[18 August 2009]
One of the hallmarks of country music is its regional specificity. From Bob Wills’ Texas Playboys to Bill Monroe’s Blue Grass Boys, from Bakersfield to Austin, where you sing is as much a part of the music as what you sing. And as much as modern country music likes to define itself as a medium that’s purely by and for the American people (one only need to flip on the radio and hear songs like Brooks and Dunn’s “Only in America” or Rodney Atkins’ “It’s America” to realize this), our polite neighbors to the north have had more of an influence on country music than most listeners are aware.
Okay, anyone who’s flipped on a radio in the past 30 years is aware of Anne Murray and Shania Twain, but what about those singers whose library of work doesn’t largely consist of soppy wedding songs?
Jason Schneider’s new book Whispering Pines: The Northern Roots of American Music from Hank Snow to The Band shines a much needed light onto those artists who have exercised incredible influence on the body of American music as a whole. Schneider also attempts to answer certain issues raised by such artists: just what exactly defines Canadian roots music, and what is it about this music that crosses borders so easily?
He begins his analysis with a discussion of Wilf Carter, the Father of Canadian Country Music, who was, ironically, also known as Montana Slim. Carter rose to fame with his vast repertoire of cowboy songs, his simple singing and playing style, and his yodel. The Calgary Sun’s obituary cited a retired program director of CFAC, a Canadian radio station which played a Wilf Carter song at the same time every day for approximately 25 years. I’m hard-pressed to think of an American country singer who has held a similar stronghold on American radio even before ClearChannel.
Vying with Carter for the title of Canada’s Most Influential Country Musician is of course Hank Snow, one of the most important figures to grace American music in the second half of the 20th century. Before embarking on his journey to music stardom, however, the Nova Scotian rightly concluded that country music had no place for a milquetoast named Clarence Eugene, and changed his name to the far more masculine “Hank”, a la Hiriam [sic] Williams and Herbert Penny. Hits such as “I’m Movin’ On”, “A Fool Such as I”, “I’ve Been Everywhere”, and “Miller’s Cave” cemented Snow’s spot in the country music pantheon, as did his nearly unheard of 45 year relationship with RCA.
Snow became a naturalized American citizen in the late ‘50s; after having spent his childhood suffering unspeakable abuse at the hands of his stepfather (Snow would leave home for the relative comfort of the Merchant Marines at the tender age of 12). It would be understandable had Snow decided to put the past behind him and reinvent himself as The Singing Ranger. However, he paid tribute to his roots on the ‘60s LP My Nova Scotia Home, an album that is only for the most diehard Snow fans, perhaps the only contingent who can appreciate songs such as “Squid Jiggin’ Ground”.
Okay, so maybe when it comes to songs about squid hunting, Canada’s got the US beat. But many of the elements of American country music—the lone cowboy, the rural/agricultural lifestyle, the fierce regional pride—are also found in Canadian country music. And since America and Canada are both nations founded by intrepid explorers, it makes sense that the roots music of both countries would have shared elements that revolve around this idea of the pioneer spirit and images of cowboys and railroads.
Since Schneider’s text stops with The Band, Neil Young, and Joni Mitchell, let’s pick up where he left off. Who are the current Canadian artists that are currently making a significant impact in roots music on both sides of the border, even as they struggle for commercial success despite critical acclamation?
Kathleen Edwards is probably one of the best known current Canadian artists making waves in the States. The 31-year-old has already released three exceptional albums, the most recent being 2008’s Asking for Flowers and counts among her fans punk-turned-twanger John Doe, My Morning Jacket’s Jim James, and The Office’s Rainn Wilson. She’s no stranger to traditional country music, however, her musical influences lean more toward the roots rock sound of Gold Rush-era Neil Young than Wilf Carter.
If there’s a distinctly Canadian element to Edwards’ music, it comes in the form of hockey references. Stereotypical Canadian? Perhaps. Awesome? Most certainly, as she sings “You’re the Great One [Wayne Gretzky] / I’m Marty McSorley [the little-recognized player whose job it was to protect Gretzky on the ice]” on the uber-catchy “I Make the Dough, You Get the Glory”. And let’s not forget Edwards’ debut, 2003 song “Hockey Skates”.
Like Edwards, farm boy Corb Lund is another Canadian singer who made sorta good in the States. Lund and his band, The Hurtin’ Albertans, are picking up where Wilf Carter left off with their library of cowboy songs including “I Wanna Be in the Cavalry” and “My Saddle Horse has Died”. Two of the group’s albums have gone gold in their home country, and the band won several Canadian Country Music Awards. Also like Edwards, Lund and his band haven’t experienced country radio success in either Canada (only one of their singles has cracked the Top 20) or the US, perhaps because they’re an actual country band and modern “country” radio plays anything but.
Much like The Band and Hank Snow, Corb Lund and Kathleen Edwards are able to make music that easily crosses borders. Though they may not have achieved the success of those Canadians who’ve gone before, there’s no doubt in my mind that 50 years on, country and roots musicians in both the US and Canada will point to Lund and Edwards as their influences, much as they point to Neil Young and the cowboy songs of Wilf Carter, now.
The borders of country music and its many offshoots are a lot more fungible than the homogenous acts on CMT or the radio would have you believe (country music’s one “foreign” star, Keith Urban, has been in the US for nearly two decades now, and can hardly be considered an Australian country singer the way that Kasey Chambers or Adam Brand can). And the rapidly growing Americana genre is anything but restricted to one geographical location, as acts like Kathleen Edwards, Corb Lund, and myriad others are proving. Then again, “Canadiana” does have a nice ring to it…