By the end of the 1970s, punk and new wave pushed country rock out of the pop charts and the media limelight. The 1980s saw a resurgence of the genre, more geared to rockabilly force than folk and country balladry. Christened “roots rock,” it yielded underground champions like Nashville’s Jason and the Scorchers, ultimately manifesting itself in the mainstream work of Bruce Springsteen, John Mellencamp, and others. Also by the end of that decade, country music in Nashville had begun to adapt some of the riskier guitar tones and rhythms for its less traditional artists. Elsewhere a new wave of young country rockers, notably Son Volt and Wilco, lumped together under the banner “alternative country” in the 1990s, tried to resurrect the less glitzy side of the movement. But country rock in the most popular sense became a period style, left to evoke the 1970s, a time when artists dressed up deep aesthetic and personal concerns in music that only sounded soft.
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.
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.
Canada has a long tradition of singer-songwriters and that’s partly in thanks to its own “folksong laureate”, Gordon Lightfoot. Coming out of the Toronto 60s folk music scene, Lightfoot’s native country would become his lifelong muse, penning such classics as ‘Canadian Railroad Trilogy’ and ‘Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald’ and yet universal enough to appeal worldwide, turning him into Canada’s most successful contemporary folk artist. A beloved cultural icon, he’s been the beneficiary of countless awards and honours including the Companion of the Order of Canada – Canada’s highest civilian honour.
1,2,3,4… name a better-known Canadian female singer who’s had one of the most unlikely success stories in popular music today? Before she was dominating the pop charts and performing on Sesame Street, the Canadian singer-songwriter and guitarist, Leslie Feist, was performing with her then roommate and electro-pop provocateur, Peaches. Shortly after, she joined Broken Social Scene and released her breakout record, The Reminder – becoming the critical darling of the NPR-loving crowd. Born in Calgary, Feist became a key player in Toronto’s music scene and continues to enchant fans and critics alike with her pretty (never precious) vocals couched in gritty rock.
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.
Even though her hit album 1989 has taken her on a pop path, you simply can’t argue the impact of the singer on the country format. The moment the industry heard her debut single “Tim McGraw,” it was apparent that she was onto something. Swift also displays a strong awareness of who she is as a songwriter –- knowing also who her audience is. She is as much of a juggernaut as Garth Brooks in terms of her success – and how she treats people in the industry.
Many traditional country artists are present in eastern and western Canada. They make common use of fiddle and pedal steel guitar styles. Some notable Canadian country artists include Shania Twain, Anne Murray, k.d. lang, Gordon Lightfoot, Buffy Sainte-Marie, George Canyon, Blue Rodeo, Tommy Hunter, Rita MacNeil, Stompin' Tom Connors, Stan Rogers, Ronnie Prophet, Carroll Baker, The Rankin Family, Ian Tyson, Johnny Reid, Paul Brandt, Jason McCoy, George Fox, Carolyn Dawn Johnson, Hank Snow, Don Messer, Wilf Carter, Michelle Wright, Terri Clark, Prairie Oyster, Family Brown, Johnny Mooring, Marg Osburne, Lindsay Ell, Doc Walker, Emerson Drive, The Wilkinsons, Corb Lund and the Hurtin' Albertans, Crystal Shawanda, Dean Brody, Shane Yellowbird, Gord Bamford, Chad Brownlee, The Road Hammers, Rowdy Spurs, Colter Wall and The Higgins.
Country music gained national television exposure through Ozark Jubilee on ABC-TV and radio from 1955 to 1960 from Springfield, Missouri. The program showcased top stars including several rockabilly artists, some from the Ozarks. As Webb Pierce put it in 1956, "Once upon a time, it was almost impossible to sell country music in a place like New York City. Nowadays, television takes us everywhere, and country music records and sheet music sell as well in large cities as anywhere else." The late 1950s saw the emergence of Buddy Holly, but by the end of the decade, backlash as well as traditional artists such as Ray Price, Marty Robbins, and Johnny Horton began to shift the industry away from the rock n' roll influences of the mid-1950s.
By the end of World War II, "mountaineer" string band music known as bluegrass had emerged when Bill Monroe joined with Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs, introduced by Roy Acuff at the Grand Ole Opry. That was the ordination of bluegrass music and how Bill Monroe became to be known as the "Father of Country Music." Gospel music, too, remained a popular component of bluegrass and other sorts of country music. Red Foley, the biggest country star following World War II, had one of the first million-selling gospel hits ("Peace in the Valley") and also sang boogie, blues and rockabilly. In the post-war period, country music was called "folk" in the trades, and "hillbilly" within the industry. In 1944, The Billboard replaced the term "hillbilly" with "folk songs and blues," and switched to "country" or "country and Western" in 1949.
Country influences combined with Punk rock and alternative rock to forge the "cowpunk" scene in Southern California during the 1980s, which included bands such as The Long Ryders, Lone Justice and The Beat Farmers, as well as the established punk group X, whose music had begun to include country and rockabilly influences. Simultaneously, a generation of diverse country artists outside of California emerged that rejected the perceived cultural and musical conservatism associated with Nashville's mainstream country musicians in favor of more countercultural outlaw country and the folk singer-songwriter traditions of artists such as Woody Guthrie, Gram Parsons and Bob Dylan.
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’.
The influence and innovations of Canadian hip hop came to the foreground in Canada when Music videos became an important marketing tool for Canadian musicians, with the debut of MuchMusic in 1984 and MusiquePlus in 1986. Now both English and French Canadian musicians had outlets to promote all forms of music through video in Canada. The networks were not just an opportunity for artists to get their videos played—the networks created VideoFACT, a fund to help emerging artists produce their videos.
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.
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.
The idea of a band in country music had never really succeeded on a commercial level -- until Alabama kicked in the door in 1980. RCA rolled the dice on them, and it was an investment that paid off quite well –- over 30 No. 1 singles, 75 million in album sales, and the only band (so far) to win the CMA Entertainer of the Year award three times. To further underscore their success story, all of their singles for RCA in the 1980s -– save 1987’s “Tar Top” -- found their way to the pinnacle of the charts.
Country musicians began recording boogie in 1939, shortly after it had been played at Carnegie Hall, when Johnny Barfield recorded "Boogie Woogie". The trickle of what was initially called hillbilly boogie, or okie boogie (later to be renamed country boogie), became a flood beginning in late 1945. One notable release from this period was The Delmore Brothers' "Freight Train Boogie", considered to be part of the combined evolution of country music and blues towards rockabilly. In 1948, Arthur "Guitar Boogie" Smith achieved top ten US country chart success with his MGM Records recordings of "Guitar Boogie" and "Banjo Boogie", with the former crossing over to the US pop charts. Other country boogie artists included Moon Mullican, Merrill Moore and Tennessee Ernie Ford. The hillbilly boogie period lasted into the 1950s and remains one of many subgenres of country into the 21st century.
Outside its handful of stars, country rock's greatest significance was on artists in other genres, including the Band, Grateful Dead, Creedence Clearwater Revival, the Rolling Stones and George Harrison's solo work. It also played a part in the development of Southern rock, which, although largely derived from blues rock, had a distinct southern lilt, and it paved the way for parts of the alternative country movement. The genre declined in popularity in the late 1970s, but some established artists, including Neil Young, have continued to record country-tinged rock into the twenty-first century. Country rock has survived as a cult force in Texas, where acts including the Flatlanders, Joe Ely, Butch Hancock, Jimmie Dale Gilmore and California-based Richard Brooker, have collaborated and recorded. Other performers have produced occasional recordings in the genre, including Elvis Costello's Almost Blue (1981) and the Robert Plant and Alison Krauss collaboration Raising Sand, which was one of the most commercially successful albums of 2007.
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).
Take a crew of Yes-obsessed Canadians, apply an English prog sensibility and you have one of the most successful rock acts to break out of Canada – selling over million records sold worldwide. Geddy Lee and Alex Lifeson grew up near Toronto and came up in the local club circuit before going on to form the illustrious prog-rock trio known as Rush. While the band’s sound would evolve over the years since their 1974 debut, their expert musicianship, complexity of their compositions and vivid lyricism would remain unparalleled. While Rush were the ones to hit it big, let’s not forgot other Canadian prog-rockers Saga, Klaatu and Triumph.
If Johnny Cash covered one of your songs on his final albums, it automatically meant it embodied some sort of country spirit however musically disguised. Cash, of course, interpreted the title track from this 1999 record the following year on American III: Solitary Man. I See a Darkness is dark, yes. It is gothic without being goth. Yet, its confessional cries and distant, discordant layering (especially on tracks like “Nomadic Revery (All Around)”) are also subversive in a way that honors the subgenre.—Hilary Saunders
Country pop or soft pop, with roots in the countrypolitan sound, folk music, and soft rock, is a subgenre that first emerged in the 1970s. Although the term first referred to country music songs and artists that crossed over to top 40 radio, country pop acts are now more likely to cross over to adult contemporary music. It started with pop music singers like Glen Campbell, Bobbie Gentry, John Denver, Olivia Newton-John, Anne Murray, B. J. Thomas, The Bellamy Brothers, and Linda Ronstadt having hits on the country charts. Between 1972 and 1975, singer/guitarist John Denver released a series of hugely successful songs blending country and folk-rock musical styles ("Rocky Mountain High", "Sunshine on My Shoulders", "Annie's Song", "Thank God I'm a Country Boy", and "I'm Sorry"), and was named Country Music Entertainer of the Year in 1975. The year before, Olivia Newton-John, an Australian pop singer, won the "Best Female Country Vocal Performance" as well as the Country Music Association's most coveted award for females, "Female Vocalist of the Year". In response George Jones, Tammy Wynette, Jean Shepard and other traditional Nashville country artists dissatisfied with the new trend formed the short-lived "Association of Country Entertainers" in 1974; the ACE soon unraveled in the wake of Jones and Wynette's bitter divorce and Shepard's realization that most others in the industry lacked her passion for the movement.
Female artists such as Reba McEntire, Patty Loveless, Faith Hill, Martina McBride, Deana Carter, LeAnn Rimes, Mindy McCready, Lorrie Morgan, Shania Twain, and Mary Chapin Carpenter all released platinum-selling albums in the 1990s. The Dixie Chicks became one of the most popular country bands in the 1990s and early 2000s. Their 1998 debut album Wide Open Spaces went on to become certified 12x platinum while their 1999 album Fly went on to become 10x platinum. After their third album, Home, was released in 2003, the band made political news in part because of lead singer Natalie Maines's comments disparaging then-President George W. Bush while the band was overseas (Maines stated that she and her bandmates were ashamed to be from the same state as Bush, who had just commenced the Iraq War a few days prior). The comments caused a rift between the band and the country music scene, and the band's fourth (and most recent) album, 2006's Taking the Long Way, took a more rock-oriented direction; the album was commercially successful overall but largely ignored among country audiences. After Taking the Long Way, the band broke up for a decade (with two of its members continuing as the Court Yard Hounds) before embarking on a reunion tour in 2016.
After years as the crown prince of hip Nashville—Emmylou Harris’ wingman, Rosanne Cash’s producer, proud owner of five No. 1s off the gold Diamonds & Dirt—Crowell eschewed the mainstream for a song cycle devoted to his hardscrabble youth on the wrong side of Houston. With mirth and wonder, he captured the thrills of being young (“Telephone Road”), hearing Johnny Cash for the first time (“I Walk The Line ReVisited”) and romantic misdirection (“U Don’t Know How Much I Hate U”). But there was also brutality, the acoustic-framed “The Rock of My Soul” captured domestic violence as a cycle of generational abuse and the lurching “Topsy Turvy” mirrors the chaos, while the spoken “Highway 17” is an O. Henry-esque small crime confection—and “I Wish It Would Rain” and “Wandering Boy” are reckoning bookend songs for twins as the one who left turns tricks and contracts AIDS in West Hollywood then has to come home to die. In the end, “I Know Love Is All I Need” offers a universal blessing and benediction, accepting the inevitable flaws of his dead parents with tenderness and recognition of their best intentions.—Holly Gleason
Country music often consists of ballads and dance tunes with generally simple forms, folk lyrics, and harmonies mostly accompanied by string instruments such as banjos, electric and acoustic guitars, steel guitars (such as pedal steels and dobros), and fiddles as well as harmonicas. Blues modes have been used extensively throughout its recorded history.