Canadian Country Music = Lacklustre
A few weeks ago, I rescued a book from our department’s recycling pile. It was the Encyclopaedia of Canadian Country Music. I’m pretty sure my colleague went on a cleaning binge in our office, figured the book was useless, and put it in the stack of discarded books in the mail room…and I’m pretty sure I tried to rescue the book once already. So I took it home. I love books like this, partly because they’re full of obscure information that yes, might be available online, but in some cases might not. I also love them because they come designed in a way that allows dorks like me to find stuff quickly, and are about topics that most people aren’t interested in. I heard complaints about the 40th Anniversary Juno book that came out a couple years ago, but I gave it as a birthday gift to some of my friends, knowing they’d appreciate the tidbits of info that can’t be found without a great deal of digging.
Later, I got an email from someone across the country, asking for my opinion on the “lacklustre” Canadian country music industry, among other things, and I did a double take on the word lacklustre. Really? I thought we were doing okay. Am I so embroiled in my research area that I’ve lost all objectivity? Is that why there are still continental philosophers? (I’m sorry, I’m sorry. I couldn’t resist, after 10 years of living with, dating, being married to, philosophers…)
I’ve questioned the state of Canadian music, and the music industry here, far too many times in other posts to be bothered with those big questions again. And we’re all nostalgic and excited for the periods in which the genres we still like to listen to today started. The Experience Music Project, walking tours of Yorkville, myriad popular music history books, documentaries on everyone from the Chili Peppers to Black Sabbath are all manifestations of our cultural obsession with the past, when music was legit, made with the right motivations (for the art, man), or in its unblemished infancy. So it’s no surprise that in with all of these backwards-looking products are a couple of books on Canadian country music. Yet, the attitude with which people still regard that industry, or the fact that my superhip colleague, known for his Django guitar in the corner and the Bob Marley poster on the wall of our office, threw away the book, tells me that Canadian country doesn’t exactly reside on the same level as any of the above retrospectives.
Perhaps the first problem lies in definition. What is Canadian country? It’s not rooted in the mixture of Appalachian folk music, blues, minstrel tunes, Tin Pan Alley, etc., like American country, but it also is. It depends where you look. The country music that eventually came out of Canada was no doubt influenced by Americans who made their way up north to settle in places like Alberta, but it was equally influenced by migrants who landed on the East Coast and gradually moved west across the country. Add to that the powerful cross-border stations in the U.S. and Mexico that were broadcasting as far north as Canada in radio’s early days, and what might have started as form of folk music was shaped by commercial American music too. So locating the origins or the sound of Canadian country is pretty tough. Why even bother trying? I’m not going to.
And here, much like in the U.S., we have divisions between those considered to be “Nashville” country and those who better reside in a vague “roots” or “alt-country” category. Those divisions can be arbitrary in my opinion, aside from issues of production (and promotion…). I’d stick hard to that opinion, except I did spend this past Saturday with CMT Canada on in the background, waiting all day for the country music to come on. Ha ha. Goddamn, every song sounds the same. A particularly fascinating example to me was the song “Alberta Bound” by Paul Brandt. I appreciated the imagery of the video and sentiment of the song, but there was something so, I don’t know, false about it. It’s not fair of me to say that, but I tend to think that those who really feel like they belong in Alberta don’t have to say it so obviously. It’s just something you know about yourself, and something that can’t be railroaded into everyone who’s not Albertan, because they won’t get it.
(An aside: here’s why I don’t like this song – and nothing against Paul Brandt, because he seems like a good Calgary ambassador, it’s all about the music – this is all Nashville formula. Simple melodic line gets repeated twice, bam, verse. Hey, let’s notch up the intensity for the second round so nobody notices it’s being repeated. Then bombastic chorus that just lists a bunch of meaningless shit, and finish it off with some sappy sentiment. Reduce the orchestration and start all over again. Make sure the language is pandering garbage, I mean, nobody out there calls themselves a redneck, come on. Ok, sorry, moment of meanness over.)
Compare that to a song like “Alberta in My Dreams” by Tim Williams, or “Alberta Song” by Tom Phillips. Then there’s “Alberta’s Child” by Ian Tyson or “Old Alberta Moon”, and Tim Hus’s “Hotel and Saloon”…all of these seem somehow more natural expressions of Albertan identity to me.
That may be a bias I have against people who feel compelled to leave the province (or country) in search of that elusive Nashville career, or there might be something inherent in the music or the lyrics after all.
Of course, where does Gordon Lightfoot’s song fit in all this?
Anyway, I’ve deviated from my original question, which is, where are we at in Canadian country music? I think it’s doing fine, the question is more, how willing are we to acknowledge what’s happening right in front of us? The industry largely remains underground, and as radio changes and people consume music in new ways, it’s unlikely that it will be an enormously successful industry. The money just won’t go into it, the promotion (what’s there) will fall away, the really ambitious (or crazy?) people will have to go down to Nashville to try to make it big, but the dedicated artists and audience here will stay consistent.
What’s perhaps more problematic is that we are still a country who at large claims we can’t be “country”; that we lack the conservative (traditionalist?) political leanings, the substantial rural population, the racial homogeneity, the boot-in-your-ass patriotism that we tend to ascribe to the U.S. To enjoy country music would be to admit that we are not, erm, patriotic. It’s easier to say that there isn’t much Canadian country to speak of, but that which does exist is pretty good because it’s all diverse and leftist politics. That’s how I hear most of my city friends justify their enjoyment of it, anyway. Or they just defer to Shania’s hotness and leave it at that.
So Canadian country remains a sort of exotic guilty pleasure if it’s at all acknowledged. I have lost proper perspective on it, since it’s pretty much all I think about. I guess it’s not the raging success I had figured it was. Or is it?