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.
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 Jayhawks returned as backing band for Joe Henry’s Kindness of the World in 1992, just as the band was hitting its own stride. Together, the two acts perfected what they’d begun the year before on Short Man’s Room. The banjos, mandolins, violins, pianos, pedal steel, occasional harmonies and prevalent jangly guitars provided a rich, engaging aural landscape for Henry’s earnest voice and poetic wresting with the human condition. Kindness evidenced Henry as one of the most skillful and honest lyricists in popular music. His next release, Trampoline, commenced a string of sonic experiments that—combined with lyrical prowess that has only grown—have established him as one of most interesting and vital singer-songwriters working today. Though he would refuse to be constrained by the genre, Henry’s collaboration with the Jayhawks serves as an exemplar of the then-nascent genre.

Among the earliest musical societies were Halifax's "New Union Singing Society" of 1809 and Québec's "Harmonic Society" of 1820.[4] One of the first registered all-civilian musical ensembles was a religious sect organized from Upper Canada called the Children of Peace in 1820.[35] In 1833, a student orchestra was organized at the Séminaire de Québec the Société Ste-Cécile, as it was known, and was one of the earliest ensembles of its kind in Lower Canada.[35] The first appearance of a piece of music in a newspaper or magazine was in the pages of the Montreal twice-weekly newspaper, La Minerve, on September 19, 1831.[36] Many immigrants during this time lived in relative isolation and music sometimes obtained through subscriptions to newspapers and magazines, provided entertainment and a life line to civilization.[1] One of the earliest surviving publications in Canada of a song on the piano in sheet music format is "The Merry Bells of England" by J.F. Lehmann, of Bytown (later Ottawa) in 1840.[37]
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.
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.[52] Leading practitioners of this style were Buck Owens, Merle Haggard, Tommy Collins, Gary Allan, and Wynn Stewart, each of whom had his own style.[63][64]
Rockabilly was most popular with country fans in the 1950s, and 1956 could be called the year of rockabilly in country music. Rockabilly was an early form of rock and roll, an upbeat combination of blues and country music.[54] The number two, three and four songs on Billboard's charts for that year were Elvis Presley, "Heartbreak Hotel"; Johnny Cash, "I Walk the Line"; and Carl Perkins, "Blue Suede Shoes" Thumper Jones (George Jones)[55] Cash and Presley placed songs in the top 5 in 1958 with No. 3 "Guess Things Happen That Way/Come In, Stranger" by Cash, and No. 5 by Presley "Don't/I Beg of You."[56] Presley acknowledged the influence of rhythm and blues artists and his style, saying "The colored folk been singin' and playin' it just the way I'm doin' it now, man for more years than I know." Within a few years, many rockabilly musicians returned to a more mainstream style or had defined their own unique style.
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.

From within the UK, few country musicians achieved widespread mainstream success. Tom Jones, by this point near the end of his peak success as a pop singer, had a string of country hits in the late 1970s and early 1980s. The Bee Gees had some fleeting success in the genre, with one country hit as artists ("Rest Your Love on Me") and a major hit as songwriters ("Islands in the Stream"); Barry Gibb, the band's usual lead singer and last surviving member, acknowledged that country music was a major influence on the band's style.[124] Singer Engelbert Humperdinck, while charting only once in the U.S. country top 40 with "After the Lovin'," achieved widespread success on both the U.S. and UK pop charts with his faithful covers of Nashville country ballads such as "Release Me," "Am I That Easy to Forget" and "There Goes My Everything." The songwriting tandem of Roger Cook and Roger Greenaway wrote a number of country hits, in addition to their widespread success in pop songwriting; Cook is notable for being the only Briton to be inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame. Welsh singer Bonnie Tyler initially started her career making country albums and was even nominated for Top New Female Vocalist at the Academy of Country Music Awards before her huge crossover hit "Total Eclipse of the Heart" lead her towards more commercial pop and rock. In 2013, Tyler returned to her roots, blending the country elements of her early work with the rock of her successful material on her album Rocks and Honey which featured a duet with American country icon Vince Gill. Tyler subsequently announced that she was making a new country rock album in Nashville with John Carter Cash, son of country music legends Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash, slated for release in 2018.
Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family are widely considered to be important early country musicians. Their songs were first captured at a historic recording session in Bristol, Tennessee, on August 1, 1927, where Ralph Peer was the talent scout and sound recordist.[33][34] A scene in the movie O Brother, Where Art Thou? depicts a similar occurrence in the same timeframe. Rodgers fused hillbilly country, gospel, jazz, blues, pop, cowboy, and folk, and many of his best songs were his compositions, including "Blue Yodel",[35] which sold over a million records and established Rodgers as the premier singer of early country music.[36][37] Beginning in 1927, and for the next 17 years, the Carters recorded some 300 old-time ballads, traditional tunes, country songs and gospel hymns, all representative of America's southeastern folklore and heritage.[38]
During the second generation (1930s–1940s), radio became a popular source of entertainment, and "barn dance" shows featuring country music were started all over the South, as far north as Chicago, and as far west as California. The most important was the Grand Ole Opry, aired starting in 1925 by WSM in Nashville and continuing to the present day. During the 1930s and 1940s, cowboy songs, or Western music, which had been recorded since the 1920s, were popularized by films made in Hollywood. Bob Wills was another country musician from the Lower Great Plains who had become very popular as the leader of a "hot string band," and who also appeared in Hollywood westerns. His mix of country and jazz, which started out as dance hall music, would become known as Western swing. Wills was one of the first country musicians known to have added an electric guitar to his band, in 1938.[20] Country musicians began recording boogie in 1939, shortly after it had been played at Carnegie Hall, when Johnny Barfield recorded "Boogie Woogie".
A self-described “torch and twang singer”, k.d. lang was never going to be a traditional country star. With her androgynous looks and tear-in-the-throat vocals that could make a man cry, this Canadian singer-songwriter from Edmonton, Alberta was propelled to fame in the 90s with her breakout album, Ingénue. Since starting out in a Patsy Cline tribute band, Lang was a true country kid with hits like ‘Crying’ and ‘I’m Down to My Last Cigarette’ before finding crossover success with the pop single, ‘Constant Craving’. She also has collaborated with the likes of Roy Orbison, Tony Bennett and even Cline’s former producer, Owen Bradley on 1989’s Shadowland.
Often compared to fellow Canadians, The Band, Blue Rodeo are a Canadian country-rock institution. Since forming in 1984, the Toronto-based quintet were a huge hit in Canada in the 90s thanks to their dynamic mix of American pop, country and blues and two-part harmonies reminiscent of the Everly Brothers. With a solid roots-rock sound and two-part harmonies, their 1990 album, Casino, did achieve some stateside success due in part to their hit single, ‘Til I Am Myself Again’. Since then, they’ve become one of Canada’s renowned legacy acts that tour worldwide.
The third generation (1950s–1960s) started at the end of World War II with "mountaineer" string band music known as bluegrass, which emerged when Bill Monroe, along with Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs were introduced by Roy Acuff at the Grand Ole Opry. Gospel music remained a popular component of country music. Another type of stripped-down and raw music with a variety of moods and a basic ensemble of guitar, bass, dobro or steel guitar (and later drums) became popular, especially among poor whites in Texas and Oklahoma. It became known as honky tonk, and had its roots in Western swing and the ranchera music of Mexico and the border states. By the early 1950s a blend of Western swing, country boogie, and honky tonk was played by most country bands. Rockabilly was most popular with country fans in the 1950s, and 1956 could be called the year of rockabilly in country music, with Johnny Cash emerging as one of the most popular and enduring representatives of the rockabilly genre; rockabilly was also a starting point for eventual rock-and-roll superstar Elvis Presley, who would return to his country roots near the end of his life. Beginning in the mid-1950s, and reaching its peak during the early 1960s, the Nashville sound turned country music into a multimillion-dollar industry centered in Nashville, Tennessee; Patsy Cline and Jim Reeves were two of the most broadly popular Nashville sound artists, and their deaths in separate plane crashes in the early 1960s were a factor in the genre's decline. The late 1960s in American music produced a unique blend as a result of traditionalist backlash within separate genres. In the aftermath of the British Invasion, many desired a return to the "old values" of rock n' roll. At the same time there was a lack of enthusiasm in the country sector for Nashville-produced music. What resulted was a crossbred genre known as country rock.
Following his Rodney Crowell/John Leventhal-produced Planet of Love – which yielded cuts for George Strait, Lee Ann Womack, Patty Loveless, Mandy Barnett and George Jones, the North Carolina-born Lauderdale seemed more in control of his progressive California-forged traditional country. With songs that were existential (“When The Devil Starts Crying,” “Three Way Conversation” “Run Like You”), Lauderdale—like Gram Parsons before him—created a Cosmic American hybrid that blurred bluegrass, Haggard, Jones, Lefty Frizzell and Ray Price with ethereal metaphors for a new kind of classicism. Producer Dusty Wakeman drew on Lauderdale’s scrappy Palomino Club band—Buddy Miller on guitars and vocals, Dr John Ciambotti on bass, Donald Lindley on drums, Greg Leisz on dobro, electric and steel guitar, Gurf Morlix on 6-string bass, mandolin, electric/acoustic/12-string/steel guitars, Skip Edwards on organ and Tammy Rodgers on mandolin and vocals—to return Truth to the lean sound Lauderdale’d developed playing South California’s post-cowpunk outposts. That the band members would become Americana forces in their own right speaks to the scene around the man who coined the phrase, “Now that’s Americana!”—Holly Gleason
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.

Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family are widely considered to be important early country musicians. Their songs were first captured at a historic recording session in Bristol, Tennessee, on August 1, 1927, where Ralph Peer was the talent scout and sound recordist.[33][34] A scene in the movie O Brother, Where Art Thou? depicts a similar occurrence in the same timeframe. Rodgers fused hillbilly country, gospel, jazz, blues, pop, cowboy, and folk, and many of his best songs were his compositions, including "Blue Yodel",[35] which sold over a million records and established Rodgers as the premier singer of early country music.[36][37] Beginning in 1927, and for the next 17 years, the Carters recorded some 300 old-time ballads, traditional tunes, country songs and gospel hymns, all representative of America's southeastern folklore and heritage.[38]
But that effectiveness won’t last. Because of funding cuts, the CBC has announced that in addition to the 657 jobs already cut, it will axe another 1,500 jobs by 2020. That is nearly a quarter of its employees. According to a CRTC report released in June 2015, parliamentary funding for CBC Radio, which accounts for virtually its entire budget, has shrunk nearly 20 per cent since 2010. We’ve already seen some of the fallout from this and its impact on the CBC’s music coverage. Following the first round of jobs cuts, Chris Boyce, executive director of Radio and Audio CBC English Services, said there will be cuts to recorded concerts and 12 regional music producers, hosts, and engineers lost their jobs. In addition, the In Tune classical music program was cancelled.
The early 2000s saw Canadian independent artists continue to expand their audience into the United States and beyond.[121] Mainstream Canadian artists with global recorded contracts such as Nelly Furtado, Avril Lavigne, Michael Bublé, Drake, The Weeknd, and Justin Bieber reached new heights in terms of international success, while dominating the American music charts.[122]
The Jayhawks returned as backing band for Joe Henry’s Kindness of the World in 1992, just as the band was hitting its own stride. Together, the two acts perfected what they’d begun the year before on Short Man’s Room. The banjos, mandolins, violins, pianos, pedal steel, occasional harmonies and prevalent jangly guitars provided a rich, engaging aural landscape for Henry’s earnest voice and poetic wresting with the human condition. Kindness evidenced Henry as one of the most skillful and honest lyricists in popular music. His next release, Trampoline, commenced a string of sonic experiments that—combined with lyrical prowess that has only grown—have established him as one of most interesting and vital singer-songwriters working today. Though he would refuse to be constrained by the genre, Henry’s collaboration with the Jayhawks serves as an exemplar of the then-nascent genre.

With a voice like good claret or damp moss, Rosanne Cash’s singing is something to sink into. Surrender to the tones, mostly dark, but marked by the occasional glimmer of light, and let the emotions they contain seep inside. For Cash, the emotions on The River & The Thread are complex and tangled, especially the Grammy-winner’s own difficult relationship with the South, her roots and her own musical journey. What emerges, beyond a woman grappling with a legacy as much in the rich bottom land as her father Johnny’s iconic presence as the voice of America, is a knowing embrace of the conflicts in the things we love. The 11-song cycle is mostly a meditation on the textures and musical forms that emerged South of the Mason Dixon. Finding not just resolve, but acceptance is a gift. Cash, who’s sidestepped her heritage, and eschewed a career as a country star with 11 No. 1s, a marriage to a country writer/producer/artist Rodney Crowell and the city/industry where she found prominence, savored her wandering and the Manhattan life she built. With The River & The Thread, she comes home with the warmth reserved for knowing where we’re from. As powerful a witness for the region—Memphis, Mississippi, Alabama, Arkansas—as it is a lovely quilt of musicality, braiding blues, folk, Appalachia, rock and old-timey country, this is balm for lost souls, alienated creatures seeking their core truths and intellectuals who love the cool mist of vespers in the hearts of people they may never encounter.—Holly Gleason
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
The same period saw a concerted effort to recover some of country music’s root values. Mandolin-player Bill Monroe and his string band, the Blue Grass Boys, discarded more recently adopted rhythms and instruments and brought back the lead fiddle and high harmony singing. His banjoist, Earl Scruggs, developed a brilliant three-finger picking style that brought the instrument into a lead position. Their music, with its driving, syncopated rhythms and instrumental virtuosity, took the name “bluegrass” from Monroe’s band.
In the 1990s the term alternative country, paralleling alternative rock, began to be used to describe a diverse group of musicians and singers operating outside the traditions and industry of mainstream country music.[4] Many eschewed the increasingly polished production values and pop sensibilities of the Nashville-dominated industry for a more lo-fi sound, frequently infused with a strong punk and rock and roll aesthetic.[5] Lyrics may be bleak or socially aware, but also more heartfelt and less likely to use the clichés sometimes used by mainstream country musicians. In other respects, the musical styles of artists that fall within this genre often have little in common, ranging from traditional American folk music and bluegrass, through rockabilly and honky-tonk, to music that is indistinguishable from mainstream rock or country.[6] This already broad labeling has been further confused by alternative country artists disavowing the movement, mainstream artists declaring they are part of it, and retroactive claims that past or veteran musicians are alternative country. No Depression, the best-known magazine dedicated to the genre, declared that it covered "alternative-country music (whatever that is)".[7]
The sixth generation (2000s–present) has seen a certain amount of diversification in regard to country music styles. The influence of rock music in country has become more overt during the late 2000s and early 2010s. Most of the best-selling country songs of this era were in the country pop genre, such as those by Lady Antebellum, Florida Georgia Line, Carrie Underwood and Taylor Swift.[21] Hip-hop also made its mark on country music with the emergence of country rap.[22]
×