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)".
Alt-country is such a hard genre to define that the wonderful music magazine devoted to it proclaimed itself the “alternative-country (whatever that is) bi-monthly.” For our best alt-country albums list, we’ve chosen to focus on albums with significant country elements operating outside of the mainstream country music industry. So country stars we love like Kacey Musgraves and Chris Stapleton didn’t make the cut. Neither did folky Americana acts like Josh Ritter, The Civil Wars or First Aid Kit, though we’re huge fans of all three.
If there has ever been a manual on how to build a career, Kenny Chesney would be its case study. He started slow -- earning his first top 10 hit in 1995 -- but by the early part of the next decade, Chesney was in the fast lane. He hasn't pulled over since. His records run the gamut from tropical-based hits as "No Shoes, No Shirt, No Problems" to thought-provoking slices of life as "When I Close My Eyes" or "Don't Blink." Whether it's on record or his stage show, nobody works harder than Kenny Chesney.
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.
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.
With the introduction in the mid-1970s of mainstream music on FM radio stations, where it was common practice to program extended performances, musicians were no longer limited to songs of three minutes' duration as dictated by AM stations for decades. The most notable musicians to benefit from this and one of the largest Canadian exports is the progressive rock band, Rush. Rush have produced 25 gold records and 14 platinum (3 multi-platinum) records, making them one of the best-selling ensembles in history, and on April 18, 2013, they were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. In the classical world, homegrown talent Canadian Brass was established in Toronto 1970—they are credited with reshaping concert presentation style for classical artists, now copied and valued everywhere in the classical world.
Raised at the junction of Big Joe Turner, ‘50s rock and tavern country (slightly sleeker, ice clinking division), Dave Alvin left the Blasters on two bald tires with the hammer down. “Romeo’s Escape” thrashed and churned, Stratocaster stinging and drums hard-pounding down as Alvin’s oaken crag of a voice shook with fury. The lean, but unrepentant Hank Williams’ homage “Long White Cadillac,” all wristy downstroke, fulk-throttled moan and high hat slam, would eventually hit #1 for Dwight Yoakam, as the driving grind of accusation and betrayal “New Tattoo” would become a low end stripper with brio anthem with its lacerating guitar and swollen bass. Somewhere between Steinbeck and Bukowski, Alvin mined have-nots’ seediness without making them cheap: “Jubilee Train” worked jackhammer-rhythmed salvation, “Border Radio” was Mexican-tinged Haggard and “Fourth of July” swept yearning across an evaporated love trying to find a spark.—Holly Gleason
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. Under the direction of producers such as Chet Atkins, Bill Porter, Paul Cohen, Owen Bradley, Bob Ferguson, and later Billy Sherrill, the sound brought country music to a diverse audience and helped revive country as it emerged from a commercially fallow period. This subgenre was notable for borrowing from 1950s pop stylings: a prominent and smooth vocal, backed by a string section (violins and other orchestral strings) and vocal chorus. Instrumental soloing was de-emphasized in favor of trademark "licks". Leading artists in this genre included Jim Reeves, Skeeter Davis, Connie Smith, The Browns, Patsy Cline, and Eddy Arnold. The "slip note" piano style of session musician Floyd Cramer was an important component of this style. The Nashville Sound collapsed in mainstream popularity in 1964, a victim of both the British Invasion and the deaths of Reeves and Cline in separate airplane crashes. By the mid-1960s, the genre had developed into countrypolitan. Countrypolitan was aimed straight at mainstream markets, and it sold well throughout the later 1960s into the early 1970s. Top artists included Tammy Wynette, Lynn Anderson and Charlie Rich, as well as such former "hard country" artists as Ray Price and Marty Robbins. Despite the appeal of the Nashville sound, many traditional country artists emerged during this period and dominated the genre: Loretta Lynn, Merle Haggard, Buck Owens, Porter Wagoner, George Jones, and Sonny James among them.
With titles like “encyclopaedia of popular music” and a “roving troubadour”, this renowned Canadian folksinger is considered one of the country’s most talented and underrated songwriters. With a meticulous gift for lyricism and innovative folk style, Al Tuck came to prominence during the Halifax pop explosion of the mid-’90s. While originally from Prince Edward Island, Tuck is now considered one of Halifax’s own and is something of a musician’s musician, thanks to a stellar set of eight studio albums including his excellent early releases, Arhoolie and Brave Last Days.
Country music gained national television exposure through Ozark Jubilee on ABC-TV and radio from 1955 to 1960 from Springfield, Missouri. The program showcased top stars including several rockabilly artists, some from the Ozarks. As Webb Pierce put it in 1956, "Once upon a time, it was almost impossible to sell country music in a place like New York City. Nowadays, television takes us everywhere, and country music records and sheet music sell as well in large cities as anywhere else." The late 1950s saw the emergence of Buddy Holly, but by the end of the decade, backlash as well as traditional artists such as Ray Price, Marty Robbins, and Johnny Horton began to shift the industry away from the rock n' roll influences of the mid-1950s.
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.
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For many years after European settlement Canada, First Nations and Inuit peoples were discouraged from practicing their traditional ceremonies. However, impacts varied significantly depending on such aspects as the time period, relative population size, relation quality, resistance, etc. In 1606–1607 Marc Lescarbot collected the earliest extant transcriptions of songs from the Americas: three songs of Henri Membertou, the sakmow (Grand Chief) of the Mi'kmaq First Nations tribe situated near Port Royal, present-day Nova Scotia.
Following World War II a growth phase for Canadian bands was experienced, this time among school bands. Rapid advances in the inclusion of instrumental music study in formal school curricula brought about fundamental changes to the philosophy of the band movement and the type of repertoire available. The CHUM Chart debuted on May 27, 1957, under the name CHUM's Weekly Hit Parade, was in response to the fast-growing diversity of music that needed to be subdivided and categorized. The CHUM charts were the longest-running Top 40 chart in Canada ending in 1986.
Restoring funding for the CBC and allowing it to continue being an incubator of Canadian music is not a controversial policy. A 2014 Nanos Research poll showed that a very large majority of Canadians, 87 per cent, oppose funding cuts to the CBC. Then-candidate Justin Trudeau took note of this and made a promise to reverse funding cuts and even add additional funding for the public broadcaster.
Other artists had been successful crossing over before Kenny Rogers, but he made it an art form. As a member of the First Edition, several of the band’s pop records crossed over to country, and as a solo artist, he notched some of the biggest hits in both markets from 1977-1987. As a touring artist, he was the first country performer to consistently sell out arenas night after night, with only his recent announcement of retirement bringing that segment of his career to a close.
The Prairie provinces, due to their western cowboy and agrarian nature, are the true heartland of Canadian country music. While the Prairies never developed a traditional music culture anything like the Maritimes, the folk music of the Prairies often reflected the cultural origins of the settlers, who were a mix of Scottish, Ukrainian, German and others. For these reasons polkas and Western music were always popular in the region, and with the introduction of the radio, mainstream country music flourished. As the culture of the region is western and frontier in nature, the specific genre of country and western is more popular today in the Prairies than in any other part of the country. No other area of the country embraces all aspects of the culture, from two-step dancing, to the cowboy dress, to rodeos, to the music itself, like the Prairies do. The Atlantic Provinces, on the other hand, produce far more traditional musicians, but they are not usually specifically country in nature, usually bordering more on the folk or Celtic genres.
Just on radio, the CBC has provided numerous outlets for both major label and independent artists. Any PR rep can attest that getting an artist interviewed on Radio 1’s q can be a major boost to their profile. On Radio 2, there are countless programs airing Canadian music that is unlikely to get much airtime elsewhere. Shows such as Radio 2 Morning and Drive, Vinyl Tap, Tonic, Tempo, and The Signal play established and lesser-known Canadian artists alongside major international acts for a national listenership.
Along with Johnny Cash, there may not be any other country performer who is as well-known across the world as Dolly Parton. Whether it be for her music or her acting, she continues to reign as an entertainment icon. She also ranks as one of the best songwriters in any format -- with compositions ranging from her life growing up in Appalachia to emotional songs of farewell, such as the timeless “I Will Always Love You.”
Over the past few decades, alternative country music has served as a more exciting option for fans of country music who aren't excited about what the mainstream has to offer. Alt country bands fuse together genres outside of traditional music to create a more diverse sound that retains its country roots, but at the same time, isn't exactly like what's going on. These bands have managed win over fans of other brands of alternative music because of their originality and the accessibility to their sound.
During the mid-1980s, a group of new artists began to emerge who rejected the more polished country-pop sound that had been prominent on radio and the charts, in favor of more, traditional, "back-to-basics" production. Many of the artists during the latter half of the 1980s drew on traditional honky-tonk, bluegrass, folk and western swing. Artists who typified this sound included Travis Tritt, Reba McEntire, George Strait, Keith Whitley, Alan Jackson, Ricky Skaggs, Patty Loveless, Kathy Mattea, Randy Travis, Dwight Yoakam, and The Judds. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xk8OtoA3Cfo