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A beginner’s guide to country music

by Danielle Gasher October 20, 2015
A beginner’s guide to country music

Look no further than these picks for all of your newfound country music needs

Contrary to popular belief, country singers don’t just whine about their mama’s cooking or the loss of their animals; though these are recurring themes, country music is so much more than dead pets and corn biscuits. There’s no denying that being an advocate of the genre can be particularly controversial. Talking about loving country music in public spaces may get you the same looks as the ones Harry Potter got when he first uttered Voldemort’s name.

Canadian country star Brett Kissel playing before a crowd of loving fans at the Phoenix Hall in Toronto. Photo by Andrej Ivanov.

Canadian country star Brett Kissel playing before a crowd of loving fans at the Phoenix Hall in Toronto. Photo by Andrej Ivanov.

In a world where people speak publicly about their love for the Kardashian clan, there’s truly nothing to be ashamed of here. It’s absolutely possible to love classic rock, pop and jazz and still have a thing for country. The genre is warm and cozy, and a perfect soundtrack to whiskey-drinking or driving—not to be confused with doing both things simultaneously.

It’s always recommended to start with the legends: Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash and Waylon Jennings to name a few. Country music is more deep-rooted in American culture, hence why these picks are mostly from our southern neighbours. In Cash’s case, 1964’s I Walk the Line is the ideal starting point. The album captures his essence pretty well, and holds quite a few fan favourites, including “I Walk the Line,” “Folsom Prison Blues” and “Big River.” From his deep, baritone moan to his vibrant guitar tone, Cash blends rock and country in a powerful, effective way. By slowing down the stereotypical fast-paced strumming thought to be a constant in country music, he instead transforms it into something hauntingly evocative.

As for Canadian country icons, look no further than Neil Young. Young is more widely recognized as a folk singer than a country singer but the line between these two genres can often be very fine. Young has also dipped his cowboy boots and long hair in both worlds time and time again. A good introductory album in Young’s case is Harvest due to its strong country rock vibes. This classic record is home to such famous songs as “There’s A World,” “Old Man,” “Harvest” and “Heart of Gold”. Though Neil Young’s nasally voice has earned him a place next to Bob Dylan as far as polarizing voices go, his whine truly compliments his longing and loving ballads.

Along with the assumption that country singers only sing about corn biscuits, there is also the assumption that modern-day country lovers only listen to Carrie Underwood. Contemporary country has its fair share of Justin Bieber equivalents but it’s also home to a bevy of talented, underrated artists.

If you like awesome guitar-rocking girl bands, check out Pistol Annies. The band is composed of country super-stars Miranda Lambert, Ashley Monroe and Angaleena Presley.

Subverting the usual flowery delivery commonly seen in contemporary country, these girls aren’t afraid to get dark and dirty both lyrically and sonically. Though the trio are currently on hiatus, their 2011 album Hell On Heels delivers the definitive Pistol Annies experience, with lyrics about revenge, smoking, drinking whiskey and being flat broke. If you happen to be angry at an ex, Melissa Lambert’s song “Gunpowder and Lead,” from her solo album Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, oughta deliver the goods. There’s a good chance you’ll want to put a denim jacket on and never shun the country genre ever again.

A big part of country music’s enjoyment stems from the context in which it is heard and experienced. Country music on its own is well and good, but the main reason most love it is because it reminds the listener of experiences they’ve had and amazing memories that have come with the music. Country music is about the people you’re with. Here’s some advice: buy a cowboy hat, put on a plaid shirt and buy some tickets to any country music festival or concert you can find. The festivals are mostly in the summer but they’re worth every penny. Ontario’s Boots and Hearts festival is the largest country music festival in Canada, resembling a countrified Osheaga; it lasts three days and is usually during the first week of August. The lineup for the 2016 festival will be out soon, so keep your eyes peeled for that! If you don’t feel you can commit to an entire festival, check out bars which host country nights. A favourite is The Great Canadian Cabin in downtown Ottawa; everyone is in plaid, stomping and dancing around, and the atmosphere is out of this world.

Before venturing into the fading sun and leaving you all to your own devices, here are a few more country names worthy of a listen. For some American contemporary country rock, there are quite a few albums that serve as good gateway material; Brad Paisley’s Time Well Wasted, Kenny Chesney’s Hemingway’s Whiskey and Jason Aldean’s My Kinda Party are all fine records to look out for.  For some more laid-back ballad singer/songwriters, Zac Brown Band’s You Get What You Give, Billy Currington’s Little Bit of Everything and Old Crow Medicine Show’s self-titled album should all be mighty satisfactory.

On that note, enjoy the best country experience: one complete with flannel, whiskey and tailgate parties.

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