By the end of the 1970s, punk and new wave pushed country rock out of the pop charts and the media limelight. The 1980s saw a resurgence of the genre, more geared to rockabilly force than folk and country balladry. Christened “roots rock,” it yielded underground champions like Nashville’s Jason and the Scorchers, ultimately manifesting itself in the mainstream work of Bruce Springsteen, John Mellencamp, and others. Also by the end of that decade, country music in Nashville had begun to adapt some of the riskier guitar tones and rhythms for its less traditional artists. Elsewhere a new wave of young country rockers, notably Son Volt and Wilco, lumped together under the banner “alternative country” in the 1990s, tried to resurrect the less glitzy side of the movement. But country rock in the most popular sense became a period style, left to evoke the 1970s, a time when artists dressed up deep aesthetic and personal concerns in music that only sounded soft.
The alt-country movement had plenty of pre-cursors in the folk-rock of Gram Parsons and the renegade country of Merle Haggard and Willie Nelson. But 1985 was really a watershed moment for the genre with Green on Red, Jason & The Scorchers and Mekons all exploring traditional country through the lens of punk rock. The ’90s kicked off with the first album from Uncle Tupelo, No Depression, which became synonymous with “alt-country” thanks to the magazine of the same name.
His nickname was "The Voice" -- long before the NBC series. We don't know how more definitive that needs to be. Gosdin's phrasing was on par with anyone -- Jones or Haggard, who both considered themselves among the singer's biggest fans. Always something of an underdog in the business, the bulk of Gosdin's recorded output came from smaller, independent labels. But, when you heard him on slices of real country such as "If You're Gonna Do Me Wrong (Do It Right)" or "Today My World Slipped Away," record companies were of no major importance. He sang each song like it would be his last, and inspired a generation in the process.
Hailed by Rolling Stone as “the most important record producer to emerge in the 80s”, Lanois is one of Canada’s distinguished producers-composers and has worked with the likes of Brian Eno (Apollo: Atmospheres And Soundtracks), Peter Gabriel, Bob Dylan, Emmyous Harris and is the man behind U2’s Joshua Tree and The Unforgettable Fire. In his famous studio in Hamilton, Ontario, he produced records for Canadian artists such as Martha and the Muffins and Ian and Sylvia. As a solo artist, the multi-instrumentalist and singer released a string of albums that featured his wonderfully atmospheric textures and poetic songwriting. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Sx8igsV3YgM
The appropriately titled Identity Crisis is by far the most eclectic record Lynne’s ever made. It moves from the jazzy pop of opener “Telephone” straight into the boogie-woogie gospel of “10 Rocks.” There’s also the noisy scrawl of “Gotta Be Better,” the electric blues of “Evil Man” and the shimmering acoustic pop of “One With the Sun.” Lynn also taps into her country roots with the folky “Baby” and the Owen Bradley-esque Nashvegas sound of “Lonesome”—a remarkable song featuring the slip-note piano of Little Feat’s Billy Payne.—Stuart Munro
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
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.
By the early 1950s a blend of Western swing, country boogie, and honky tonk was played by most country bands. Western music, influenced by the cowboy ballads and Tejano music rhythms of the southwestern U.S. and northern Mexico, reached its peak in popularity in the late 1950s, most notably with the song "El Paso", first recorded by Marty Robbins in September 1959. In 1953, the first all-country radio station was established in Lubbock, Texas. The country music scene largely kept the music of the folk revival and folk rock at a distance, despite the similarity in instrumentation and origins (see, for instance, The Byrds' negative reception during their appearance on the Grand Ole Opry). The main concern was politics: the folk revival was largely driven by progressive activists, a stark contrast to the culturally conservative audiences of country music. Only a handful of folk artists, such as Burl Ives, John Denver and Canadian musician Gordon Lightfoot, would cross over into country music after the folk revival died out. During the mid-1950s a new style of country music became popular, eventually to be referred to as rockabilly.
The Kentucky band’s sprawling major-label debut did nothing to alter the independent spirit of singer-songwriter Jim James and his cohorts. The country-rock base retained elements of Memphis soul, classic ’70s rock and neo-psychedelic sounds, all drenched in salubrious washes of reverb. Besides, nothing says complete artistic freedom like 12 songs that average six minutes in length, many of which were recorded in a grain silo to give the reverb more reverb. Styles mix wantonly, songs meander but never go quite where you expect them to. What begins as an acoustic-driven folk song (“Magheeta”) morphs into a hard-rocking power ballad; a funkified homage to R&B clubs (“Dance Floors”) becomes an Exile on Main Street-era block party, powered by a propulsive horn section straight out of “Tumbling Dice”; and the minor-key melancholia of Neil Young’s Crazy Horse epics (think “Cortez the Killer”) forms the backbone of “Run Through” until it mutates at the chorus into the early ’80s Manchester sound reminiscent of New Order. Is it alt-country? That’s as good a descriptor as anything else.—John Schact
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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.
This evolutionary link seemed so essential to groups like the Byrds and Buffalo Springfield that (perhaps influenced by Bob Dylan’s similarly inclined 1967 album, John Wesley Harding) they sought to import country’s vocabulary and instrumentation into their countercultural pursuit of psychological and formal adventure. Under the sway of Gram Parsons, the Byrds created country rock’s pivotal album, Sweetheart of the Rodeo (1968), the country-purist goals of which seemed somewhat avant-garde in a rock world that had come to disdain all things conceivably old-fashioned. To hear the Byrds perform the Louvin Brothers’ country standard “The Christian Life” was to enter a distanced, hyperaestheticized realm where 1960s counterculture assumptions about the preeminence of loud volume and the obsolescence of tradition were called into question. Because the movement’s very instrumentation—pedal steel guitars, fiddles, mandolins, Dobro guitars, unobtrusive percussion—promoted milder, generally acoustic sonic auras, country rock’s overall effect seemed drastically different.
One of the most commercially successful country artists of the late 2000s and early 2010s has been singer-songwriter Taylor Swift. Swift first became widely known in 2006 when her debut single, "Tim McGraw," was released when Swift was only 16. In 2006, Taylor released her first studio album, Taylor Swift, which spent 275 weeks on Billboard 200, one of the longest runs of any album on that chart. In 2008, Taylor Swift released her second studio album, Fearless, which made her the second-longest Number One charted on Billboard 200 and the second best-selling album (just behind Adele's 21) within the past 5 years. At the 2010 Grammys, Taylor Swift was 20 and won Album of the Year for Fearless, which made her the youngest artist to win this award. Swift has received ten Grammys already. Buoyed by her teen idol status among girls and a change in the methodology of compiling the Billboard charts to favor pop-crossover songs, Swift's 2012 single "We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together" spent the most weeks at the top of Billboard's Hot Country Songs chart of any song in nearly five decades. The song's long run at the top of the chart was somewhat controversial, as the song is largely a pop song without much country influence and its success on the charts driven by a change to the chart's criteria to include airplay on non-country radio stations, prompting disputes over what constitutes a country song; many of Swift's later releases, such as "Shake It Off," were released solely to pop audiences.
In Iran, country music has appeared in recent years. According to Melody Music Magazine, the pioneer of country music in Iran is the English-speaking country music band Dream Rovers, whose founder, singer and songwriter is Erfan Rezayatbakhsh (elf). The band was formed in 2007 in Tehran, and during this time they have been trying to introduce and popularize country music in Iran by releasing two studio albums and performing live at concerts, despite the difficulties that the Islamic regime in Iran makes for bands that are active in the western music field.
On her first record, the throaty Kathleen Edwards sounded like Lucinda Williams with far fewer miles on the odometer, mining similar veins of hard living and love gone wrong for her lyrics. But Edwards doesn’t sound like an acolyte. She’s got moxie, but a refreshingly fragile honesty in her writing tones down the bravado. On “Hockey Skates,” when Edwards asks “if the ‘boys’ club’ will “crumble just because of a loud-mouthed girl,” the swagger and self-effacement form a neat balance. She’s aware of the cost, but not afraid to confront it. That symmetry pervades Failer. Edwards slips comfortably between song styles—from straight-ahead rockers (“One More Song the Radio Won’t Like,” “12 Bellevue”) to country and folk-tinged tunes (“Mercury,” “National Steel”)—without suggesting that she’s trying on any of them. Right from the beginning, she sounded like she’d been at it for decades. The arrangements help. The 10 songs include a nice range of instrumentation (organs, alto/baritone/soprano saxophones, vibes, banjo and pedal steel) all expertly done. But ultimately Edwards’ voice and lyrics stand out.—John Schact
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 fall of 1985, The New York Times proclaimed traditional country music as “dead.” Just a few months later, this North Carolina native burst upon the scene that owed as much to Lefty and Hank as it did anyone currently on the radio. His Always and Forever album stayed at the top of the Billboard Country Albums chart for an astonishing 43 weeks -– and hit the top 20 on the Billboard 200 long before Soundscan -– unheard of for a traditional-based artist. Randy Travis rewrote the rules for the format – with a pen of classic-inspired ink.
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.
During the mid-1980s, a group of new artists began to emerge who rejected the more polished country-pop sound that had been prominent on radio and the charts, in favor of more, traditional, "back-to-basics" production. Many of the artists during the latter half of the 1980s drew on traditional honky-tonk, bluegrass, folk and western swing. Artists who typified this sound included Travis Tritt, Reba McEntire, George Strait, Keith Whitley, Alan Jackson, Ricky Skaggs, Patty Loveless, Kathy Mattea, Randy Travis, Dwight Yoakam, and The Judds.
The first commercial recordings of what was considered instrumental music in the traditional country style were "Arkansas Traveler" and "Turkey in the Straw" by fiddlers Henry Gilliland & A.C. (Eck) Robertson on June 30, 1922, for Victor Records and released in April 1923. Columbia Records began issuing records with "hillbilly" music (series 15000D "Old Familiar Tunes") as early as 1924.
Hailed by Rolling Stone as “the most important record producer to emerge in the 80s”, Lanois is one of Canada’s distinguished producers-composers and has worked with the likes of Brian Eno (Apollo: Atmospheres And Soundtracks), Peter Gabriel, Bob Dylan, Emmyous Harris and is the man behind U2’s Joshua Tree and The Unforgettable Fire. In his famous studio in Hamilton, Ontario, he produced records for Canadian artists such as Martha and the Muffins and Ian and Sylvia. As a solo artist, the multi-instrumentalist and singer released a string of albums that featured his wonderfully atmospheric textures and poetic songwriting.
Shania Twain became the best selling female country artist of the decade. This was primarily due to the success of her breakthrough sophomore 1995 album, The Woman in Me, which was certified 12x platinum sold over 20 million copies worldwide and its follow up, 1997's Come On Over, which was certified 20x platinum and sold over 40 million copies. The album became a major worldwide phenomenon and became one of the world's best selling albums of 1998, 1999 and 2000; it also went on to become the best selling country album of all time. Unlike the majority of her contemporaries, Twain enjoyed large international success that had been seen by very few country artists, before or after her. Critics have noted that Twain enjoyed much of her success due to breaking free of traditional country stereotypes and for incorporating elements of rock and pop into her music. In 2002, she released her successful fourth studio album, titled Up!, which was certified 11x platinum and sold over 15 million copies worldwide. Twain has been credited with breaking international boundaries for country music, as well as inspiring many country artists to incorporate different genres into their music in order to attract a wider audience. She is also credited with changing the way in which many female country performers would market themselves, as unlike many before her she used fashion and her sex appeal to get rid of the stereotypical 'honky-tonk' image the majority of country singers had in order to distinguish herself from many female country artists of the time.
Along with Johnny Cash, there may not be any other country performer who is as well-known across the world as Dolly Parton. Whether it be for her music or her acting, she continues to reign as an entertainment icon. She also ranks as one of the best songwriters in any format -- with compositions ranging from her life growing up in Appalachia to emotional songs of farewell, such as the timeless “I Will Always Love You.”
Fourth generation (1970s–1980s) music included outlaw country with roots in the Bakersfield sound, and country pop with roots in the countrypolitan, folk music and soft rock. Between 1972 and 1975 singer/guitarist John Denver released a series of hugely successful songs blending country and folk-rock musical styles. During the early 1980s country artists continued to see their records perform well on the pop charts. In 1980 a style of "neocountry disco music" was popularized. During the mid-1980s a group of new artists began to emerge who rejected the more polished country-pop sound that had been prominent on radio and the charts in favor of more traditional "back-to-basics" production; this neotraditional movement would dominate country music through the late 1980s and was typified by the likes of George Strait. Attempts to combine punk and country were pioneered by Jason and the Scorchers, and in the 1980s Southern Californian cowpunk scene with bands like the Long Ryders and Mojo Nixon.