Robbie Fulks is an unlikely candidate for country insurgentista. Born in Pennsylvania and cutting his teeth at Gerde’s Folk City, he landed in Chicago where he taught at the Old Town School of Folk Music. Along the way, the songwriting multi-instrumentalist fell under the sway of ‘50s country—and sought to distill the sounds coming from WSM-AM during the day—right down to the talk/jingle-evoking “The Scrapple Song.” Working with the unlikely team of engineer Steve Albini, Buck Owens’ Buckaroo Tom Bromley on steel guitar and Lou Whitney and the Skeletons, Country Love Songs moved from punk fatal (“She Took A Lot of Pills and Died”) to the fiddle-reelin’ (“Every Kind of Music (But Country)”), grief-immersed, steel-drenched and classic country-invoked salve (“The Buck Starts Here”) to unrepentant sin-embracing (“We’ll Burn Together”). Stately, clear and willing to cornpone without schticking it up, Fulks’ rubber cement voices stretches like half truth three hours after curfew.—Holly Gleason
In the 2010s, "bro-country", a genre noted primarily for its themes on drinking and partying, girls, and pickup trucks became particularly popular. Notable artists associated with this genre are Luke Bryan, Jason Aldean, Blake Shelton, and Florida Georgia Line whose song "Cruise" became the best-selling country song of all time. Research in the mid-2010s suggested that about 45 percent of country's best-selling songs could be considered bro-country, with the top two artists being Luke Bryan and Florida Georgia Line. Albums by bro-country singers also sold very well—in 2013, Luke Bryan's Crash My Party was the third best-selling of all albums in the US, with Florida Georgia Line's Here's to the Good Times at sixth, and Blake Shelton's Based on a True Story at ninth. It is also thought that the popularity of bro-country helped country music to surpass classic rock as the most popular genre in America in 2012. The genre however is controversial as it has been criticized by other country musicians and commentators over its themes and depiction of women, opening up a divide between the older generation of country singers and the younger bro country singers that was described as "civil war" by musicians, critics, and journalists." In 2014, Maddie & Tae's "Girl in a Country Song", addressing many of the controversial bro-country themes, peaked at number one on the Billboard Country Airplay chart.
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."
With a name like The Tragically Hip, the bluesy-Canadian rock outfit sealed their fate by being cool to Canadian audiences but never cracking the US and world markets. They’ve been called “Canada’s R.E.M” (only by Americans, we suspect) for their clever lyricism and their roots-rock meets alt-country sound. With a staggering amount of hit songs and albums under their belt from the past 30 years, they are part of Canada’s cultural identity, so much so that when beloved frontmen Gord Downie performed his last concert with the band in 2016, 11.7 million Canadians tuned in to watch.
The greatest commercial success for country rock came in the 1970s, with the Doobie Brothers mixing in elements of R&B, Emmylou Harris (a former backing singer for Parsons) becoming the "Queen of country-rock" and Linda Ronstadt creating a highly successful pop-oriented brand of the genre. Pure Prairie League, formed in Ohio in 1969 by Craig Fuller, had both critical and commercial success with 5 straight Top 40 LP releases, including Bustin' Out (1972), acclaimed by Allmusic critic Richard Foss as "an album that is unequaled in country-rock" and Two Lane Highway, described by Rolling Stone as "a worthy companion to the likes of the Byrds' Sweetheart of the Rodeo and other gems of the genre". Former members of Ronstadt's backing band went on to form the Eagles (two members of band were from the Flying Burrito Brothers and Poco), who emerged as one of the most successful rock acts of all time, producing albums that included Desperado (1973) and Hotel California (1976). However, the principal country rock influence in the Eagles came from Bernie Leadon, formerly of the Flying Burrito Brothers, and the Eagles are perceived as shifting towards hard rock after he left the band in late 1975. The Ozark Mountain Daredevils had hit singles “If You Wanna Get To Heaven” (1974) and "Jackie Blue" (1975), the latter of which peaked at #3 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1975. The Belammy Brothers had the hit "Let Your Love Flow"(1976). In 1979, the Southern rock Charlie Daniels Band moved to a more country direction, released a song with strong bluegrass influence, "The Devil Went Down to Georgia", and the song crossed over and became a hit on the pop chart.
Alternative country, or alternative country rock (sometimes alt-country, insurgent country, or Americana) is a loosely defined subgenre of country music and rock music, which includes acts that differ significantly in style from mainstream country music and pop country music. Alternative country artists are often influenced by alternative rock. However, the term has been used to describe country music bands and artists that have incorporated influences from alternative rock, indie rock, roots rock, bluegrass, neotraditional country, punk rock, rockabilly, punkabilly, honky-tonk, outlaw country, folk rock, indie folk, folk revival, hard rock, R&B, country rock, heartland rock, and Southern rock.
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. Country musicians began recording boogie in 1939, shortly after it had been played at Carnegie Hall, when Johnny Barfield recorded "Boogie Woogie".
1958 saw its first Canadian rock and roll teen idol Paul Anka, who went to New York City where he auditioned for ABC with the song "Diana". This song brought Anka instant stardom as it reached number one on the US Billboard charts. "Diana" has gone on to be one of the best selling 45s in music history. US-born rockabilly pioneer Ronnie Hawkins moved to Canada in 1958, where he became a key player in the Canadian blues and rock scene. The 4th of October was declared "Ronnie Hawkins Day" by the city of Toronto when Hawkins was inducted into Canada's Walk of Fame. He was also inducted into the Canadian Music Industry Hall of Fame and his pioneering contribution to rockabilly has been recognized with induction into the Rockabilly Hall of Fame.
…launch an entirely new genre, country rock. It charted at number three, but, owing to the comparative simplicity of its lyrics, people questioned whether Dylan remained a cutting-edge artist. Meanwhile, rock’s first bootleg album, The Great White Wonder—containing unreleased, “liberated” Dylan recordings—appeared in independent record stores. Its distribution methods were…
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’.
Brooks shattered the blueprint for what a country singer should sound like -– on stage and off. His music was a fusion of George Jones and James Taylor, and his concerts are like nothing a country fan has seen before or since. Brooks also changed the way that the format was thought about from a sales standpoint -– selling well over 100 million copies of his music, making a Brooks release date seem something akin to a national holiday for retailers across the globe.
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.
Years before the term “alt-country” was conceived, something a little uglier and grimier was festering in Nashville. Jason & The Scorchers—led by explosive frontman Jason Ringenberg—released a couple of EPs before dropping their best record Lost & Found in 1985. It’s a punk rock album at heart, but guitarist Warner Hodges has plenty of twangy licks up his sleeve. Songs like “Lost Highway” and “I Really Don’t Want To Know” showed off Ringenberg’s wry sense of humor, while also confounding audiences for being too country for some and too punk rock for others. The band never found any major success early on, however, three decades later Lost & Found proves that Jason & The Scorchers were light years ahead of their time.—Mark Lore
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