The American and British counterculture explosion and hippie movement had diverted music to that which was dominated by socially and American politically incisive lyrics by the late 1960s. The music was an attempt to reflect upon the events of the time – civil rights, the war in Vietnam and the rise of feminism. This led to the Canadian government passing Canadian content legislation to help Canadian artists. On January 18, 1971 regulations came into force requiring AM radio stations to devote 30 per cent of their musical selections to Canadian content. Although this was (and still is) controversial, it quite clearly contributed to the development of a nascent Canadian pop star system.
The same period saw a concerted effort to recover some of country music’s root values. Mandolin-player Bill Monroe and his string band, the Blue Grass Boys, discarded more recently adopted rhythms and instruments and brought back the lead fiddle and high harmony singing. His banjoist, Earl Scruggs, developed a brilliant three-finger picking style that brought the instrument into a lead position. Their music, with its driving, syncopated rhythms and instrumental virtuosity, took the name “bluegrass” from Monroe’s band.
While rappers like Dream Warriors and K-os were underground upstarts in the 90s to early 2000s, no Canadian artist was able to achieve mainstream popularity until former child-actor-turned-rapper, Drake, put Canada on the hip-hop map – becoming one of the biggest-selling and influential rap stars in the world. From co-founding Canadian record label OVO (October’s Very Own) Sound to coining the city’s unofficial nickname, “The 6”, Drake is Canada’s biggest hypeman. Not only did he use the CN Tower for his Views album art, he even has a tattoo of the iconic Toronto landmark on his arm and helped to introduce fellow Canadian, The Weeknd, to the rest of the world.
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.
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