Years before the term “alt-country” was conceived, something a little uglier and grimier was festering in Nashville. Jason & The Scorchers—led by explosive frontman Jason Ringenberg—released a couple of EPs before dropping their best record Lost & Found in 1985. It’s a punk rock album at heart, but guitarist Warner Hodges has plenty of twangy licks up his sleeve. Songs like “Lost Highway” and “I Really Don’t Want To Know” showed off Ringenberg’s wry sense of humor, while also confounding audiences for being too country for some and too punk rock for others. The band never found any major success early on, however, three decades later Lost & Found proves that Jason & The Scorchers were light years ahead of their time.—Mark Lore
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.
In 1986, when he broke onto the scene, Whitley's star was somewhat overshadowed by Randy Travis and Dwight Yoakam. But, his second album -- 1988's Don't Close Your Eyes -- helped to establish him as one of the dominant balladeers of his day. Sadly, a long career wasn't meant to be -- as his May 1989 death stilled his voice. But, talk to any singer who has come along since -- such as Tim McGraw, Chris Young, or Alan Jackson, and they will tell you just how deep his influence still runs -- even after 25 years.
In the fall of 1985, The New York Times proclaimed traditional country music as “dead.” Just a few months later, this North Carolina native burst upon the scene that owed as much to Lefty and Hank as it did anyone currently on the radio. His Always and Forever album stayed at the top of the Billboard Country Albums chart for an astonishing 43 weeks -– and hit the top 20 on the Billboard 200 long before Soundscan -– unheard of for a traditional-based artist. Randy Travis rewrote the rules for the format – with a pen of classic-inspired ink.
By the 1990s, country music had attained crossover success in the pop charts, with artists like James Blundell and James Reyne singing "Way Out West", and country star Kasey Chambers winning the ARIA Award for Best Female Artist in 2000, 2002 and 2004, tying with pop stars Wendy Matthews and Sia for the most wins in that category. Furthermore, Chambers has gone on to win nine ARIA Awards for Best Country Album and, in 2018, became the youngest artist to ever be inducted into the ARIA Hall of Fame. The crossover influence of Australian country is also evident in the music of successful contemporary bands the Waifs and the John Butler Trio. Nick Cave has been heavily influenced by the country artist Johnny Cash. In 2000, Cash, covered Cave's "The Mercy Seat" on the album American III: Solitary Man, seemingly repaying Cave for the compliment he paid by covering Cash's "The Singer" (originally "The Folk Singer") on his Kicking Against the Pricks album. Subsequently, Cave cut a duet with Cash on a version of Hank Williams' "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry" for Cash's American IV: The Man Comes Around album (2002).
This list is so incomplete and so pathetically inept in its order that I believe I’m going to pee-yook. Rush at #5??? The third top-selling band ever. Only The Beatles and The Rolling Stones are ahead of them. Gordon Lightfoot at #16…just spit in his face. He’s been putting out music for over SIXTY years. What about Bob Ezrin? Pink Floyd’s “The Wall” would not exist without him. Neither would a few KISS albums, Alice Cooper tunes, Pat Benatar and several others. Gary and Dave…Ian Thomas is top 20. I don’t argue against Neil Young, kraft dinner(kd) Lang in #4? Rufus Wainwright? Ron Sexsmith does a lot, but has no business being on this list. Were you people smoking herb when you thought up this muddled mess? Horrible…absolutely horrible.
Some might recognize Owens better for his 17-year run as the host of Hee Haw. While his run in Kornfield Kounty did make him a household name, Owens was a musical maverick in the 1960s. His Bakersfield style -- a mixture of pure honky-tonk and California rock-and-roll attitude -- served in stark contrast to the more smooth sounds coming out of Nashville at the time. He influenced not just country artists, but also John Fogerty, Ray Charles -– who recorded eight of his classics -- and The Beatles, who requested that Capitol send them each an Owens album upon its release.
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.
On her first record, the throaty Kathleen Edwards sounded like Lucinda Williams with far fewer miles on the odometer, mining similar veins of hard living and love gone wrong for her lyrics. But Edwards doesn’t sound like an acolyte. She’s got moxie, but a refreshingly fragile honesty in her writing tones down the bravado. On “Hockey Skates,” when Edwards asks “if the ‘boys’ club’ will “crumble just because of a loud-mouthed girl,” the swagger and self-effacement form a neat balance. She’s aware of the cost, but not afraid to confront it. That symmetry pervades Failer. Edwards slips comfortably between song styles—from straight-ahead rockers (“One More Song the Radio Won’t Like,” “12 Bellevue”) to country and folk-tinged tunes (“Mercury,” “National Steel”)—without suggesting that she’s trying on any of them. Right from the beginning, she sounded like she’d been at it for decades. The arrangements help. The 10 songs include a nice range of instrumentation (organs, alto/baritone/soprano saxophones, vibes, banjo and pedal steel) all expertly done. But ultimately Edwards’ voice and lyrics stand out.—John Schact
With a name like The Tragically Hip, the bluesy-Canadian rock outfit sealed their fate by being cool to Canadian audiences but never cracking the US and world markets. They’ve been called “Canada’s R.E.M” (only by Americans, we suspect) for their clever lyricism and their roots-rock meets alt-country sound. With a staggering amount of hit songs and albums under their belt from the past 30 years, they are part of Canada’s cultural identity, so much so that when beloved frontmen Gord Downie performed his last concert with the band in 2016, 11.7 million Canadians tuned in to watch.
Canadian artists and Canadian ensembles were generally forced to turn toward the United States to establish healthy long lasting careers during the 1960s. Canada would produce some of the world's most influential singer-songwriters during this time. Among the most notable is Winnipeg's Neil Young who has been inducted into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame, Canada's Walk of Fame and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame twice. Leonard Cohen has been inducted into both the Canadian Music Hall of Fame and the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame and is also a Companion of the Order of Canada. Folk legend Joni Mitchell is an Alberta native, and has been inducted into both the Canadian Music Hall of Fame and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Walt Grealis of Toronto started in the music business with Apex Records in 1960, the Ontario distributor for Compo Company. He later joined London Records, where he worked until February 1964, when he then established RPM weekly trade magazine. From the first issue of RPM Weekly on February 24, 1964 to its final issue on November 13, 2000, RPM was the defining charts in Canada.
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’.
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.
Edith Kathryn Moogk (1988). Title Index to Canadian Works Listed in Edward B. Moogk's "Roll Back the Years, History of Canadian Recorded Sound, Genesis to 1930", in series, C.A.M.L. Occasional Papers, no. 1. Canadian Association of Music Libraries. N.B.: Title and fore-matter also in French; supplements the index within E. B. Moogk's book. ISBN 0-9690583-3-0
In the early-mid-1990s, country western music was influenced by the popularity of line dancing. This influence was so great that Chet Atkins was quoted as saying, "The music has gotten pretty bad, I think. It's all that damn line dancing." By the end of the decade, however, at least one line dance choreographer complained that good country line dance music was no longer being released. In contrast, artists such as Don Williams and George Jones who had more or less had consistent chart success through the 1970s and 1980s suddenly had their fortunes fall rapidly around 1991 when the new chart rules took effect.
His nickname was "The Voice" -- long before the NBC series. We don't know how more definitive that needs to be. Gosdin's phrasing was on par with anyone -- Jones or Haggard, who both considered themselves among the singer's biggest fans. Always something of an underdog in the business, the bulk of Gosdin's recorded output came from smaller, independent labels. But, when you heard him on slices of real country such as "If You're Gonna Do Me Wrong (Do It Right)" or "Today My World Slipped Away," record companies were of no major importance. He sang each song like it would be his last, and inspired a generation in the process.
Robbie Fulks is an unlikely candidate for country insurgentista. Born in Pennsylvania and cutting his teeth at Gerde’s Folk City, he landed in Chicago where he taught at the Old Town School of Folk Music. Along the way, the songwriting multi-instrumentalist fell under the sway of ‘50s country—and sought to distill the sounds coming from WSM-AM during the day—right down to the talk/jingle-evoking “The Scrapple Song.” Working with the unlikely team of engineer Steve Albini, Buck Owens’ Buckaroo Tom Bromley on steel guitar and Lou Whitney and the Skeletons, Country Love Songs moved from punk fatal (“She Took A Lot of Pills and Died”) to the fiddle-reelin’ (“Every Kind of Music (But Country)”), grief-immersed, steel-drenched and classic country-invoked salve (“The Buck Starts Here”) to unrepentant sin-embracing (“We’ll Burn Together”). Stately, clear and willing to cornpone without schticking it up, Fulks’ rubber cement voices stretches like half truth three hours after curfew.—Holly Gleason
The most successful British country music act of the 21st century are Ward Thomas and the Shires. In 2015, the Shires' album Brave, became the first UK country act ever to chart in the Top 10 of the UK Albums Chart and they became the first UK country act to receive an award from the American Country Music Association. In 2016, Ward Thomas then became the first UK country act to hit number 1 in the UK Albums Chart with their album Cartwheels.
In 2010, the group Lady Antebellum won five Grammys, including the coveted Song of the Year and Record of the Year for "Need You Now". A large number of duos and vocal groups emerged on the charts in the 2010s, many of which feature close harmony in the lead vocals. In addition to Lady Antebellum, groups such as Herrick, The Quebe Sisters Band, Little Big Town, The Band Perry, Gloriana, Thompson Square, Eli Young Band, Zac Brown Band and British duo The Shires have emerged to occupy a large portion of the new country artists in the popular scene along with solo singers Kacey Musgraves and Miranda Lambert.
In the 2010s, the alt-country genre saw an increase in its critical and commercial popularity, owing to the success of artists such as The Civil Wars, Chris Stapleton, Sturgill Simpson, Jason Isbell, Lydia Loveless and Margo Price. In 2019, Kacey Musgraves - a country artist who had gained a following with indie rock fans and music critics despite minimal airplay on country radio - won the Grammy Award for Album of the Year for her album Golden Hour.
Funding for Country Music was provided by Bank of America, the Annenberg Foundation, the Arthur Vining Davis Foundations, Belmont University, Tennessee Department of Tourist Development, the Metropolitan Government of Nashville and Davidson County, Rosalind P. Walter and by members of ‘The Better Angels Society,’ including: The Blavatnik Family Foundation, the Schwartz/Reisman Foundation, the Pfeil Foundation, Diane and Hal Brierley, John and Catherine Debs, the Fullerton Family Charitable Fund, the Perry and Donna Golkin Family Foundation, Jay Alix and Una Jackman, Mercedes T. Bass, Fred and Donna Seigel, Gilchrist and Amy Berg, James R. Berdell Foundation, David Bonderman, Deborah P. and Jonathan T. Dawson, Senator Bill and Tracy Frist, Susan and David Kreisman, Rocco and Debby Landesman, Lillian Lovelace, John and Leslie McQuown, Mindy's Hope Foundation, the Segal Family Foundation, Michelle Smith. Major funding was provided by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and PBS.
There’s nothing really flashy to say about the career of George Strait. He didn’t really break any musical ground nor did he become a trend-setter in how his music was made or marketed. But, he proved that there has always been a market for knowing what you do –- and doing it well. To this day, he has had more singles top the charts than any other country performer, and his recent string of sell-outs in Las Vegas for 2016 shows prove that audiences are still clamoring for hits like "All My Ex's Live in Texas."