I used to be way more close-minded about the music I listen too, but over the past few years I’ve started to realize that basically every genre of music has something surprisingly good to offer.

How many times have you heard someone say that they absolutely never listen to country?

And how many times have you heard someone say that they exclusively listen to country? (Usually on a dating profile or something like that. Maybe below a picture of them holding a fish. Or a gun.)

I don’t understand why it’s such a polarizing topic. Both kinds of people here are being close-minded. You can’t permanently exist in the land of pickup trucks, light beers, and dusty highways–just as you can’t discount an entire genre of music.

But here’s where my own distinction lies. I’m not particularly interested in Pop Country (Or a lot of pop in general, really). In the words of Bo Burnham, “The problem with a lot of modern country music–what is called stadium country music, that Keith Urban brand of country music–is that it is not honest.” He does a whole parody country song about it, and it’s pretty damn funny so you should watch it.

All jokes aside, there’s this whole sub genre of country called Alternative Country, or Alt. Country for short, that has so much good to offer. Every year that I’ve gone to the Winnipeg Folk Fest I’ve been exposed to it a little more.

In 2013, I saw Colin Meloy perform all alone, main stage, as a headlining act with a glass of wine and two bodaciously beautiful acoustic guitars–I almost cried it was so good.

The year after I was absolutely entranced by Shakey Graves’s raspy voiced, foot stomping one man show.

Just this last year I saw Ryan Adams play on the main stage at night, and again I thought “Hey, this is pretty damn good”. Right after that I saw Rayland Baxter the next day and he blew me away too.

But anyhow, this isn’t a Folk Fest appreciation post, because I would go on for way too long about it if it was. You’re probably tired of hearing it anyway.

I’m not gonna pretend to be an expert on this musical domain. I’ll admit that I’m probably barely scratching the surface of the Alt. Country scene. But I’d like to mention some other artists that I’ve found pretty cool so far, which inhabit the fringes of the country genre.

There are so many great musicians out there like Neko Case, Shovels & Rope, Wilco, The Decemberists, Jake Bugg, Blitzen Trapper, and The Sadies, to name a few. They all use elements of folk, americana, blue-grass, roots, blues, and country to plant their sound in a solid foundation of traditional American music.

There’s a really unique band I’ve gotten into recently called Pinegrove that I discovered on NPR’s Tiny Desk series the other day. Just Google them, the genres listed in the side bar are “Indie rock, Alternative Country, and Emo”. The combination alone is intriguing enough to get your attention.

Put this song in your earholes:

The lyrics, the song-writing, the unique vocals, and the way it sounds like it’s recorded in someone’s living room–It’s just f*cking authentic. There’s no other way to put it.

“It’s really all about the lyrics, live energy and natural recording tones for me,”says Micah Erenberg, one of my favourite Winnipeg local artists. “And you get a lot of that from music that is based in folk, country and blues.”

I wholeheartedly agree with that sentiment. The first time I saw him play with his band was at Real Love early this summer. They cranked out the anthemic tune I Just Wanna Go To Sleep Forever and it just about knocked me on my ass.

I asked him what got him interested in the genre in the first place: “Watching live bands at folk festivals and venues like the Times Change(d) was and still is my favourite thing to do because there it really shows a combination of skill, passion and collaborative energy.”

(Check out the full interview at the bottom)

In Micah’s latest album, Poor Mic’s Toe, he stretches the boundaries of country and folk in all the right ways. It’s front-to-back a fantastic record full of surprises and catchy-as-hell tunes that I strongly recommend hearing. Here’s one song I love in particular:

Give the rest of the album a listen. It has such a great range of vibe and pace. Happy songs, sad songs; fast songs and slow songs.

I think maybe that is what music needs more of these days: dynamics. Country is a kind of music that can serve any mood, and maybe that’s why people love it so much. You can listen to it on the good days and the bad.

There’s a level of emotion and honesty in the lyrics of good country music that at it’s very core is so damn relatable. It’s that sense of struggle and a keep-on-chugging attitude that really defines it as a diverse and essential genre.

Here’s the full Q&A from Micah Erenberg because he actually knows what he’s talking about on the topic more than I do:

Question: Which country or folk musicians have influenced your own music?

Townes Van Zandt, Jeff Tweedy (Wilco), Elliott Smith, Karen Dalton and Dan Reeder. I’ve taken songwriting tips from all these artists. There are also lots of artists in other genres that have influenced my own folk music, like Modest Mouse, Led Zeppelin and Built to Spill. A lot of those bands have roots in folk-style songwriting and they cover it in Rock & Roll, which is kind of like what I do, especially live. Hearing Elliott Smith cover Hank Williams and Bob Marley in some live recordings is very cool.

Question: What got you interested in making the style of music you play?

I’m really not sure. I guess growing up listening to music like Neil Young, Bob Dylan and David Bowie. I’m really into the guitar solo/improv jam type stuff, too, so hearing the variety in Neil Young’s music was really influential. It’s really all about the lyrics, live energy and natural recording tones for me, and you get a lot of that from music that is based in folk, country and blues. Watching live bands at folk festivals and venues like the Times Change(d) was and still is my favourite thing to do because there it really shows a combination of skill, passion and collaborative energy, not to mention meaning behind the lyrics.

Any new bands out there in the broad Alt. Country genre that you think people should be listening to right now?

A lot of this is in the alt-folk areas, but…

People that are alive: Wilco, Blake Mills, Meredith Axelrod, M. Ward, The Steeldrivers, Joel Plaskett, Dan Reeder… Locals: Andrew Neville, Richard Inman, Kieran West, Logan McKillop, Carly Dow.

People that are dead: Elliott Smith, Karen Dalton, and – although he is really an Experimental composer – Arthur Russell. I just heard Arthur Russell’s “I Couldn’t Say it to Your Face” from his posthumous album “Love is Overtaking Me” and it’s my new favourite song.

3 thoughts on “Country doesn’t suck, you’re just listening to the wrong country.

  1. I think it’s a bit naive to put Keith Urban into “stadium pop that isn’t honest”. If you’ve ever listened to a full album of his and actually listen to his lyrics, you might just change your mind.

    As a songwriter myself, I’ve spent time writing in Nashville and 9 years playing at Winnipeg Folk Festival and I think you’d be surprised how many folk artists are actually writers for mainstream country acts.

    Take Lori Mckenna, who performs as a folk artist:

    Humble and Kind: Performed by Tim McGraw
    Stealing Kisses: Faith Hill
    I Want Crazy: Hunter Hayes

    Chris Stapleton, who is alt-country:

    Whiskey and You: Tim McGraw
    Your Man: Josh Turner
    Crash and Burn: Thomas Rhett

    Brandy Clark, another folk musician:

    Come Back to Me: Keith Urban
    Follow Your Arrow: Kacey Musgraves
    Mama’s Broken Heart: Miranda Lambert

    All of these songs are inspired by everyday occurrences in people’s lives and to use a quote from a comedian that country music isn’t honest is a bit cheap! One of the best parts about being a songwriter and musician is being a part of such a creative and collaborative community. I challenge you to listen to some of these songs I’ve listed and tell me after that they aren’t honest!

    Just my two bits 🙂


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