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
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
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.
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.
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.”
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.
CALLING ME HOME: GRAM PARSONS AND THE ROOTS OF COUNTRY ROCK differs from any other biography of the musician's life and times, choosing to focus on the extent of his career, his strong influence that led to his being named the 'father of country rock', and the influences he had upon associates and the music world as a whole, from Elvis Costello and Patty Griffin to Emmylou Harris.
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.