With her Grammy-adorned breakout solo LP, Ingénue, k.d. lang transformed from a country traditionalist to an impressionistic pop crooner, draping her dazzling mezzo-soprano over samba rhythms ("Miss Chatelaine"), oceanic cabaret-jazz ("Save Me") and breezy orchestrations from collaborator Ben Mink ("The Mind of Love"). No longer chasing the ghost of Patsy Cline, she pursued unique stylistic combinations—imbuing her formative "torch and twang" with a tapestry of colors: accordion, viola, marimba, the tropical-flavored pedal-steel of session master Greg Leisz. The album is best remembered, and summarized, by the lonesome yearning of hit single "Constant Craving." "Always someone marches brave / Here beneath my skin," Lang sings. Two decades later, she's still marching bravely—still shifting her sound with each song cycle. But Ingénue remains her signature statement.—Ryan Reed
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.
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".
Alternative country is a term used to describe a number of country music subgenres that tend to differ from mainstream or pop country music. The term is sometimes known as Alt. country and has included country music bands that have incorporated influences ranging from american roots music, bluegrass, rock & roll, rockabilly, acoustic music, americana, honky-tonk, punk rock and alt auctioneer.
During the 1930s a number of “singing cowboy” film stars, of whom Gene Autry was the best known, took country music and with suitably altered lyrics made it into a synthetic and adventitious “western” music. A second and more substantive variant of country music arose in the 1930s in the Texas-Oklahoma region, where the music of rural whites was exposed to the swing jazz of black orchestras. In response, a Western swing style evolved in the hands of Bob Wills and others and came to feature steel and amplified guitars and a strong dance rhythm. An even more important variant was honky-tonk, a country style that emerged in the 1940s with such figures as Ernest Tubb and Hank Williams. Honky-tonk’s fiddle–steel-guitar combination and its bitter, maudlin lyrics about rural whites adrift in the big city were widely adopted by other country musicians.
Outside of the United States, Canada has the largest country music fan and artist base, something that is to be expected given the two countries' proximity and cultural parallels. Mainstream country music is culturally ingrained in the prairie provinces, the British Columbia Interior, Ontario, and in Atlantic Canada. Celtic traditional music developed in Atlantic Canada in the form of Scottish, Acadian and Irish folk music popular amongst Irish, French and Scottish immigrants to Canada's Atlantic Provinces (Newfoundland, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and Prince Edward Island). Like the southern United States and Appalachia, all four regions are of heavy British Isles stock and rural; as such, the development of traditional music in the Maritimes somewhat mirrored the development of country music in the US South and Appalachia. Country and Western music never really developed separately in Canada; however, after its introduction to Canada, following the spread of radio, it developed quite quickly out of the Atlantic Canadian traditional scene. While true Atlantic Canadian traditional music is very Celtic or "sea shanty" in nature, even today, the lines have often been blurred. Certain areas often are viewed as embracing one strain or the other more openly. For example, in Newfoundland the traditional music remains unique and Irish in nature, whereas traditional musicians in other parts of the region may play both genres interchangeably.
Alternative country-rock is often simply referred to as alternative country, but the two styles are actually somewhat distinct from one another -- simply put, alternative country performers come from the country side of the equation, whereas alternative country-rock is rooted more in rock. It's considered a branch of alternative rock -- even though it may not always sound that way on the surface -- because it doesn't fit any mainstream sensibility, and also because its bands usually get their start as part of the American indie-label scene. In contrast to alternative country, which pushes the boundaries of country music from the inside, alternative country-rock is music made by outsiders who love the sound and spirit of country. They faithfully preserve traditional sounds, but reinterpret the spirit in personal, contemporary, and idiosyncratic ways that rarely appeal to straight country fans. The godfather of alternative country-rock was Gram Parsons, the single most important figure in the invention of country-rock and an enduring cult legend for his deeply emotional records. Neil Young's varying musical personalities were also an important influence, as was the progressive country movement of the '70s, particularly an Austin, TX-centered group of highly literate singer/songwriters like Townes Van Zandt, Guy Clark, and Jerry Jeff Walker, among others. The man who heralded the birth of alternative country-rock was Lyle Lovett, whose wit and eclecticism seemed to revitalize country's possibilities in the minds of many rock fans. But the first true alternative country-rock band was Uncle Tupelo, who at the start of their career fused punk and country in a far more reverent way than any band in the short-lived '80s cowpunk movement. Their cover of the A.P. Carter spiritual "No Depression" gave its name to their seminal 1990 debut album, the premier fanzine chronicling the alt-country scene, and a nickname to the movement in general. Uncle Tupelo soon became a more tradition-minded country-rock outfit, and following their 1993 landmark Anodyne split into two different bands, the staunchly revivalist Son Volt and the more pop-inflected Wilco; by that time, alternative country-rock itself had begun to split into several strains. One school was chiefly dedicated to reviving the Parsons/Young sound of the early '70s, sometimes adding elements of Beatlesque pop to their crunchy rockers and aching ballads. Others were sincere traditionalists, drawing from the most haunting qualities of old-time country and Appalachian folk while updating the lyrical sensibilities just enough. A related school made that old-timey sound into a soft, spare, ethereal hybrid of country and indie rock, usually featuring a female vocalist. Still other alt-country-rock bands brought a sense of humor to their traditionalist work, whether it was the good-natured wit of a twangy, rollicking bar band, or the flat-out weird irony of Lambchop. Alternative country-rock continued to produce new, critically acclaimed hybrid acts into the new millennium, with an increasing indie-rock flavor.
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.
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
But that effectiveness won’t last. Because of funding cuts, the CBC has announced that in addition to the 657 jobs already cut, it will axe another 1,500 jobs by 2020. That is nearly a quarter of its employees. According to a CRTC report released in June 2015, parliamentary funding for CBC Radio, which accounts for virtually its entire budget, has shrunk nearly 20 per cent since 2010. We’ve already seen some of the fallout from this and its impact on the CBC’s music coverage. Following the first round of jobs cuts, Chris Boyce, executive director of Radio and Audio CBC English Services, said there will be cuts to recorded concerts and 12 regional music producers, hosts, and engineers lost their jobs. In addition, the In Tune classical music program was cancelled.
Beginning in 1989, a confluence of events brought an unprecedented commercial boom to country music. The arrival of exceptionally talented artists coincided with new marketing strategies to engage fans, technology that more accurately tracked the popularity of country music, and a political and economic climate that focused attention on the genre. Garth Brooks ("Friends in Low Places") in particular attracted fans with his fusion of neotraditionalist country and stadium rock. Other artists such as Brooks and Dunn ("Boot Scootin' Boogie") also combined conventional country with slick, rock elements, while Lorrie Morgan, Mary Chapin Carpenter, and Kathy Mattea updated neotraditionalist styles.
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