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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.
Folk songs sung in Australia between the 1780s and 1920s, based around such themes as the struggle against government tyranny, or the lives of bushrangers, swagmen, drovers, stockmen and shearers, continue to influence the genre. This strain of Australian country, with lyrics focusing on Australian subjects, is generally known as "bush music" or "bush band music". "Waltzing Matilda", often regarded as Australia's unofficial national anthem, is a quintessential Australian country song, influenced more by British and Irish folk ballads than by American country and western music. The lyrics were composed by the poet Banjo Paterson in 1895. Other popular songs from this tradition include "The Wild Colonial Boy", "Click Go the Shears", "The Queensland Drover" and "The Dying Stockman". Later themes which endure to the present include the experiences of war, of droughts and flooding rains, of Aboriginality and of the railways and trucking routes which link Australia's vast distances.
In Ireland, TG4 began a quest for Ireland's next country star called Glór Tíre, translated as "Country Voice". It is now in its sixth season and is one of TG4's most watched TV shows. Over the past ten years country and gospel recording artist James Kilbane has reached multi-platinum success with his mix of Christian and traditional country influenced albums. James Kilbane like many other Irish artists are today working closer with Nashville. A recent success in the Irish arena has been Crystal Swing. In Sweden, Rednex rose to stardom combining country music with electro-pop in the 1990s. In 1994, the group had a worldwide hit with their version of the traditional Southern tune "Cotton-Eyed Joe". Artists popularizing more traditional country music in Sweden have been Ann-Louise Hanson, Hasse Andersson, Kikki Danielsson, Elisabeth Andreassen and Jill Johnson. In Poland an international country music festival, known as Piknik Country, has been organized in Mrągowo in Masuria since 1983. There are more and more country music artists in France. Some of the most important are Liane Edwards, Annabel [fr], Rockie Mountains, Tahiana, and Lili West. French rock and roll superstar Eddy Mitchell is also very inspired by Americana and country music. In the Netherlands there are many artists producing popular country and americana music, which is mostly in the English language, as well as Dutch country and country-like music in Dutch language. The latter is mainly popular on the countrysides in the northern and eastern parts of the Netherlands and is less associated with his American brother, although it sounds sometimes very similar. Well known popular artists mainly performing in English are Waylon, Danny Vera, Ilse DeLange and the band Savannah. The most popular artist in Dutch is Henk Wijngaard.
In the 1990s, country music became a worldwide phenomenon thanks to Garth Brooks, who enjoyed one of the most successful careers in popular music history, breaking records for both sales and concert attendance throughout the decade. The RIAA has certified his recordings at a combined (128× platinum), denoting roughly 113 million U.S. shipments. Other artists that experienced success during this time included Clint Black, Sammy Kershaw, Aaron Tippin, Travis Tritt, Alan Jackson and the newly formed duo of Brooks & Dunn; George Strait, whose career began in the 1980s, also continued to have widespread success in this decade and beyond. Toby Keith began his career as a more pop-oriented country singer in the 1990s, evolving into an outlaw persona in the late 1990s with Pull My Chain and its follow-up, Unleashed.
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
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.
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
Country rock is a subgenre of popular music, formed from the fusion of rock and country. It was developed by rock musicians who began to record country-flavored records in the late-1960s and early-1970s. These musicians recorded rock records using country themes, vocal styles, and additional instrumentation, most characteristically pedal steel guitars. Country rock began with artists like Bob Dylan, the Byrds, Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, the Flying Burrito Brothers, Gram Parsons and others, reaching its greatest popularity in the 1970s with artists such as Emmylou Harris, the Eagles, Linda Ronstadt, Michael Nesmith, Poco and Pure Prairie League. Country rock also influenced 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.
Country rock is a genre that started in the 1960s but became prominent in the 1970s. 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. Early innovators in this new style of music in the 1960s and 1970s included Bob Dylan, who was the first to revert to country music with his 1967 album John Wesley Harding (and even more so with that album's follow-up, Nashville Skyline), followed by Gene Clark, Clark's former band The Byrds (with Gram Parsons on Sweetheart of the Rodeo) and its spin-off The Flying Burrito Brothers (also featuring Gram Parsons), guitarist Clarence White, Michael Nesmith (The Monkees and the First National Band), the Grateful Dead, Neil Young, Commander Cody, The Allman Brothers, The Marshall Tucker Band, Poco, Buffalo Springfield, and Eagles, among many, even the former folk music duo Ian & Sylvia, who formed Great Speckled Bird in 1969. The Eagles would become the most successful of these country rock acts, and their compilation album Their Greatest Hits (1971–1975) remains the second best-selling album of all time in the US with 29 million copies sold. The Rolling Stones also got into the act with songs like "Dead Flowers" and a country version of "Honky Tonk Women".
The September 11 attacks of 2001 and the economic recession helped move country music back into the spotlight. Many country artists, such as Alan Jackson with his ballad on terrorist attacks, "Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning)", wrote songs that celebrated the military, highlighted the gospel, and emphasized home and family values over wealth. Alt-Country singer Ryan Adams song "New York, New York" pays tribute to New York City, and its popular music video (which was shot 4 days before the attacks) shows Adams playing in front of the Manhattan skyline, Along with several shots of the city. In contrast, more rock-oriented country singers took more direct aim at the attacks' perpetrators; Toby Keith's "The Angry American (Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue)" threatened to "a boot in" the posterior of the enemy, while Charlie Daniels's "This Ain't No Rag, It's a Flag" promised to "hunt" the perpetrators "down like a mad dog hound." These songs gained such recognition that it put country music back into popular culture. The influence of rock music in country has become more overt during the late 2000s and early 2010s as artists like Eric Church, Jason Aldean, and Brantley Gilbert have had success; Aaron Lewis, former frontman for the rock group Staind, had a moderately successful entry into country music in 2011 and 2012. Also rising in the late 2000s and early 2010s was the insertion of rap and spoken-word elements into country songs; artists such as Cowboy Troy and Colt Ford have focused almost exclusively on country rap (also known as hick hop) while other, more mainstream artists (such as Big & Rich and Jason Aldean) have used it on occasion.
Significantly, however, the style occurred not in a city alive with the values of contemporary art but in Los Angeles, which during the previous decades had attracted many rural Southerners. Moreover, country rock’s rise to prominence paralleled the rise of the big-budget Hollywood recording studio ethic, the desire to compete with London in the effort to make pop recordings of the most highly advanced sonic clarity and detail then imaginable. Country rock had begun by insisting that the sources—and not the means—of popular music were of signal importance. Yet in the end the movement succeeded by adopting the same exacting production techniques pioneered by the Beatles and their producer George Martin.
These early styles had coalesced into a genre by the time the Illinois group Uncle Tupelo released their influential debut album No Depression in 1990. The album is widely credited as being the first "alternative country" album, and inspired the name of No Depression magazine, which exclusively covered the new genre. Following Uncle Tupelo's disbanding in 1994, its members formed two significant bands in genre: Wilco and Son Volt. Although Wilco's sound had moved away from country and towards indie rock by the time they released their critically acclaimed album Yankee Hotel Foxtrot in 2002, they have continued to be an influence on later alt-country artists.
Country music often consists of ballads and dance tunes with generally simple forms, folk lyrics, and harmonies mostly accompanied by string instruments such as banjos, electric and acoustic guitars, steel guitars (such as pedal steels and dobros), and fiddles as well as harmonicas. Blues modes have been used extensively throughout its recorded history.