The alt-country movement had plenty of pre-cursors in the folk-rock of Gram Parsons and the renegade country of Merle Haggard and Willie Nelson. But 1985 was really a watershed moment for the genre with Green on Red, Jason & The Scorchers and Mekons all exploring traditional country through the lens of punk rock. The ’90s kicked off with the first album from Uncle Tupelo, No Depression, which became synonymous with “alt-country” thanks to the magazine of the same name.
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.
A little girl voice that held ages, “Broken Things” offered redemption as well as deep love for those damaged by life. For Julie Miller, whose second album for Hightone following a Christian career, there was always salvation peeking through the cracks of her songs. Beyond the divine, there was the charismatic “I Need You,” the Appalachian dirge “Orphan Train” and the percussively minor-keyed creeper “Strange Lover,” an homage to – of all things — cocaine. Emmylou Harris would record the shimmering “All My Tears” and Lee Ann Womack would embrace “Orphan Train” and “I Know Why The River Runs” further broadening Miller’s reach. But the songwriter with a dexterous voice that does many things – howl, coo, caress and throttle – remains her own best interpreter. “I Still Cry,” a straightforward elegy, suggests the way some people linger in unlikely ways long after they’re gone with the sorrow profoundly transparent in her tone, bringing both naked vulnerability and intuitive playing that exemplifies the best of Americana.—Holly Gleason
In 2005, country singer Carrie Underwood rose to fame as the winner of the fourth season of American Idol and has since become one of the most prominent recording artists of 2006 through 2016, with worldwide sales of more than 65 million records and seven Grammy Awards. With her first single, "Inside Your Heaven", Underwood became the only solo country artist to have a #1 hit on the Billboard Hot 100 chart in the 2000–2009 decade and also broke Billboard chart history as the first country music artist ever to debut at No. 1 on the Hot 100. Underwood's debut album, Some Hearts, became the best-selling solo female debut album in country music history, the fastest-selling debut country album in the history of the SoundScan era and the best-selling country album of the last 10 years, being ranked by Billboard as the #1 Country Album of the 2000–2009 decade. She has also become the female country artist with the most number one hits on the Billboard Hot Country Songs chart in the Nielsen SoundScan era (1991–present), having 14 No. 1s and breaking her own Guinness Book record of ten. In 2007, Underwood won the Grammy Award for Best New Artist, becoming only the second Country artist in history (and the first in a decade) to win it. She also made history by becoming the seventh woman to win Entertainer of the Year at the Academy of Country Music Awards, and the first woman in history to win the award twice, as well as twice consecutively. Time has listed Underwood as one of the 100 most influential people in the world. In 2016, Underwood topped the Country Airplay chart for the 15th time, becoming the female artist with most number ones on that chart.
In a recording career that spanned over six decades, "The Cherokee Cowboy" possessed a voice that never seemed to age. If anything, his warm crooning tone only got better with time. Price's early hits were textbook performances in the honky-tonk vein, while 1967's "Danny Boy" ushered in a more uptown vibe that he expanded on in hits such as Kris Kristofferson's "For The Good Times." Price also had a keen ear for other talent, giving early jobs to Willie Nelson and Roger Miller, among others.
Still think country music’s all about Rhinestone Cowboys, Stetsons and the Grand Ol’ Opry? Then think again, because for the past five decades or so, country-loving artists of all persuasions have kicked against the Nashville mainstream and joined the broad church we now refer to as either Alternative Country (usually shortened to Alt Country) or simply Americana. In this Top 10, uDiscover rides the range with 10 seminal alt country acts who have thrown everything from rockabilly, folk-rock and punk into their radical, roots-rock stews.
Just as Loretta Lynn sang about female empowerment in the 1960s, so did Tammy Wynette. The one-time hairdresser turned her marital strife into musical gold via such classics as “Apartment # 9,” “D-I-V-O-R-C-E,” and “Stand By Your Man” –- and that was before she married George Jones. No other female singer sang about heartbreak with as much conviction and power -- influencing generations to come in the process.
With a voice like good claret or damp moss, Rosanne Cash’s singing is something to sink into. Surrender to the tones, mostly dark, but marked by the occasional glimmer of light, and let the emotions they contain seep inside. For Cash, the emotions on The River & The Thread are complex and tangled, especially the Grammy-winner’s own difficult relationship with the South, her roots and her own musical journey. What emerges, beyond a woman grappling with a legacy as much in the rich bottom land as her father Johnny’s iconic presence as the voice of America, is a knowing embrace of the conflicts in the things we love. The 11-song cycle is mostly a meditation on the textures and musical forms that emerged South of the Mason Dixon. Finding not just resolve, but acceptance is a gift. Cash, who’s sidestepped her heritage, and eschewed a career as a country star with 11 No. 1s, a marriage to a country writer/producer/artist Rodney Crowell and the city/industry where she found prominence, savored her wandering and the Manhattan life she built. With The River & The Thread, she comes home with the warmth reserved for knowing where we’re from. As powerful a witness for the region—Memphis, Mississippi, Alabama, Arkansas—as it is a lovely quilt of musicality, braiding blues, folk, Appalachia, rock and old-timey country, this is balm for lost souls, alienated creatures seeking their core truths and intellectuals who love the cool mist of vespers in the hearts of people they may never encounter.—Holly Gleason
Emerging out of the great depression on near equal-footing to American popular music, Canadian popular music continued to enjoy considerable success at home and abroad in the preceding years. Among them Montreal's jazz virtuoso Oscar Peterson (1925–2007) who is considered to have been one of the greatest pianists of all time, releasing over 200 recordings and receiving several Grammy Awards during his lifetime. Also notable is Hank Snow (1914–1999), who signed with RCA Victor in 1936 and went on to become one of America's biggest and most innovative country music superstars of the 1940s and 1950s. Snow became a regular performer at the Grand Ole Opry on WSM in Nashville and released more than 45 LPs over his lifetime. Snow was one of the inaugural inductees to the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame started in 2003.
Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family are widely considered to be important early country musicians. Their songs were first captured at a historic recording session in Bristol, Tennessee, on August 1, 1927, where Ralph Peer was the talent scout and sound recordist. A scene in the movie O Brother, Where Art Thou? depicts a similar occurrence in the same timeframe. Rodgers fused hillbilly country, gospel, jazz, blues, pop, cowboy, and folk, and many of his best songs were his compositions, including "Blue Yodel", which sold over a million records and established Rodgers as the premier singer of early country music. Beginning in 1927, and for the next 17 years, the Carters recorded some 300 old-time ballads, traditional tunes, country songs and gospel hymns, all representative of America's southeastern folklore and heritage.
The 1970s saw the growth of the “outlaw” music of prominent Nashville expatriates Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings. The gap between country and the mainstream of pop music continued to narrow in that decade and the next as electric guitars replaced more traditional instruments and country music became more acceptable to a national urban audience. Country retained its vitality into the late 20th century with such diverse performers as Dolly Parton, Randy Travis, Garth Brooks, Reba McEntire, Emmylou Harris, and Lyle Lovett. Despite its embrace of other popular styles, country music retained an unmistakable character as one of the few truly indigenous American musical styles.
The third generation (1950s–1960s) started at the end of World War II with "mountaineer" string band music known as bluegrass, which emerged when Bill Monroe, along with Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs were introduced by Roy Acuff at the Grand Ole Opry. Gospel music remained a popular component of country music. Another type of stripped-down and raw music with a variety of moods and a basic ensemble of guitar, bass, dobro or steel guitar (and later drums) became popular, especially among poor whites in Texas and Oklahoma. It became known as honky tonk, and had its roots in Western swing and the ranchera music of Mexico and the border states. By the early 1950s a blend of Western swing, country boogie, and honky tonk was played by most country bands. Rockabilly was most popular with country fans in the 1950s, and 1956 could be called the year of rockabilly in country music, with Johnny Cash emerging as one of the most popular and enduring representatives of the rockabilly genre; rockabilly was also a starting point for eventual rock-and-roll superstar Elvis Presley, who would return to his country roots near the end of his life. Beginning in the mid-1950s, and reaching its peak during the early 1960s, the Nashville sound turned country music into a multimillion-dollar industry centered in Nashville, Tennessee; Patsy Cline and Jim Reeves were two of the most broadly popular Nashville sound artists, and their deaths in separate plane crashes in the early 1960s were a factor in the genre's decline. The late 1960s in American music produced a unique blend as a result of traditionalist backlash within separate genres. In the aftermath of the British Invasion, many desired a return to the "old values" of rock n' roll. At the same time there was a lack of enthusiasm in the country sector for Nashville-produced music. What resulted was a crossbred genre known as country rock.
Carrie Underwood was one of several country stars produced by a television series in the 2000s. In addition to Underwood, American Idol launched the careers of Kellie Pickler, Josh Gracin, Bucky Covington, Kristy Lee Cook, Danny Gokey, Lauren Alaina and Scotty McCreery (as well as that of occasional country singer Kelly Clarkson) in the decade, and would continue to launch country careers in the 2010s. The series Nashville Star, while not nearly as successful as Idol, did manage to bring Miranda Lambert, Kacey Musgraves and Chris Young to mainstream success, also launching the careers of lower-profile musicians such as Buddy Jewell, Sean Patrick McGraw, and Canadian musician George Canyon. Can You Duet? produced the duos Steel Magnolia and Joey + Rory. Teen sitcoms also have influenced modern country music; in 2008, actress Jennette McCurdy (best known as the sidekick Sam on the teen sitcom iCarly) released her first single, "So Close", following that with the single "Generation Love" in 2011. Another teen sitcom star, Miley Cyrus (of Hannah Montana), also had a crossover hit in the late 2000s with "The Climb" and another with a duet with her father, Billy Ray Cyrus, with "Ready, Set, Don't Go." Jana Kramer, an actress in the teen drama One Tree Hill, released a country album in 2012 that has produced two hit singles as of 2013. Actresses Hayden Panettiere and Connie Britton began recording country songs as part of their roles in the TV series Nashville.
Attempts to combine punk and country had been pioneered by Nashville's Jason and the Scorchers, and in the 1980s Southern Californian cowpunk scene with bands like the Long Ryders, but these styles merged fully in Uncle Tupelo's 1990 LP No Depression, which is widely credited as being the first "alt-country" album, and gave its name to the online notice board and eventually magazine that underpinned the movement. They released three more influential albums, signing to a major label, before they broke up in 1994, with members and figures associated with them going on to form three major bands in the genre: Wilco, Son Volt and Bottle Rockets. Bottle Rockets signed, along with acts like Freakwater, Old 97's and Robbie Fulks, to the Chicago-based indie label, Bloodshot, who pioneered a version of the genre under the name insurgent country. The bands Blue Mountain, Whiskeytown, Blood Oranges and Drive-By Truckers further developed this tradition before most began to move more in the direction of rock music in the 2000s.
Canada has a long tradition of singer-songwriters and that’s partly in thanks to its own “folksong laureate”, Gordon Lightfoot. Coming out of the Toronto 60s folk music scene, Lightfoot’s native country would become his lifelong muse, penning such classics as ‘Canadian Railroad Trilogy’ and ‘Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald’ and yet universal enough to appeal worldwide, turning him into Canada’s most successful contemporary folk artist. A beloved cultural icon, he’s been the beneficiary of countless awards and honours including the Companion of the Order of Canada – Canada’s highest civilian honour.
Canada's first nationwide music awards began as a reader poll conducted by Canadian music industry trade magazine RPM Weekly in December 1964. A similar balloting process continued until 1970 when the RPM Gold Leaf Awards, as they were then known, were changed to the Juno Awards. The Canadian Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences held the first Juno Award ceremony in 1975. This was in response to rectifying the same concerns about promotion of Canadian artists that the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission had.
So, with so many great alt country bands out there, who can be called the best alt country band? One of the widely recognized originators of alternative country music is Uncle Tupelo. Though the group no longer exists, they are considered one of the most important alternative country artists because of their derivative bands, Wilco and Son Volt, both of which are considered some of the best alternative country bands. Other widely acclaimed alt country bands include Ryan Adams, Drive-by Truckers, Steve Earle and Band of Horses.
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’.
Canada's first independent record label Compo Company built a pressing plant (the largest of its day) in 1918 at Lachine, Quebec. Compo was originally created to serve the several American independent record companies such as Okeh Records which wanted to distribute records in Canada. The 1920s saw Canada's first radio stations, this allowed Canadian songwriters to contribute some of the most famous popular music of the early 20th century. Canada's first commercial radio station CFCF (formerly XWA) begins broadcasting regularly scheduled programming in Montreal in 1920, followed by CKAC, Canada's first French language radio station, in 1922. By 1923, there were 34 radio stations in Canada and subsequently proliferated at a remarkable rate, and with them spread the popularity of jazz. Jazz became associated with all things modern, sophisticated, and also decadent.
The earliest written record of violins in Canada comes from the Jesuit Relation of 1645. The Jesuits additionally have the first documented organ sale, imported for their Québec chapel in 1657. Notre-Dame de Québec Cathedral, built in 1647, is the primatial church of Canada and seat of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Quebec. It is the oldest Catholic "Episcopal see" in the New World north of Mexico and site of the first documented choir in Canada.
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.
The first commercial recordings of what was considered instrumental music in the traditional country style were "Arkansas Traveler" and "Turkey in the Straw" by fiddlers Henry Gilliland & A.C. (Eck) Robertson on June 30, 1922, for Victor Records and released in April 1923. Columbia Records began issuing records with "hillbilly" music (series 15000D "Old Familiar Tunes") as early as 1924.
Despite the genre's growing popularity in the 1980s, '90s and 2000s, alternative country and neo-traditionalist artists saw minimal support from country radio in those decades, despite strong sales and critical acclaim for albums such as the soundtrack to the 2000 film O Brother, Where Art Thou?. In 1987, The Beat Farmers gained airplay on country music stations with their song "Make It Last", but the single was pulled from the format when station programmers decreed the band's music was too rock-oriented for their audience. However, some alt-country songs have been crossover hits to mainstream country radio in cover versions by established artists on the format; Lucinda Williams' "Passionate Kisses" was a hit for Mary Chapin Carpenter in 1993, Ryan Adams's "When The Stars Go Blue" was a hit for Tim McGraw in 2007, and Old Crow Medicine Show's "Wagon Wheel" was a hit for Darius Rucker in 2013.