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By: Sebastian Johnston-Lindsay

You need to be careful of who is within earshot when you admit to being to being a country music fan. Common reactions range from a disheartened eye roll to wild shrieks of enthusiasm and (often vague) accounts of last year’s Boots and Hearts.

I do consider myself a country music fan, but I am perpetually ill at ease with the label. I think that it’s important to be able to trace differences between vintage country music and the country music of our time, which is largely characterized by pre-packaged formulaic production and blatant promotion of light beer consumption and truck-balls.

This article is for those people who think they might want to like country music but just don’t know what might constitute country, or indeed even where country music came from. I have selected artists that I feel represent the early formation of the sound we might call country.

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The first major figure in the history of country music for our sake is Waylon Jennings. Jennings was an outlaw countryman by any stretch of the imagination who is characterized as much by his larger-than-life baritone voice and hard driving country originals as by his image: he often donned black leather vests and hats in performance.

He bridged the gap between the rock music of the 1950s and the discernable country sounds we recognize today. He got his start playing in Buddy Holly’s touring band until the Holly’s infamous death on Feb. 3, 1959 in a plane crash. Waylon avoided the accident by giving his seat up to a sick band mate and opting to take a bus to the next show. In the sixties Jennings continued to work as a solo artist releasing 11 albums between 1964-1969. His initial release Waylon at JD’s (1964) contains versions of Roy Orbison’s “Crying” and Bob Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice It’s Alright.”

As his career progressed, he adopted a harder edge in his music. His 1976 album Are you Ready for the Country?, named after Neil Young’s song by the same name off the album Harvest (1972), typifies Jennings’ signature sound. It includes a cover of Young’s song with a straight forward mingling of twanging guitars and heavy drums with powerful hooks.

Jennings had a close working relationship with fellow well-known “outlaws” Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson and Johnny Cash. The four men formed The Highwaymen, a supergroup that recorded and toured from the mid-1980s through until Jennings’ death in 2002.

The individual discographies of these four artists in particular represent the foundation of the genre we now recognize as country from the 1970s onward. Their willingness toward collaboration and tendency to cover and adapt each other’s songs became an important aspect of the genre.

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Kris Kristofferson, is an especially interesting figure, having written numerous songs that were later made famous by other artists. Examples include “Sunday Morning Coming Down” which became an integral part of Johnny Cash’s concert performances. In addition to this, his song “Me and Bobby McGee” was covered and made popular by Janis Joplin and The Grateful Dead.

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Finally we come to Townes Van Zandt. Born in Fort Worth Texas in 1944, his life was spotted with bouts of bipolar disorder aggravated by addictions to both alcohol and heroin for his entire adult life until his death at age 52. Despite this, his was prolific and vastly influential singer-songwriter. He came into the spotlight in the early 1970s along with fellow Texas singer Guy Clark, with whom he lived for a few drug-addled months in the early part of the decade.

While he is not as widely recognized as some of his peers, including those listed above, his influence on artists like Steve Earle and Bob Dylan is well documented. Throughout his life, he was notorious for shunning the spotlight and was uncomfortable with the idea of celebrity.

His debut album For the Sake of the Song (1968) contains the original recording of his most well known song “Waiting ‘Round to Die,” a burning chronicle of a life spent wandering and stealing, all the while looking for the next fix. The song ends with the revealing and prophetic lines: “I got me a friend at last, he don’t steal or cheat or drink or lie. His name’s codeine, he’s the nicest thing I’ve seen. Together we’re gonna wait around and die.”

Fans of Breaking Bad will recall Canadian folk-country band The Be Good Tanyas’ cover of “Waiting ‘Round to Die” in the episode “Bit By a Dead Bee” from the second season of the series, which brings this often covered classic to a new audience. Other key songs by Van Zandt include “Columbine” off of his self-titled 1969 album and the narrative tune “Pancho and Lefty” off The Late Great Townes Van Zandt (1972).

Townes Van Zandt is for music fans that appreciate high-poetics and simplistic production techniques. He is the Nick Drake of country music; his specter looms large in the underground folk and country scene.

I want to stress that if you find yourself in despair at the state of country music, having given the above artists a try, there is hope. Many manifestations of the original aesthetic have survived and are alive today. I urge every reader to seek out The Dinner Belles, a Hamilton outfit who released The River and the Willow this past year.

Country music is not a singular genre. It is a combination of many different styles of music that incorporate geographic, social and economic realities. This article represents nothing more than the jumping off point into a large pool of musical discovery, and maybe some Bud Light.

Header Photo Credit: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

In-article Credits: Henry Diltz, GAB Archive/Redferns

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By: Rachel Harper

Ben Howard continues to rock the indie-folk scene with his second album I Forget Where We Were released on Oct. 21.  For fans of Every Kingdom, the familiar sound of the previous album is still an underlying presence, while at the same time propelling itself into a new direction.

Howard, a 27-year-old English singer-songwriter, is quite popular in the U.K., is quickly becoming a rising star in North America.  He has a considerable fan base in the Greater Toronto Area, having played at Echo Beach in August 2013.

Howard has been a favourite of mine for a few years, and his new album has only enhanced my love for his music.  Part of this is because of his very distinct, pleasant voice – soft, airy, and transforming almost into a rasping growl when he reaches low notes.  Many of his new tracks incorporate goose bump-inducing harmonies, similarly to his previous album.  The song is either overlapped with Howard’s voice, or with India Bourne, the bassist and cellist within the group.

There’s a healthy mix of acoustic and electric guitar in I Forget Where We Were, which pairs perfectly with the array of fingerpicking techniques Howard employs.  “End of the Affair” is one such song, with Howard plucking a soothing rhythm at the intro, and ripping through harmonics with a savage passion near to the end.  “In Dreams” displays this talent as well, as notes seem to fly by while the drums plod steadily along in the background. This technique is a staple of Howard’s and while it produces a calming arrangement, it also helps the song build itself up to greater heights.

Howard’s talents are not limited to his technical skills, as he is also a fantastic lyricist.  His songs and their meanings give you something to chew on as you’re thrust into feelings of nostalgia and wistfulness. This makes I Forgot Where We Were offer a certain grounding effect that results in wonderful de-stressing music.  If you’re in need of some serious relaxation, this is the album for you.

By: Adrian Valentine

The title says it all. Robert Plant, once the lead vocalist of Led Zeppelin, introduces a very melancholic lullaby-like melodic structure and mixes it with a psychedelic rhythm that borrows from EDM, all the while bringing it together with folk riffs spread throughout to create a very unique roar. A lot to take in for sure, but the album is imbued with Plant’s experience.

Plant is no amateur, with decades of experience under his belt, and he does not disappoint with his latest solo endeavour. Plant’s lengthy career is evident in his latest offering, as there isn’t a single errant note. Considering the myriad of different sounds he is experimenting with, he does a masterful job of bringing it all together into a wonderful harmony, like a meal brought together with foreign foods that surprisingly satisfies one’s appetite.

The album drops its sombre mood and picks back up at a whim. “Poor Howard” highlights the album’s occasional playful nature in the way that it has Plant’s vocals playing against his music while the single, “Rainbow”, is as upbeat as it gets. The latter exhibits a sort of hopeful sadness, being a song about the perseverance of love with beautiful lyrics over a bittersweet instrumental ensemble.

The final track, “Arbaden”, brings back the vocal melody of the original track in an entirely different instrumental light. The music changes to have a more, slightly overpowering, psychedelic trance without the Celtic folk influence, leaving the listener in a state of odd restlessness. This restlessness in turn provokes them to listen to the first track again in hopes of bringing back some sense of clarity in the mist Arbaden leaves.

Lullaby and…The Ceaseless Roar is very progressive and the result of an experienced musician playing around with new styles. The result is wonderful and I definitely recommend picking it up to experience this new age harmony brought to us by an old classic. If you’re a fan of classic rock, EDM, psychedelic beats, or even Celtic folk music then this album is for you.

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