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.
During the mid-1970s, Dolly Parton, a successful mainstream country artist since the late 1960s, mounted a high-profile campaign to cross over to pop music, culminating in her 1977 hit "Here You Come Again", which topped the U.S. country singles chart, and also reached No. 3 on the pop singles charts. Parton's male counterpart, Kenny Rogers, came from the opposite direction, aiming his music at the country charts, after a successful career in pop, rock and folk music with The First Edition, achieving success the same year with "Lucille", which topped the country charts and reached No. 5 on the U.S. pop singles charts, as well as reaching Number 1 on the British all-genre chart. Parton and Rogers would both continue to have success on both country and pop charts simultaneously, well into the 1980s. Artists like Crystal Gayle, Ronnie Milsap and Barbara Mandrell would also find success on the pop charts with their records. In 1975, author Paul Hemphill stated in the Saturday Evening Post, "Country music isn't really country anymore; it is a hybrid of nearly every form of popular music in America."
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.
The Prairie provinces, due to their western cowboy and agrarian nature, are the true heartland of Canadian country music. While the Prairies never developed a traditional music culture anything like the Maritimes, the folk music of the Prairies often reflected the cultural origins of the settlers, who were a mix of Scottish, Ukrainian, German and others. For these reasons polkas and Western music were always popular in the region, and with the introduction of the radio, mainstream country music flourished. As the culture of the region is western and frontier in nature, the specific genre of country and western is more popular today in the Prairies than in any other part of the country. No other area of the country embraces all aspects of the culture, from two-step dancing, to the cowboy dress, to rodeos, to the music itself, like the Prairies do. The Atlantic Provinces, on the other hand, produce far more traditional musicians, but they are not usually specifically country in nature, usually bordering more on the folk or Celtic genres.
Popular contemporary performers of Australian country music include John Williamson (who wrote the iconic "True Blue"), Lee Kernaghan (whose hits include "Boys from the Bush" and "The Outback Club"), Gina Jeffreys, Forever Road and Sara Storer. In the United States, Olivia Newton-John, Sherrié Austin and Keith Urban have attained great success. During her time as a country singer in the 1970s, Newton-John became the first (and to date only) non-American winner of the Country Music Association Award for Female Vocalist of the Year which many considered a controversial decision by the CMA; after starring in the rock-and-roll musical film Grease in 1978, Newton-John (mirroring the character she played in the film) shifted to pop music in the 1980s. Urban is arguably considered the most successful international Australian country star, winning nine CMA Awards, including three Male Vocalist of the Year wins and two wins of the CMA's top honour Entertainer of the Year.
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
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.
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.
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.
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's music industry is the sixth largest in the world, producing many internationally renowned artists. Canada has developed a music infrastructure, that includes church halls, chamber halls, conservatories, academies, performing arts centres, record companies, radio stations and television music video channels. Canada's music broadcasting is regulated by the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC). The Canadian Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences administers Canada's music industry awards, the Juno Awards, which first commenced in 1970.
In India, the Anglo-Indian community is well known for enjoying and performing country music. An annual concert festival called "Blazing Guitars" held in Chennai brings together Anglo-Indian musicians from all over the country (including some who have emigrated to places like Australia). The year 2003 brought home – grown Indian, Bobby Cash to the forefront of the country music culture in India when he became India's first international country music artist to chart singles in Australia.
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
This multiple JUNO award winning singer-songwriter is the clear heir apparent to The Tragically Hip, both in terms of writing energetic folk-rock with lyrical homage to Canada and for in his relative obscurity outside of the country. Hailing from Halifax, Nova Scotia, Plaskett has a prolific output that spans more than 20 years and includes 17 studio releases both with his 90s hard-rock band Thrush Hermit, his solo recordings and then with his band, the Joel Plaskett Emergency.
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.
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.
Authoring a song that would launch almost a 100 covers, ‘Hallelujah’ is just a small sliver of Leonard Cohen’s immense contribution to music over the past five decades. The accomplished poet and novelist was the toast of the Montreal literary scene before he turned to music to become the foremost songwriter of his era. His meditations on love, faith, despair and politics could be conveyed in even the simplest of terms. Songs like ‘Suzanne’ and ‘Bird on the Wire’ and ‘Sisters of Mercy’ would cement his reputation as a in-demand folk songwriter, spawning hits for countless other artists, but no one could replace Cohen’s deep, resonant voice.
From the opening song, which finds Steve doing his best Dylan impersonation in calling for the spirits of Woody Guthrie and Jesus to return and scour the land free of crooked politicians, to the last song, “Fort Worth Blues,” which finds Steve spinning a heartbreaking tale of wanderlust and an unnameable malaise, El Corazon shot like a bullet to my heart. Earle slides effortlessly between folk, Neil Young-like guitar anthems, country weepers, bluegrass workouts and bone-crunching rock ‘n’ roll. And throughout he writes brilliantly, offering up story songs with remarkable economy, using not a single wasted word.—Andy Whitman
Leo, the Royal Cadet a light opera with music by Oscar Ferdinand Telgmann and a libretto by George Frederick Cameron was composed in Kingston, Ontario in 1889. The work centres on Nellie's love for Leo, a cadet at the Royal Military College of Canada who becomes a hero serving during the Anglo-Zulu War in 1879. The operetta focussed on typical character types, events and concerns of Telgmann and Cameron's time and place.
Drums were scorned by early country musicians as being "too loud" and "not pure", but by 1935 Western swing big band leader Bob Wills had added drums to the Texas Playboys. In the mid-1940s, the Grand Ole Opry did not want the Playboys' drummer to appear on stage. Although drums were commonly used by rockabilly groups by 1955, the less-conservative-than-the-Grand-Ole-Opry Louisiana Hayride kept its infrequently used drummer back stage as late as 1956. By the early 1960s, however, it was rare that a country band didn't have a drummer. Bob Wills was one of the first country musicians known to have added an electric guitar to his band, in 1938. A decade later (1948) Arthur Smith achieved top 10 US country chart success with his MGM Records recording of "Guitar Boogie", which crossed over to the US pop chart, introducing many people to the potential of the electric guitar. For several decades Nashville session players preferred the warm tones of the Gibson and Gretsch archtop electrics, but a "hot" Fender style, using guitars which became available beginning in the early 1950s, eventually prevailed as the signature guitar sound of country.
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.
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.
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.