Distinctive music scenes have been an integral part of the cultural landscape of Canada. With Canada being vast in size, the country throughout its history has had regional music scenes, with a wide and diverse accumulation of styles and genres from many different individual communities, such as Inuit music, music of the Maritimes and Canadian fiddle music.
All controversy aside, the trio of Natalie Maines, Martie Maguire, and Emily Robison managed to create a musical sound that appealed to a mixture of traditional minded fans, as well as newcomers to the format. In a time period where many artists were starting to sound alike, the Dixie Chicks managed to stay true to their Texas sound –- giving the country format some of its’ most outstanding music of the period.
Attempts to combine punk and country had been pioneered by Nashville's Jason and the Scorchers, and in the 1980s Southern Californian cowpunk scene with bands like the Long Ryders, but these styles merged fully in Uncle Tupelo's 1990 LP No Depression, which is widely credited as being the first "alt-country" album, and gave its name to the online notice board and eventually magazine that underpinned the movement. They released three more influential albums, signing to a major label, before they broke up in 1994, with members and figures associated with them going on to form three major bands in the genre: Wilco, Son Volt and Bottle Rockets. Bottle Rockets signed, along with acts like Freakwater, Old 97's and Robbie Fulks, to the Chicago-based indie label, Bloodshot, who pioneered a version of the genre under the name insurgent country. The bands Blue Mountain, Whiskeytown, Blood Oranges and Drive-By Truckers further developed this tradition before most began to move more in the direction of rock music in the 2000s.
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.”
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. 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", which sold over a million records and established Rodgers as the premier singer of early country music. 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.
The 1970s saw the growth of the “outlaw” music of prominent Nashville expatriates Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings. The gap between country and the mainstream of pop music continued to narrow in that decade and the next as electric guitars replaced more traditional instruments and country music became more acceptable to a national urban audience. Country retained its vitality into the late 20th century with such diverse performers as Dolly Parton, Randy Travis, Garth Brooks, Reba McEntire, Emmylou Harris, and Lyle Lovett. Despite its embrace of other popular styles, country music retained an unmistakable character as one of the few truly indigenous American musical styles.
Alternative country-rock is often simply referred to as alternative country, but the two styles are actually somewhat distinct from one another -- simply put, alternative country performers come from the country side of the equation, whereas alternative country-rock is rooted more in rock. It's considered a branch of alternative rock -- even though it may not always sound that way on the surface -- because it doesn't fit any mainstream sensibility, and also because its bands usually get their start as part of the American indie-label scene. In contrast to alternative country, which pushes the boundaries of country music from the inside, alternative country-rock is music made by outsiders who love the sound and spirit of country. They faithfully preserve traditional sounds, but reinterpret the spirit in personal, contemporary, and idiosyncratic ways that rarely appeal to straight country fans. The godfather of alternative country-rock was Gram Parsons, the single most important figure in the invention of country-rock and an enduring cult legend for his deeply emotional records. Neil Young's varying musical personalities were also an important influence, as was the progressive country movement of the '70s, particularly an Austin, TX-centered group of highly literate singer/songwriters like Townes Van Zandt, Guy Clark, and Jerry Jeff Walker, among others. The man who heralded the birth of alternative country-rock was Lyle Lovett, whose wit and eclecticism seemed to revitalize country's possibilities in the minds of many rock fans. But the first true alternative country-rock band was Uncle Tupelo, who at the start of their career fused punk and country in a far more reverent way than any band in the short-lived '80s cowpunk movement. Their cover of the A.P. Carter spiritual "No Depression" gave its name to their seminal 1990 debut album, the premier fanzine chronicling the alt-country scene, and a nickname to the movement in general. Uncle Tupelo soon became a more tradition-minded country-rock outfit, and following their 1993 landmark Anodyne split into two different bands, the staunchly revivalist Son Volt and the more pop-inflected Wilco; by that time, alternative country-rock itself had begun to split into several strains. One school was chiefly dedicated to reviving the Parsons/Young sound of the early '70s, sometimes adding elements of Beatlesque pop to their crunchy rockers and aching ballads. Others were sincere traditionalists, drawing from the most haunting qualities of old-time country and Appalachian folk while updating the lyrical sensibilities just enough. A related school made that old-timey sound into a soft, spare, ethereal hybrid of country and indie rock, usually featuring a female vocalist. Still other alt-country-rock bands brought a sense of humor to their traditionalist work, whether it was the good-natured wit of a twangy, rollicking bar band, or the flat-out weird irony of Lambchop. Alternative country-rock continued to produce new, critically acclaimed hybrid acts into the new millennium, with an increasing indie-rock flavor.
Described by AllMusic as the "father of country-rock", Gram Parsons' work in the early 1970s was acclaimed for its purity and for his appreciation for aspects of traditional country music. Though his career was cut tragically short by his 1973 death, his legacy was carried on by his protégé and duet partner Emmylou Harris; Harris would release her debut solo in 1975, an amalgamation of country, rock and roll, folk, blues and pop. Subsequent to the initial blending of the two polar opposite genres, other offspring soon resulted, including Southern rock, heartland rock and in more recent years, alternative country. In the decades that followed, artists such as Juice Newton, Alabama, Hank Williams, Jr. (and, to an even greater extent, Hank Williams III), Gary Allan, Shania Twain, Brooks & Dunn, Faith Hill, Garth Brooks, Alan Jackson, Dwight Yoakam, Steve Earle, Dolly Parton, Rosanne Cash and Linda Ronstadt moved country further towards rock influence.
Sometimes it takes a bunch of Canadians to write some of the most quintessential American songs in music history. While the band is 80 per cent Canadian (with one Arkansan in drummer Levon Helm), they remain one of the most influential acts in 60s rock and their concert film, The Last Waltz, stands as one of the greatest moments in rock history. With their 1968 debut, Music From Big Pink, the Canadian troubadours (Robbie Robertson, Rick Danko, Garth Hudson and Richard Manuel) gave definition to the genre of ‘Americana’ with their blues-meets-country-infused R&B. Even the most casual music fan knows the chorus to ‘The Weight’ and their song, ‘The Night They Drove Ol’ Dixie Down’ is one of the best rock songs ever put to tape about the Civil War.
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.
Ultimately, country music’s roots lie in the ballads, folk songs, and popular songs of the English, Scots, and Irish settlers of the Appalachians and other parts of the South. In the early 1920s the traditional string-band music of the Southern mountain regions began to be commercially recorded, with Fiddlin’ John Carson garnering the genre’s first hit record in 1923. The vigour and realism of the rural songs, many lyrics of which were rather impersonal narratives of tragedies pointing to a stern Calvinist moral, stood in marked contrast to the often mawkish sentimentality of much of the popular music of the day.
Artists from outside California who were associated with early alternative country included singer-songwriters such as Lucinda Williams, Lyle Lovett and Steve Earle, the Nashville country rock band Jason and the Scorchers and the British post-punk band The Mekons. Earle, in particular, was noted for his popularity with both country and college rock audiences: He promoted his 1986 debut album Guitar Town with a tour that saw him open for both country singer Dwight Yoakam and alternative rock band The Replacements.
Restoring funding for the CBC and allowing it to continue being an incubator of Canadian music is not a controversial policy. A 2014 Nanos Research poll showed that a very large majority of Canadians, 87 per cent, oppose funding cuts to the CBC. Then-candidate Justin Trudeau took note of this and made a promise to reverse funding cuts and even add additional funding for the public broadcaster.
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.
Emerging out of the great depression on near equal-footing to American popular music, Canadian popular music continued to enjoy considerable success at home and abroad in the preceding years. Among them Montreal's jazz virtuoso Oscar Peterson (1925–2007) who is considered to have been one of the greatest pianists of all time, releasing over 200 recordings and receiving several Grammy Awards during his lifetime. Also notable is Hank Snow (1914–1999), who signed with RCA Victor in 1936 and went on to become one of America's biggest and most innovative country music superstars of the 1940s and 1950s. Snow became a regular performer at the Grand Ole Opry on WSM in Nashville and released more than 45 LPs over his lifetime. Snow was one of the inaugural inductees to the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame started in 2003.
There’s a long tradition of African-Americans playing old-time music, from blues legends Blind Blake, the Reverend Gary Davis and Josh White to artists such as the Mississippi Mud Steppers and Howard “Louie Bluie” Armstrong, whose early ragtime outfit, the Tennessee Chocolate Drops, has provided a lasting influence—and this modern-day act with its name. The Carolina Chocolate Dropsformed in 2005 at the Black Banjo Gathering in Boone, N.C., and since then the young trio has been determined to prove that “black folk were a huge part of the stringband tradition.” What they’ve also done is dust off a musical form seen today as either a novelty or the exclusive provenance of ethnomusicologists. To paraphrase Rakim’s immortal words, these Drops ain’t no joke: Their enthusiasm for the tradition is obvious even as the trio spans from traditional arrangements (the rollicking fiddle rave-ups “Trouble in Your Mind” and “Cindy Gal”) to self-penned works (the particularly terrific “Kissin’ and Cussin’”) and stringband makeovers of modern-day works (a hip-hop influenced cover of Blu Cantrell’s “Hit ’em Up Style (Oops!)” and Tom Waits’ “Trampled Rose”). Several generations removed from the origins of their chosen idiom, the Carolina Chocolate Drops are nonetheless the genuine article.—Corey DuBrowa
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.
American rapper Snoop Dogg performed his first country rap song "My Medicine" in 2008. Famous country rappers include Bubba Sparxxx, Upchurch, Buck 65, Uncle Kracker, Cowboy Troy, Everlast, Colt Ford, Nelly, Big Smo and Kid Rock. Atlanta rapper Young Thug also has performed country music. Lil Nas X helped introduce the related genre of country trap with his viral hit "Old Town Road," which appeared on the top 20 of the country charts its debut week before Billboard controversially pulled the song from the chart; in response, Lil Nas X recut the song with a guest vocal by Billy Ray Cyrus for country audiences.
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’.
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.
The Tamworth Country Music Festival began in 1973 and now attracts up to 100,000 visitors annually. Held in Tamworth, New South Wales (country music capital of Australia), it celebrates the culture and heritage of Australian country music. During the festival the CMAA holds the Country Music Awards of Australia ceremony awarding the Golden Guitar trophies. Other significant country music festivals include the Whittlesea Country Music Festival (near Melbourne) and the Mildura Country Music Festival for "independent" performers during October, and the Canberra Country Music Festival held in the national capital during November.
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.
Outside of the United States, Canada has the largest country music fan and artist base, something that is to be expected given the two countries' proximity and cultural parallels. Mainstream country music is culturally ingrained in the prairie provinces, the British Columbia Interior, Ontario, and in Atlantic Canada. Celtic traditional music developed in Atlantic Canada in the form of Scottish, Acadian and Irish folk music popular amongst Irish, French and Scottish immigrants to Canada's Atlantic Provinces (Newfoundland, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and Prince Edward Island). Like the southern United States and Appalachia, all four regions are of heavy British Isles stock and rural; as such, the development of traditional music in the Maritimes somewhat mirrored the development of country music in the US South and Appalachia. Country and Western music never really developed separately in Canada; however, after its introduction to Canada, following the spread of radio, it developed quite quickly out of the Atlantic Canadian traditional scene. While true Atlantic Canadian traditional music is very Celtic or "sea shanty" in nature, even today, the lines have often been blurred. Certain areas often are viewed as embracing one strain or the other more openly. For example, in Newfoundland the traditional music remains unique and Irish in nature, whereas traditional musicians in other parts of the region may play both genres interchangeably.
Don Messer's Jubilee was a Halifax, Nova Scotia-based country/folk variety television show that was broadcast nationally from 1957 to 1969. In Canada it out-performed The Ed Sullivan Show broadcast from the United States and became the top-rated television show throughout much of the 1960s. Don Messer's Jubilee followed a consistent format throughout its years, beginning with a tune named "Goin' to the Barndance Tonight", followed by fiddle tunes by Messer, songs from some of his "Islanders" including singers Marg Osburne and Charlie Chamberlain, the featured guest performance, and a closing hymn. It ended with "Till We Meet Again".
Alternative Country refers to country bands that play traditional country but bend the rules slightly. They don't conform to Nashville's hitmaking traditions, nor do they follow the accepted "outlaw" route to notoriety. Instead, alternative country bands work outside of the country industry's spotlight, frequently subverting musical traditions with singer/songwriter and rock & roll lyrical (and musical) aesthetics.
The early 2000s saw Canadian independent artists continue to expand their audience into the United States and beyond. 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.
Carrie Underwood was one of several country stars produced by a television series in the 2000s. In addition to Underwood, American Idol launched the careers of Kellie Pickler, Josh Gracin, Bucky Covington, Kristy Lee Cook, Danny Gokey, Lauren Alaina and Scotty McCreery (as well as that of occasional country singer Kelly Clarkson) in the decade, and would continue to launch country careers in the 2010s. The series Nashville Star, while not nearly as successful as Idol, did manage to bring Miranda Lambert, Kacey Musgraves and Chris Young to mainstream success, also launching the careers of lower-profile musicians such as Buddy Jewell, Sean Patrick McGraw, and Canadian musician George Canyon. Can You Duet? produced the duos Steel Magnolia and Joey + Rory. Teen sitcoms also have influenced modern country music; in 2008, actress Jennette McCurdy (best known as the sidekick Sam on the teen sitcom iCarly) released her first single, "So Close", following that with the single "Generation Love" in 2011. Another teen sitcom star, Miley Cyrus (of Hannah Montana), also had a crossover hit in the late 2000s with "The Climb" and another with a duet with her father, Billy Ray Cyrus, with "Ready, Set, Don't Go." Jana Kramer, an actress in the teen drama One Tree Hill, released a country album in 2012 that has produced two hit singles as of 2013. Actresses Hayden Panettiere and Connie Britton began recording country songs as part of their roles in the TV series Nashville.
Vernon Dalhart was the first country singer to have a nationwide hit in May 1924 with "Wreck of the Old 97". The flip side of the record was "Lonesome Road Blues", which also became very popular. In April 1924, "Aunt" Samantha Bumgarner and Eva Davis became the first female musicians to record and release country songs. Many "hillbilly" musicians, such as Cliff Carlisle, recorded blues songs throughout the decade and into the 1930s. Other important early recording artists were Riley Puckett, Don Richardson, Fiddlin' John Carson, Uncle Dave Macon, Al Hopkins, Ernest V. Stoneman, Blind Alfred Reed, Charlie Poole and the North Carolina Ramblers and The Skillet Lickers. The steel guitar entered country music as early as 1922, when Jimmie Tarlton met famed Hawaiian guitarist Frank Ferera on the West Coast.