in Nashville and continuing to the present day. During the 1930s and 1940s, cowboy songs, or Western music, which had been recorded since the 1920s, were popularized by films made in Hollywood. Bob Wills was another country musician from the Lower Great Plains who had become very popular as the leader of a "hot string band," and who also appeared in Hollywood westerns. His mix of country and jazz, which started out as dance hall music, would become known as Western swing. Wills was one of the first country musicians known to have added an electric guitar to his band, in 1938. Country musicians began recording boogie in 1939, shortly after it had been played at Carnegie Hall, when Johnny Barfield recorded "Boogie Woogie".