Catherine Ann Irwin and Janet Beveridge Bean are some of the most foundational women in alt-country. Their band Freakwater, which started as a side project, eventually grew into this reputation, thanks to breakthrough albums like Old Paint. Released in 1996, Old Paint musically looks backwards. It has the jauntiness of barn dances, complete with fiddles, dobros, and tambourines. Yet, Irwin and Bean’s voices, content in their different ranges, somehow meld to tell country tales that still sound ahead of their time.—Hilary Saunders

1,2,3,4… name a better-known Canadian female singer who’s had one of the most unlikely success stories in popular music today? Before she was dominating the pop charts and performing on Sesame Street, the Canadian singer-songwriter and guitarist, Leslie Feist, was performing with her then roommate and electro-pop provocateur, Peaches. Shortly after, she joined Broken Social Scene and released her breakout record, The Reminder – becoming the critical darling of the NPR-loving crowd. Born in Calgary, Feist became a key player in Toronto’s music scene and continues to enchant fans and critics alike with her pretty (never precious) vocals couched in gritty rock.
Technically one-half Canadian, Rufus Wainwright is the progeny of Kate McGarrigle (one-half of the signing folk sensation The McGarrigle Sisters) and 60s folk sensation Loudon Wainwright III, along with his sister Martha. The Montreal native got his start singing on the Montreal club circuit before establishing himself as one of the preeminent singer-songwriters of his generation, with the voice of an opera-cum-lounge singer. Even since relocating to the US, he’ll always be “Montreal’s Son”.
With the exception of a few artists, modern country has taken a hard left turn for the worse over the past two decades. Ask some people, and they might even say country’s become a shell of its former self. Sturgill Simpson is not one of those people—mostly because he doesn’t seem to care what is happening within the confines of the country music world. Instead the Kentucky-born singer looks to more far-out places on his second full-length, Metamodern Sounds In Country Music. One of the first things you’ll notice is Simpson’s voice, which conjures the ghost of Waylon Jennings. Producer Dave Cobb’s warm production can’t be overstated—it holds the entire thing together and also makes Metamodern Sounds a shelf-worthy addition next to the greats. If you don’t like country music, don’t bother. But if you do have an ear for Waylon and Willie and the boys, then you’ll find plenty to love. Simpson may reside in Nashville these days, but he’s operating on a completely different plane. Here’s hoping his own mind-expanding experiments will expand the minds of listeners as well.—Mark Lore
Though his father was one of the first major superstars of the genre, Hank Williams, Jr. marches to the beat of his own drummer. Much of his early hit output was in a traditional style, such as 1972’s “Eleven Roses,” but it was later southern rock-inspired hits such as “Family Tradition” and “Women I’ve Never Had” that proved that Junior was in a league of his own. Also adding to his legend was his stage show, which inspired a generation -- including Garth Brooks. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a1tqAmvaoyE
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