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
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
Twain parlayed her movie-star looks into becoming one of the most popular female vocalists of the video age -– a la such clips as “Any Man of Mine” and “I’m Gonna Getcha Good.” It also helped that (along with former husband/producer Mutt Lange) she created some of the most intriguing music of the time period, along with some mind-bending arrangements that fused country with rock as seamlessly as anyone had ever done.
Ultimately, country music’s roots lie in the ballads, folk songs, and popular songs of the English, Scots, and Irish settlers of the Appalachians and other parts of the South. In the early 1920s the traditional string-band music of the Southern mountain regions began to be commercially recorded, with Fiddlin’ John Carson garnering the genre’s first hit record in 1923. The vigour and realism of the rural songs, many lyrics of which were rather impersonal narratives of tragedies pointing to a stern Calvinist moral, stood in marked contrast to the often mawkish sentimentality of much of the popular music of the day.
The early 2000s saw Canadian independent artists continue to expand their audience into the United States and beyond. Mainstream Canadian artists with global recorded contracts such as Nelly Furtado, Avril Lavigne, Michael Bublé, Drake, The Weeknd, and Justin Bieber reached new heights in terms of international success, while dominating the American music charts.
Quite possibly, no artist on this list manages to have the universal appeal of Willie Nelson. The legendary figure has been able to make believable his recordings of compositions from Lefty Frizzell, Irving Berlin and Paul Simon -– and sound authentic on each one. He qualifies as the ultimate curveball. You never know what to expect from him, only that it will find favor with the public.
Folk songs sung in Australia between the 1780s and 1920s, based around such themes as the struggle against government tyranny, or the lives of bushrangers, swagmen, drovers, stockmen and shearers, continue to influence the genre. This strain of Australian country, with lyrics focusing on Australian subjects, is generally known as "bush music" or "bush band music". "Waltzing Matilda", often regarded as Australia's unofficial national anthem, is a quintessential Australian country song, influenced more by British and Irish folk ballads than by American country and western music. The lyrics were composed by the poet Banjo Paterson in 1895. Other popular songs from this tradition include "The Wild Colonial Boy", "Click Go the Shears", "The Queensland Drover" and "The Dying Stockman". Later themes which endure to the present include the experiences of war, of droughts and flooding rains, of Aboriginality and of the railways and trucking routes which link Australia's vast distances.
Another subgenre of country music grew out of hardcore honky tonk with elements of Western swing and originated 112 miles (180 km) north-northwest of Los Angeles in Bakersfield, California, where many "Okies" and other Dust Bowl migrants had settled. Influenced by one-time West Coast residents Bob Wills and Lefty Frizzell, by 1966 it was known as the Bakersfield sound. It relied on electric instruments and amplification, in particular the Telecaster electric guitar, more than other subgenres of the country music of the era, and it can be described as having a sharp, hard, driving, no-frills, edgy flavor—hard guitars and honky-tonk harmonies. Leading practitioners of this style were Buck Owens, Merle Haggard, Tommy Collins, Gary Allan, and Wynn Stewart, each of whom had his own style.
Following his Rodney Crowell/John Leventhal-produced Planet of Love – which yielded cuts for George Strait, Lee Ann Womack, Patty Loveless, Mandy Barnett and George Jones, the North Carolina-born Lauderdale seemed more in control of his progressive California-forged traditional country. With songs that were existential (“When The Devil Starts Crying,” “Three Way Conversation” “Run Like You”), Lauderdale—like Gram Parsons before him—created a Cosmic American hybrid that blurred bluegrass, Haggard, Jones, Lefty Frizzell and Ray Price with ethereal metaphors for a new kind of classicism. Producer Dusty Wakeman drew on Lauderdale’s scrappy Palomino Club band—Buddy Miller on guitars and vocals, Dr John Ciambotti on bass, Donald Lindley on drums, Greg Leisz on dobro, electric and steel guitar, Gurf Morlix on 6-string bass, mandolin, electric/acoustic/12-string/steel guitars, Skip Edwards on organ and Tammy Rodgers on mandolin and vocals—to return Truth to the lean sound Lauderdale’d developed playing South California’s post-cowpunk outposts. That the band members would become Americana forces in their own right speaks to the scene around the man who coined the phrase, “Now that’s Americana!”—Holly Gleason
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.
Australian country music has a long tradition. Influenced by American country music, it has developed a distinct style, shaped by British and Irish folk ballads and Australian bush balladeers like Henry Lawson and Banjo Paterson. Country instruments, including the guitar, banjo, fiddle and harmonica, create the distinctive sound of country music in Australia and accompany songs with strong storyline and memorable chorus.
Only one television channel was dedicated to country music in Canada: CMT owned by Corus Entertainment (90%) and Viacom (10%). However, the lifting of strict genre licensing restrictions saw the network remove the last of its music programming at the end of August 2017 for a schedule of generic off-network family sitcoms, Cancom-compliant lifestyle programming, and reality programming. In the past, the current-day Cottage Life network saw some country focus as Country Canada and later, CBC Country Canada before that network drifted into an alternate network for overflow CBC content as Bold. Stingray Music continues to maintain several country music audio-only channels on cable radio.
Wildly gifted songwriter who flies under the mainstream radar and is beloved by critics and musicians alike? Noticing a pattern here? Ron Sexsmith is another jewel in Canada’s singer-songwriter crown. With his distinctive and charming voice and wonderful melodic sense, he’s gained many famous admirers including Elvis Costello and Elton John. Sexsmith arrived in Toronto by way of St. Catherines and was praised for his songwriting since his self-titled, major label debut in 1995. After crafting 14 albums worth of earnest, guitar pop, Sexsmith developed a cult following despite many of songs becoming mainstream hits for others such as Feist’s ‘Secret Heart’ and Michael Buble’s Whatever It Takes’.
This evolutionary link seemed so essential to groups like the Byrds and Buffalo Springfield that (perhaps influenced by Bob Dylan’s similarly inclined 1967 album, John Wesley Harding) they sought to import country’s vocabulary and instrumentation into their countercultural pursuit of psychological and formal adventure. Under the sway of Gram Parsons, the Byrds created country rock’s pivotal album, Sweetheart of the Rodeo (1968), the country-purist goals of which seemed somewhat avant-garde in a rock world that had come to disdain all things conceivably old-fashioned. To hear the Byrds perform the Louvin Brothers’ country standard “The Christian Life” was to enter a distanced, hyperaestheticized realm where 1960s counterculture assumptions about the preeminence of loud volume and the obsolescence of tradition were called into question. Because the movement’s very instrumentation—pedal steel guitars, fiddles, mandolins, Dobro guitars, unobtrusive percussion—promoted milder, generally acoustic sonic auras, country rock’s overall effect seemed drastically different.
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.
For a relatively small country (roughly 36 million), Canada continues to punch above its weight when it comes to musical contribution. The sheer volume of notable acts that were left off the list is impressive enough. From bonafide legends (Neil Young and Joni Mitchell) to 80s hit machines (Bryan Adams and Corey Hart) to 00’s chart toppers (The Weeknd and Grimes) Canada boasts some serious homegrown talent that they’re nice enough to share with the rest of the world. To celebrate Canada Day, we’ve assembled a list of the country’s greatest musicians that cross all genres, eras and provinces (excluding the many talented French-Canadian artists and Glenn Gould, Lenny Breau, and Oscar Petersen (they’re above lists).
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”.
More convincingly than anyone in the last decade, Welch and her partner David Rawlings dipped their ladle into the pot of old-timey American music. On the reflective Time (the Revelator), as their striking vocals wrap tautly around each other, a hushed epic unfolds. The spirited “Red Clay Halo”—a gorgeously simple rumination on poverty, sin and redemption—captures the essence of the duo’s timeless songs: “And it’s under my nails and it’s under my collar / And it shows on my Sunday clothes / Though I do my best with the soap and the water / but the damned old dirt won’t go.” Welch and Rawlings can’t seem to get the dirt out of their music, either. And thank goodness for that.—Kate Kiefer
In 1952, Dawson began a radio show and went on to national stardom as a singing cowboy of radio, TV and film. Slim Dusty (1927–2003) was known as the "King of Australian Country Music" and helped to popularise the Australian bush ballad. His successful career spanned almost six decades, and his 1957 hit "A Pub with No Beer" was the biggest-selling record by an Australian to that time, and with over seven million record sales in Australia he is the most successful artist in Australian musical history. Dusty recorded and released his one-hundredth album in the year 2000 and was given the honour of singing "Waltzing Matilda" in the closing ceremony of the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games. Dusty's wife Joy McKean penned several of his most popular songs.
Regional Mexican is Mexico's version of country music. It includes a number of different subgenres, depending on where they originated, and in what regions they are popular. One specific song style, the ranchera, found its origins in the Mexican countryside and was first popularized with mariachi, and has since also become popular with banda, norteño, Duranguense and other regional Mexican styles. The corrido, a different song style with a similar history, is also performed in many different regional styles. Other song styles performed in regional Mexican music include ballads, cumbias, boleros, among others. American country music is also popular in Mexico, but most prominently in the northern regions of the country, where a number of artists perform the genre while singing in Spanish. Tejano (also known as "tex-mex" in English) is popular in Spanish-speaking areas of the United States, particularly in and near Texas, and in northeastern areas of Mexico.
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
The Jayhawks returned as backing band for Joe Henry’s Kindness of the World in 1992, just as the band was hitting its own stride. Together, the two acts perfected what they’d begun the year before on Short Man’s Room. The banjos, mandolins, violins, pianos, pedal steel, occasional harmonies and prevalent jangly guitars provided a rich, engaging aural landscape for Henry’s earnest voice and poetic wresting with the human condition. Kindness evidenced Henry as one of the most skillful and honest lyricists in popular music. His next release, Trampoline, commenced a string of sonic experiments that—combined with lyrical prowess that has only grown—have established him as one of most interesting and vital singer-songwriters working today. Though he would refuse to be constrained by the genre, Henry’s collaboration with the Jayhawks serves as an exemplar of the then-nascent genre.
In the early 1970s, Jennings fought Nashville for creative control to make his music the way he saw fit. Though he had been a consistent hitmaker for close to a decade by this point, you could hear a difference on such songs as “This Time” and “Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way.” He was called an outlaw, though he tended to rebel against that word as well over the years. Looking back, Jennings simply wanted to be himself –- ranging from covers of such current hits as “Can’t You See” to stunning ballads like “Dreaming My Dreams With You.”