Despite the genre's growing popularity in the 1980s, '90s and 2000s, alternative country and neo-traditionalist artists saw minimal support from country radio in those decades, despite strong sales and critical acclaim for albums such as the soundtrack to the 2000 film O Brother, Where Art Thou?. In 1987, The Beat Farmers gained airplay on country music stations with their song "Make It Last", but the single was pulled from the format when station programmers decreed the band's music was too rock-oriented for their audience. However, some alt-country songs have been crossover hits to mainstream country radio in cover versions by established artists on the format; Lucinda Williams' "Passionate Kisses" was a hit for Mary Chapin Carpenter in 1993, Ryan Adams's "When The Stars Go Blue" was a hit for Tim McGraw in 2007, and Old Crow Medicine Show's "Wagon Wheel" was a hit for Darius Rucker in 2013.
Canada's first independent record label Compo Company built a pressing plant (the largest of its day) in 1918 at Lachine, Quebec. Compo was originally created to serve the several American independent record companies such as Okeh Records which wanted to distribute records in Canada. The 1920s saw Canada's first radio stations, this allowed Canadian songwriters to contribute some of the most famous popular music of the early 20th century. Canada's first commercial radio station CFCF (formerly XWA) begins broadcasting regularly scheduled programming in Montreal in 1920, followed by CKAC, Canada's first French language radio station, in 1922. By 1923, there were 34 radio stations in Canada and subsequently proliferated at a remarkable rate, and with them spread the popularity of jazz. Jazz became associated with all things modern, sophisticated, and also decadent.
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”.
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.
Canada during the Second World War produced some patriotic songs, but they were not hits in the music industry sense. A number of Canadian singers who learned their craft in Canadian opera companies in the 1930s went on to sing in major international opera houses. Most notable from the 1940s is contralto singer Portia White (1911–1968). She achieved international fame because of her voice and stage presence. As a Canadian female of African descent, her popularity helped to open previously-closed doors for talented women who followed. She has been declared "A person of national historic significance" by the Government of Canada. In 1964 she performed for Queen Elizabeth II, at the opening of the Confederation Centre of the Arts.
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.
The turn of the millennium was a time of incredible nationalism, at least as far as Canadian radio is concerned. The 1971 CRTC rules (30% Canadian content on Canadian radio) finally come into full effect and by the end of the 20th century radio stations would have to play 35% Canadian content. This led to an explosion in the 21st century of Canadian pop musicians dominating the airwaves unlike any era before. In 1996, VideoFACT launched PromoFACT, a funding program to help new artists produce electronic press kits and websites. At about the same time, the CD (cheap to manufacture) replaced the vinyl album and Compact Cassette (expensive to manufacture). Shortly thereafter, the Internet allowed musicians to directly distribute their music, thus bypassing the selection of the old-fashioned "record label". Canada's mainstream music industry has suffered as a result of the internet and the boom of independent music. The drop in annual sales between 1999 - the year that Napster's unauthorized peer-to-peer file sharing service launched - and the end of 2004 was $465 million.
These Brits played weirdo punk rock for years before releasing this weirdo record whose country influences are subtle to say the least. The dystopian feel of Fear and Whiskey is definitely more “alt” than “country,” but songs like “Abernant 1984/5” and the aptly titled “Country” are boozy strolls across wind-swept plains on far way planets. Guitarist Jon Langford’s love of country music continued to grow, and he went on to form The Waco Brothers and also appeared on alt-country stalwarts Old 97’s classic Wreck Your Life album.—Mark Lore
Country music was aided by the U.S. Federal Communications Commission's (FCC) Docket 80–90, which led to a significant expansion of FM radio in the 1980s by adding numerous higher-fidelity FM signals to rural and suburban areas. At this point, country music was mainly heard on rural AM radio stations; the expansion of FM was particularly helpful to country music, which migrated to FM from the AM band as AM became overcome by talk radio (the country music stations that stayed on AM developed the classic country format for the AM audience). At the same time, beautiful music stations already in rural areas began abandoning the format (leading to its effective demise) to adopt country music as well. This wider availability of country music led to producers seeking to polish their product for a wider audience. In 1990, Billboard, which had published a country music chart since the 1940s, changed the methodology it used to compile the chart: singles sales were removed from the methodology, and only airplay on country radio determined a song's place on the chart. https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCfRkrq7xfAiSbWaIKJ2vSHg
In 2007, Canada joined the controversial Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement talks, whose outcome will have a significant impact on the Canadian music industry. In 2010 Canada introduced new copyright legislation. The amended law makes hacking digital locks illegal, but enshrine into law the ability of purchasers to record and copy music from a CD to portable devices.
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
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."
If Cold Roses, his double-disc gatefold set, was Adams’ Exile on Main St., Jacksonville City Nights finds the singer back in his tear-stained Gram Parsons duds. As always, Adams does a smashing job recreating Parsons’ heartrending lyrical and tonal nuances—the strained crack in the voice, the sobbing plea, the sweet, melancholic sigh. He doesn’t so much return to his Whiskeytown roots here as he canters straight past them into sad-eyed, Bakersfield barroom shuffles. Add a touch of post-acid-test Grateful Dead acousticism plus Adams’ breathtaking lyrics and you got a modern C&W classic.—Paste Staff
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.
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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.
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
There’s a long tradition of African-Americans playing old-time music, from blues legends Blind Blake, the Reverend Gary Davis and Josh White to artists such as the Mississippi Mud Steppers and Howard “Louie Bluie” Armstrong, whose early ragtime outfit, the Tennessee Chocolate Drops, has provided a lasting influence—and this modern-day act with its name. The Carolina Chocolate Dropsformed in 2005 at the Black Banjo Gathering in Boone, N.C., and since then the young trio has been determined to prove that “black folk were a huge part of the stringband tradition.” What they’ve also done is dust off a musical form seen today as either a novelty or the exclusive provenance of ethnomusicologists. To paraphrase Rakim’s immortal words, these Drops ain’t no joke: Their enthusiasm for the tradition is obvious even as the trio spans from traditional arrangements (the rollicking fiddle rave-ups “Trouble in Your Mind” and “Cindy Gal”) to self-penned works (the particularly terrific “Kissin’ and Cussin’”) and stringband makeovers of modern-day works (a hip-hop influenced cover of Blu Cantrell’s “Hit ’em Up Style (Oops!)” and Tom Waits’ “Trampled Rose”). Several generations removed from the origins of their chosen idiom, the Carolina Chocolate Drops are nonetheless the genuine article.—Corey DuBrowa
Historically, music was composed in Canada's colonies and settlements during the 18th century, although very few popular named works have survived or were even published. The French and Indian Wars began and left the population economically drained and ill-equipped to develop cultural pursuits properly. The part-time composers of this period were nonetheless often quite skilled. Traditional songs and dances, such as those of the Habitants and Métis, were transmitted orally, from generation to generation and from village to village, thus people felt no need to transcribe or publish them. Printed music was required, for music teachers and their pupils, who were from the privileged minority where domestic music making was considered a proof of gentility. Music publishing and printing in Europe by this time was a thriving industry, but it did not begin in Canada until the 19th century. Canadian composers were not able to focus entirely on creating new music in these years, as most made their living in other musical activities such as leading choirs, church organists and teaching. Regimental bands were musically a part of civil life and typically featured a dozen woodwind and brass instruments, performing at parades, festive ceremonies, minuets, country dances and balls.
On the surface, the definition of country rock should be relatively simple. When people think of country rock music and country rock songs, they imagine country singers making the dreaded switch to play rock music. However, many of the best country bands made the switch from rock to play country-infused rock songs, thus the name of country rock. Bands would record using a pedal steel, sing about themes commonly associated with country and by the beginning of the 1970s, country rock became a genre that became popular in the mainstream.
Singer/songwriter Bill Mallonee changed lineups to his Athens, Ga., outfit like some frontmen change hairstyles, and with the personnel moves came a variety of styles from alt-folk to indie rock and even Americanized Brit-pop. But one of the band’s best album’s was a straight-up alt-country gem. Audible Sigh benefitted from Kenny Hutson’s versatility on mandolin, guitar, pedal steel and dobro, production from Buddy Miller and backing vocals from Emmylou Harris on standout track “Resplendent.” It’s Mallonee’s vivid songwriting that elevates the album to “overlooked classic” status, though. Audible Sigh trades in Dustbowl imagery more than most of his catalog, but he can’t stay completely away from the personal demons he’s spent a career turning into confessional songs, like on “She Walks on Roses”: “They say that pride, well it’s the chief of sins/Well I know all of his deputies, I’m well acquainted with them.” Song titles like “Hard Luck and Heart Attack” and “Black Cloud O’er Me” fit well on the twangiest album of his impressive catalog.—Josh Jackson
The U.S. Congress has formally recognized Bristol, Tennessee as the "Birthplace of Country Music", based on the historic Bristol recording sessions of 1927. Since 2014, the city has been home to the Birthplace of Country Music Museum. Historians have also noted the influence of the less-known Johnson City sessions of 1928 and 1929, and the Knoxville sessions of 1929 and 1930. In addition, the Mountain City Fiddlers Convention, held in 1925, helped to inspire modern country music. Before these, pioneer settlers, in the Great Smoky Mountains region, had developed a rich musical heritage.