What exactly is Canadian country music?

A Brief History

Country music has a long history in North America, with much of its foundation being credited to the Irish immigrants who settled in the United States; this same group of immigrants would go on to form the Anglo-Folk sound here in Canada. With the proliferation of music radio in the 1920s and 1930s, American country music found an audience here in Canada, and soon we were producing our own country music through the likes of Steep Wade and Don Messer

Over the decades, the sound of 'country music' would change from its 'hillbilly' origins through to 'country western,' picking up influences from other genres like blues and folk to create today's sound. Interestingly, country music wasn't always a mainstream genre, and it took the great social upheaval of the mid-twentieth century and the rise of Hollywood cinema to force it into the mainstream. 

The 1940's saw Canada really take the reins with the country genre, with English Canada, Quebec, and the Maritimes all beginning to establish a regional sound. Canadian country was rooted in the folk tradition, but sampled heavily from jazz techniques and metre. This was most on display with Quebec musicians, such as Paul Brunelle, where a French-swing-country sound was the flavour du jour. 

Canadian country music caught on, with its 'tales from the farm,' working-class storytelling design, it was reflecting the current lifestyle of people living in Canada at the time. 

Continent-wide, country music took a hit with the wave of rock 'n roll that enveloped the English-speaking world. Elvis and his hips had everyone putting down their honkytonk records and reaching for the music of sin. In true musical fashion, artists took their love for rock 'n roll and infused it in their genre of choice: country. The genre saw a comeback in the 1960s and this innovative infusing of movement and power from rock 'n roll, enabled the genre to withstand the British Invasion of the same decade. 

Elvis and his hips had everyone putting down their honkytonk records and reaching for the music of sin.

This period saw some of the foundational voices in contemporary Canadian music rise to the top, with Ian & Sylvia, Murray McLaughlin, Prairie Oyster, Ronnie Hawkins, and more finding great success with their genre-blending country sound. It was also when the Canadian Academy of Country Music Entertainment and the Canadian Country Music Association saw their formation in 1975 and 1986, respectfully. This foundation led the way for iconic Canadian artists such as Blue Rodeo, Cowboy Junkies, and k.d. lang to add to the rich tapestry of Canadian music. 

Flash forward to today and Canada's country music scene is more richly layered than ever before. While it shares many similarities with US country music, there is a noticeable degree of difference between them. This difference lies in two main areas,

  • 1) the regional cultural diversity in Canada, and
  • 2) the different political landscape.

Canadian artists have retained more of their diasporic cultural identities and then fuse this into their music, creating an array of different sounds coast-to-coast-to-coast. Second, Canadian country music is less tied to a strict identity than its US counterparts (more on this below), which enables a greater range of voices, subject matter, experiences, and audiences. 

Also, interestingly, because of differences in dialect, Canadian musicians tend to sing at a lower-pitch, with less slurring and a higher enunciation of words, resulting in a less nasally sound than that which comes from the U.S. Johnny Cash was heavily influenced by Canadian country styles and this clarity-of-voice was a major element to his success. 

 

Country Music Belongs to the Ladies

More so than any other genre, country music has its Reigning Queens and female voices dominate the genre. When we think of the most influential country artists, names like Dolly Parton, Reba Macintyre, Patsy Cline, and Loretta Lynn come to mind. 

But that wasn't always the case; like many creative endeavors, women had to fight for legitimacy in a male-dominated sphere. Record labels and radio stations did not believe that female singers had anything to contribute to the genre and, in fact, argued that playing their music would lead to economic failure. 

That all changed when Kitty Wells released "It Wasn't God Who Made Honky-Tonk Angels" in 1952. The song was a direct response to Hank Thompson's rampantly sexist song, "The Wild Side of Life," where he laments about his wife leaving him after he had an affair. The song is a slut-shaming diatribe that attributes all the sexual failures of men to the women in their lives. Kitty Wells was having none of that and released her song that actively challenged those myths. 

 

The song was banned across many platforms, including radio stations and the Grand Ole Opry. As with anything banned, the blackout pushed the popularity of the song onto the top of the charts, and Kitty Wells became the first female country artist to sell a million copies. With that, women were in the country music game. It is somewhat poetic justice that a song raging on the patriarchy is what brought women to the table in a genre that really didn't want them to be there. 

The next seventy years would be a hard-fought battle for female musicians, not just in country music, but across the whole field. Country music served as particularly challenging mine-field as much of the lyricism of the genre relied on exhaustive gendered tropes, which would only become more problematic as right-wing policy decisions began to shape the American Midwest. These effects can be seen in country music today, where right-wing extremism has built its base amongst those most inclined to enjoy country music. However, this isn't to say that all country music is the pulpit of right-wing values, in fact, the opposite is true. 

Kitty Wells was having none of that and released her song that actively challenged those myths...and became the first female country artist to sell a million copies.

Just as Kitty Wells was challenging the patriarchy, her 'response-style' voice has shaped female country music to this very day. Every Queen of Country has songs about challenging men or having to fight for her independence, and every up-and-coming female country singer reflects this tradition in her own music. Much of female-based country music is about expressing and exploring situations that tend to befall a women's experience in life; country music allows for an intimacy where raw emotions can be shared. Stories of periods, birth, motherhood, aging, domestic violence, sexuality, the rigidness of social laws, marriage, etc., can be found within country. 

So while country music has a tradition of 'tradition', it also has a tradition of resistance. 

And it is with this spirit in mind that we have cultivated a lineup this summer of country artists who offer resistance in their music in the intimate ways which honour the genre before them. 

image of Kaia Kater
 

Kaia Kater brings the history of Canadian country through her blending of English, French, and Appalachian sound.

 
 
image of Lindi Ortega
 

There is nothing quite like Lindi Ortega's gothic spin on the country tradition. 

 
 
image of Jenny Ritter
 

Jenny Ritter brings a Maritime-swing to her west-coast sound, and the result is pure beauty.

 
edit of trio band Lula Wiles
 

Lula Wiles reflects the genre's history, honouring the intimate storytelling of the Queens before them.

 
 
image of Matt Haeck
 

Matt Haeck bares everything in his music, bravely exploring mental health, addiction, and the human spirit in his music.

 
 
image of band The Blurry Pickers
 

Bringing the thigh-slapping, toe-tapping fun is The Blurry Pickers, here to raise a barn on the Hillside stage

 
image of Carly Dow
 

The beauty of Carly Dow's music lies in the complexity of her lyrics, which paint a vivid image in your mind.

 
 
image of William Prince
 

With a voice that will move your very soul, William Princebrings a succinctness and intensity to his every performance.

 
 
image of band The Dead Flowers
 

The Dead Flowers play tribute to a time in The Rolling Stones where, they too, felt the lure of the country spirit