Country music | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Country music

Country music. Popular music genre of southern US origin, also called 'hillbilly' (1920s and 1930s) and 'country and western' (1940s and 1950s). Its roots have been traced to the folksongs and ballads brought to North America by Anglo-Celtic immigrants and preserved especially in the southern USA.

Popular music genre of southern US origin, also called 'hillbilly' (1920s and 1930s) and 'country and western' (1940s and 1950s). Its roots have been traced to the folksongs and ballads brought to North America by Anglo-Celtic immigrants and preserved especially in the southern USA. (See Bill C. Malone, Country Music, U.S.A., Austin, Texas, 1968, for further discussion of the folk background of country music. See also the EMC entries Folk music and Anglo-Canadian Folk music, for a discussion of this tradition in Canada.) With those folksongs and ballads country music shares a melodic and harmonic simplicity. Initially it was sung in the high, nasal voice characteristic of the traditional singer of the southern USA, although in later years country singing styles have diversified under the influence of other pop music genres. The expansion and evolution of instrumental accompaniment (guitar, banjo, fiddle, string bass, steel guitar, dobro guitar, and drums) were major factors in the transition of country music from a folk to a pop form.

Early History in Canada

Country music was introduced to Canadian audiences by US radio. Early shows on WBAP, Fort Worth (beginning in 1923), WLS, Chicago ('WLS Barn Dance' 1924), and WSM, Nashville ('Grand Ole Opry' 1925), as well as on the later (1933) and influential WWVA, Wheeling, WV, were heard in many parts of Canada. Country music soon was broadcast on Canadian radio, beginning with George Wade and His Cornhuskers on CFRB, Toronto, in 1928, and Don Messer on CFBO, Saint John, NB, in 1929.

The US fiddlers Eck Robertson and Henry Gilliand are cited among the first US hillbilly performers to be recorded (Victor, 1922) for commercial release. However, French-Canadian traditional instrumentalists had recorded as early as 1918 (eg, the violoneux J.B. Roy for Victor). By 1925 the Apex label (see Compo) carried 78s of several English-Canadian traditional musicians, including the fiddlers Percy Scott, Dennis O'Hara, and Jock McDonald, and the harmonica and ukulele player Billy Russell. In the USA the music underwent its first period of popularization in the late 1920s, as evident in the great success of such performers as Vernon Dalhart, Jimmie Rodgers ('The Singing Brakeman,' country music's first star, and an influence on Wilf Carter and especially Hank Snow), the (US) Carter Family, and several instrumental groups.

In 1932 Wilf Carter was recorded in the new commercial style by A. Hugh Joseph for Canadian Victor. His 'My Swiss Moonlight Lullabye' was a national hit, the first in Canada recorded by a Canadian. His success prompted Victor to record other Canadians, including George Wade (1933), Hank Snow (1936), and Hank LaRiviere (1941). However, their records' success was limited by the small and unfocussed nature of the domestic market. Thus for many years personal appearances and radio work sustained Canadian country performers, including such regionally popular bands as the Gully Jumpers, Charlie Hannigan and His Mountaineers, Billy Hole and the Livewires in Toronto, Bert Anstice and His Mountaineers, who were heard on the CRBC from Montreal, and Andy DeJarlis Red River Mates in Winnipeg. The Corn Huskers were likely the first country band to tour nationally - from the Maritimes to the prairies, during the 1930s.

Growth of Popularity and Diversification of Style

Several factors (discussed in Malone, chapter 6) led to the music's increased popularity in the USA: the social upheaval of the Depression and of World War II, which brought people of varying backgrounds together and resulted in a mixing and levelling of musical tastes; the rise of Hollywood films starring such 'singing cowboys' as Gene Autry, Tex Ritter, and Roy Rogers, whose styles were tempered purposely to appeal to an urban audience; and the adoption of some superficialities of the country genre by Tin Pan Alley songwriters. Canada reflected these trends, which lasted into the 1950s.

Carter, Snow, and Earl Heywood continued to be popular, and other performers also emerged between the late 1930s and the early 1950s, including the Bunkhouse Boys, the Hillbilly Jewels (with Joe Brown, later patriarch of the Family Brown) and Tex Cochrane in the Maritimes), Sid Plamondor and His Western Pals in Ontario, the Happy Wanderers, Cammie Howard and His Western Five, and Mac Beattie in Ottawa, Jim Magill and the Northern Ramblers in Toronto, Abbe Andrews and His Canadian Ranch Boys in St Catharines, Ont, Bob Boyd and His Red River Playboys in Winnipeg, Sleepy and Swede and the Tumbleweeds in Saskatoon(see the Rhythm Pals), Cactus Mack and His Saddle Tramps and.Vic Siebert and His Sons of the Saddle in Calgary, and King Ganam and His Sons of the West in Edmonton. Singers included Stu Davis, Allen Erwin ('The Calgary Kid'), Bob ('Mr Sunshine') King, Myrna Lorrie, Bev Monro, Jimmy Arthur Ordge, Stu Phillips, Orval Prophet, Keray Regan, Donn Reynolds ('Canada's Singing Yodeller'), Oral Scheer (b Madawaska, Ont 1917, d Ottawa 29 Oct 2004), Scotty Stevenson, Billy Whelan, and The Canadian Sweethearts (Lucille Starr and Bob Regan).

Several of Canada's leading fiddlers also began their careers during this period (see Fiddling). Western swing, a hybrid of country music and jazz, popularized in the 1930s in the USA by Bob Wills, Milton Brown, and others, had its Canadian followers during the 1940s in Andrews, Ganam, Plamondor, and Siebert.

In Quebec the rise in popularity of country music (based on US styles rather than traditional French-Canadian music and comprising a repertoire of original songs and translations of US hits.) was marked by the first recordings (mid-1940s) of Paul Brunelle and Willie Lamothe, The earlier songs of La Bolduc and Le Soldat (Roland) Lebrun also bore some resemblance, in feeling and topic, to those of country music. In La Chanson québécoise (Montreal 1974) Benoît L'Herbier wrote: 'country music's popularity in Quebec is easily explained. Like the average American, Quebecers, many of them farmers, country folk, and close to the soil, experienced the same feelings in the face of life, existence and the world... Their world of simplicity mourned the loss of the La Bolduc and lingered over Le Soldat Lebrun. Country music seemed to them a logical continuation. Moreover, "cowboy songs" possessed a certain folk flavour adapted to a "modern" climate'. Other pioneers in the 1940s and 1950s of country music in Quebec, included Bobby Hachey, Marcel Martel, Paul Ménard, Roger Miron, Ti-Blanc Richard, and Oscar Thiffault. Later performers have included Lévis Bouliane, André Breton, Denis Champoux, Julie and Paul Daraîche, Armand Desrochers, Elaine, Regis Gagné, Georges Hamel, André Hébert, Marie King, Carole Laure, Renée Martel, Patrick Norman, Claude Patry, Larry Robichaud, Jerry and Jo'Anne (Robitaille), Gildor Roy, and Roch Voisine. Evidence of country music's popularity in Quebec is the success of the Festival western de St-Tite, established at St-Tite, near Shawinigan, in 1968.

Elsewhere in Canada, the Maritime provinces and Newfoundland have had similarly self-sufficient country music scenes. Many of their performers have drawn on local topics and regional folk traditions for their songs and on the work of fellow eastern Canadian country artists for their styles. Notable figures include Omar Blondahl (Newfoundland) and Charlie MacKinnon (Cape Breton). Some eastern Canadian performers of the 1970s ('Stompin' Tom' Connors, Harry Hibbs, Dick Nolan, Roy Payne, Michael T. Wall, and others) capitalized on their backgrounds and have enjoyed popularity elsewhere in the country where migrants from the eastern provinces have settled - in particular, Toronto.

The popularity of country music declined in the mid-1950s - in part as a result of the rise of rock 'n' roll - but it recovered ground in the 1960s by integrating elements of other pop styles. Several artists (in Canada Tommy Hunter, the Mercey Brothers, Stu Phillips, the Rhythm Pals, and others) turned from traditional to more sophisticated accompaniment and to a less characteristically 'country' style of singing. Conversely, John Allan Cameron, Shirley Eikhard, Rita MacNeil, and Anne Murray, and others, though not specifically country performers, have shown a country influence and have been popular with country audiences.

The fusion of country songs and instrumentation with rock rhythms and attitudes, a development during the late 1960s in the music of the Byrds, Poco, and other US groups, was foreshadowed by Ian and Sylvia's Great Speckled Bird and later adopted in Canada by the Good Brothers, Ronnie Hawkins, Danny Hooper, Murray McLauchlan, Sue Medley, Matt Minglewood, One Horse Blue, Colleen Peterson, Prairie Oyster, Rock 'n' Horse, and Jesse Winchester, for some or all of their careers.

Mainstream country music also flourished during the 1970s, 1980s and early 1990s in the hands of established performers and of such newer artists as Carroll Baker, Bootleg, Marie Bottrell, Canadian Zephyr, Glory-Anne Carriere, Terry Carisse, Errol Ranville the C-Weed Band, Eddie Eastman, the Family Brown, Gary Fjellgaard, George Fox, Gilles Godard, Dallas Harms, the Midnite Rodeo Band, Anne Murray, Chris Nielson, Anita Perras, Ronnie Prophet, Donna Ramsey and Lee Roy, R. Harlan Smith, South Mountain, David Thompson, and Laura Vinson.

Several singers and bands in the 1980s, among them Blue Rodeo, Ray Condo and the Hard Rock Goners, the Cowboy Junkies, the Dots, Grevious Angels, Junior Gone Wild, Rang Tango, the Razorbacks, and most notably k.d. lang, brought new elements to traditional country styles, or country influences to rock and pop, and introduced the music to a wider audience. lang also participated in country music's neo-traditionalist movement of the 1980s, as did the Great Western Orchestra.


Though the major recording companies in Canada, beginning with Victor (RCA Ltd) and Compo (on its Apex and Point labels), have included country performers on their rosters (see also Capitol, CBS Records, London, and Quality), only smaller and often regionally oriented companies of varying longevity have devoted themselves exclusively to the genre. These include Al Reusch's Aragon Records (founded New Westminster, BC, 1947), which recorded Stu Davis, Cowboy Joe and the Salmon River Boys, Keray and Bob Regan, Buddy Reynolds, the Rhythm Pals (with Juliette), Vic Siebert, and others; George Taylor's Rodeo Records (1951), which later introduced the Banff label and took over the Celtic line which had been started in 1933; Jack Hosier's Marathon Records (Toronto 1970, taken over in 1975 by Lonnie Salazar's Condor Music), with a roster including Dick Damron, Tommy Hunter, Julie Lynn, and Marg Osburne; Gary Buck's Broadland Records (Toronto 1971); 'Stompin' Tom' Connors' Boot Records (Toronto 1971); R. Harlan Smith's Royalty Records (Edmonton 1974); Gilles Godard's Book Shop label (Cornwall, Ont, 1980), and Brian Ferriman's Savannah Records (Toronto 1983, with a roster of Terry Carisse, Gary Fjellgaard, the Good Brothers, Matt Minglewood, Anita Perras and Tim Taylor, and Michelle Wright). In Quebec Bonanza and Trans World have had large country rosters. The Thunder Bay impresario and songwriter Don Grashey (d Sept 2005) established three country labels in succession over a 30-year period, Zero, Gaiety, and Golden Eagle, and has played an influential role in the careers of the singers Loretta Lynn, Myrna Lorrie, Carroll Baker, and, in the late 1980s, Cindi Cain. Other independent Canadian labels devoted in whole or in part to country artists have included MBS (operated by the Mercey Brothers), Roto-Noto, Snocan, and Stony Plain. During the 1980s a German label, Cattle, began to issue LPs of recordings from the 1950s by Kidd Baker, Tex Cochrane, Eleanor Dahl, 'Dixie' Bill Hilton and his Calgary Range Riders, Smilin' Johnnie and His Prairie Pals, Reg Smith, Billy Whelan, and others. Among Canadian publishers, BMI Canada, Canadian Music Sales, Empire Music (Sharrell Music Publishers), Jarman, and G.V. Thompson have included country material in their catalogues.

Radio remained a valuable performance medium for country artists until it turned in the mid-1950s to the extensive use of records (largely of US origin, although the CRTC Canadian content regulations introduced in 1970 altered the balance of programming to some extent). Besides shows starring Don Messer, King Ganam, Cammie Howard, and later Tommy Hunter on the CBC network, many country music shows were heard on independent stations. These included the announcer W.D. 'Billy' Hassell's program (1930s) on CJOR, Vancouver; the 'CKNX Barn Dance', fl 1937-63 in Wingham, Ont; 'Bill Rae's Roundup' (1940s) on CKNW, New Westminster, BC; 'Fiddler's Fling' (1940s; see Orval Prophet) and 'The Happy Wanderers' (1950s, with Joe Brown and Bob King) on CFRA, Ottawa; and 'Main Street Jamboree' (1960s, with the comedian Gordie Tapp, later a star on NBC TV's 'Hee Haw' from Nashville) on CHML, Hamilton. One result of live broadcasts was the phenomenon of announcer-singers - Ted Daigle (CKBY, Ottawa), Earl Heywood (CKNX, Wingham), Ray Kovisto (CKCY, Sudbury, Ont), Stu Phillips, and others. The Toronto station CFGM, the first (1968) to program country music exclusively, produced the syndicated 'Opry North'. Established in 1976 in emulation of Nashville's Grand Ole Opry, it continued until CFGM curtailed its country music policy in 1990. A survey of some 600 Canadian AM and FM radio stations in 1991(Contact: the essential Canadian music business directory, Toronto 1991) found more than 115 programming some percentage of country music.

Country music has had a small place on Canadian TV from the outset, beginning in 1952 with the CBC's 'Holiday Ranch'. Other CBC shows followed, drawing on the established artists - Messer, Phillips, Ganam, Hunter, and Lorrie - for their stars. 'The Tommy Hunter Show' celebrated its 25th annversary in 1989. The later CTV network has presented several short-lived series, including 'Cross Canada Barndance' from Halifax, and programs starring King Ganam and Ronnie Prophet. Privately syndicated programs have included Harry Hibbs' 'At the Caribou' (1969-75), 'Don Messer's Jubilee' (1969-73), and 'The George Hamilton IV Show' (1972-9), all from CHCH TV, Hamilton, and a succession of series starring the Family Brown and Ronnie Prophet from CJOH, Ottawa. Many performers have had local or regional series: Louis Bilodeau ('Soirée canadienne' on CHLT TV, Sherbrooke, Que, 1960), Gary Buck, Jerry and Jo'Anne, Willie Lamothe, Tex Lecor, André Lejeune ('À la canadienne' on CFTM, Montreal, 1972-7), Lorrie, Ti-Blanc Richard, Ray St Germain, Brian Sklar, Ian Tyson, Sylvia Tyson, and others.

Documentary films have been made about Jean Carignan, Wilf Carter (Wilf Carter in Calgary, 1988), Cal Cavendish (Cavendish Country, NFB 1973), Stompin' Tom, Willie Lamothe, Don Messer, Anne Murray, Monsieur Pointu, and others. Documentary surveys include Country Music, Montreal '71 and the NFB's Every Saturday Night (1973, about the Badlanders from Drumheller, Alta, a band formed in the 1930s). The country music milieu has served as the background for the Canadian dramatic film The Hard Part Begins (Cinepix 1973), based on the career of singer-songwriter Cliff Carroll, and for other films starring Lamothe and Marcel Martel.

Press coverage of country music was limited for many years to occasional newspaper and magazine articles. Canadian columns have appeared in US publications, though significantly a column published in the 1950s in Country Song Roundup often referred to the Canadian music as 'folk music'. Latterly several Canadian publications have specialized in the subject - eg, Country Gentlemen (Toronto 1965), Country Music Vanguard (originally The Underground; Montreal 1967-9, 1971-87), World of Country Music(Toronto 1972-3), Country Music News (Langley, BC, 1972-4), Down Home (Orangeville, Ont, 1976-81), Country Music Connection (Edmonton, 1976), Fan Fair Country Music Magazine (St Catharines, Ont, 1980-1, latterly Jamboree Country Music ), Capital Country News (established in Ottawa in 1980 and renamed Country Music News in 1982), Country (begun in Toronto in 1989), and Country Wave (established in Vancouver in 1991). All have divided their coverage to varying degrees between Canadian and US performers.

Charts of country hits have been compiled and published by RPM, The Record, and Country Music News. RPM and The Record, as well as Billboard (New York), are surveyed in Ted Kennedy's Country Canada (Kelowna, BC, 1989). Biographies have been written by or about Carter, Hunter, Lamothe, Messer, Patrick Norman, and Ti-Blanc Richard. A comprehensive history is included in the CRTC study The Country Music Industry in Canada (Ottawa 1986).

Scholary consideraton was first given in Canada to country music at Memorial U through the research and publications program of its Folklore and Language Archive. The broadened scope of ethnomusicological research in the 1980s has brought the subject under further investigation. Tim B. Rogers and Neil V. Rosenberg (see Bibliography) have worked extensively in this area; Rogers contributed an historical column, 'Back to the 50's with Doc Rogers,' 1988-9 to Country Music News.

The growth of country music in Canada led to the rise of several organizations and events in the 1970s and 1980s. The Canadian Academy of Country Music Entertainment was established in 1975, renamed the Academy of Country Music Entertainment (ACME) in 1976, and the Canadian Country Music Association (CCMA) in 1986. RPM initiated the Big Country Awards in 1975 They were discontinued when ACME/CCMA established its own awards in 1982, but restored by RPM in 1985. Other awards have been organized by associations in several provinces - eg, the Manitoba Association of Country Arts and British Columbia Country Music awards, both established in 1978. In Quebec, The Willie, named in on honour Willie Lamothe, were introduced by the Academie country du Québec, founded in 1987. Both the Juno and Félix awards have had country music categories from the outset, the Junos for performers and, 1965-74 only, recordings, the Felix Awards for recordings.

Country artists also have been honored by 'halls of fame' at national, provincial or regional levels. The CCMA Hall of Honor, was established in 1984 with Wilf Carter, Tommy Hunter, Wm Harold Moon (of BMI Canada), and Orval Prophet as its inaugural inductees, followed by Don Messer and Hank Snow (1985), Papa Joe Brown (1986), Lucille Starr (1987), Jack Feeney (of RCA, 1988), Don Grashey and Ian Tyson (1989), and Ron Sparling and Gordie Tapp (1990). The Canadian Country Music Hall of Fame, initiated in 1981 by Gary Buck, opened in Kitchener, Ont, in 1989, inducting Brown, Carter, Messer, Prophet, Snow, Starr, Tyson, Maurice Bolyer, Charlie Chamberlain, Al Cherny, King Ganam, Ray Griff, Dallas Harms, Earl Heywood, Myrna Lorrie, the Mercey Brothers, Bob Nolan, Marg Osborne, the Rhythm Pals, Gordie Tapp in the performers category, and Feeney, Moon, Larry Delaney (editor of Country Music News), Don Grashey, and Hank Smith (first president of the Canadian Academy of Country Music Entertainment) in the 'builders' category. Halls of fame were established in the Ottawa Valley in 1981 and New Brunswick in 1983; others were in place in Alberta and Saskatchewan by 1990. While the Canadian Country Music Hall of Fame has its own exhibition facilities, other hall of fame honors are in most cases only titular.

Among other Canadian organizations, the Oldtime Country Music Club of Canada, was established by Bob Fuller at the Blue Angel, a Montreal bar opened in 1966. In addition to the CCMA award ceremonies, and the attendant Country Music Week activities, annual events of note include several festivals and competitions. The Big Valley Jamboree, started in 1983 at Craven, Sask, has drawn audiences of 50,000 for US and Canadian performers, making it one of the most significant country festivals internationally. Among smaller events, Ivan Daines' All Star Country Music Picknic and Rodeo, established in 1977 at Innisfail, Alta., and Wayne Rostad's Gatineau Clog, founded in 1980 at Tucker Lake, near Low. Que., have been popular, as have the Canadian Open Old Time Fiddlers' Contest, begun in 1951, and the Canadian Open Country Singing Contest, started in 1975 at Simcoe, Ont. Country music also has been heard at several folk festivals as part of a trend in programming during the late 1980s toward 'roots' music.

Canadian Characteristics

Canadian country music generally has followed the US model, though it has developed some distinctive characteristics. Because ethnic cultures in Canada have maintained their individuality and preserved their languages and customs to a greater degree than have their counterparts in the USA, European folk and popular musics have had an influence on country music, especially in the West. These influences are evident in the music of the accordionists Gaby Haas (Czechoslovakian), Walter Ostanek (German), and Olaf Sveen (Norwegian), and the fiddlers Al Cherny and Victor Pasowisty (Ukrainian), and in the Carlton Showband, Larry McKee and the Shandonairs, and the Irish Rovers (Irish), and the The Emeralds, the Polka Dots, the Western Senators, and D-Drifters-5 (eastern European).

Canadian country vocal styles also differ from US ones in their reflection of Canadian regional speech accents. Canadian singers generally have a lower-pitched, less nasal sound than their US counterparts, with clearer enunciation, and less drawling and slurring. The Canadian style, in turn, particularly that of Hank Snow and Wilf Carter, has influenced several US singers, including Johnny Cash. The subjects common to US country songs - what George Hamilton IV has called 'cheating songs about booze, broads and slippin' around' (Toronto Globe and Mail, 4 May 1974) - are not absent from Canadian songs. However, a greater number of Canadian songs follow in the ballad tradition of North American folk music. As many of these songs also appeal to a non-country audience, there is in Canada a unique group of performers and composers (without a significant US counterpart) which is popular with both country and urban folk audiences. Among these artists are Willie P. Bennett, Roy Forbes, the Good Brothers, Gordon Lightfoot, Murray McLauchlan, Colleen Peterson, Bob Ruzicka, Ian Tyson, Sylvia Tyson, Valdy, and Sneezy Waters, some of whom shaped their efforts in later years to country tastes in view of the limited radio exposure available to folk music. In turn, the influence of contemporary folk music may be heard in the songs of the country artists Dick Damron and Gary Fjellgaard.

Many Canadian country songs have been recorded by US performers. The most popular among them include 'Bluebird on Your Windowsill' (Elizabeth Clarke), 'Canadian Pacific' (Ray Griff), 'Countryfied' (Dick Damron), 'Four Strong Winds' (Ian Tyson), 'The Ghost of Bras d'Or' (Charlie MacKinnon), 'I'm Movin' On' (Hank Snow), 'The Morning After Baby Let Me Down' (Griff), 'Paper Rosie' (Dallas Harms), 'Out Among the Stars' (Adam Mitchell), 'Please Don't Go' (Jackie Rae),'Ribbon of Darkness' (Gordon Lightfoot),'Shutters and Boards' (Scott Turner with Audie Murphy), 'Snowbird' (Gene MacLellan), 'Someone Loves You Honey' (Don Devaney), 'Tumbling Tumbleweeds' (Bob Nolan), and 'When I Dream' (Sandy Mason-Theoret). Several other Canadians have had success at home and abroad as songwriters, including Lee Bach, Barry Brown (Family Brown), the team of Terry Carisse (with Bruce Rawlins and others), J.K. (John Ken) Gulley, Ron Irving, and Cyril Rawson.

Among Canadian-born country performers and songwriters who have had successful US careers are Wilf Carter (as 'Montana Slim'), Don Devaney, Sonny Green, Ray Griff, Ernie Hagar, Bob Nolan, Stu Phillips, Ronnie Prophet, Bob Regan and Lucille Starr, Hank Snow, and Scott Turner. Neil Young has made country music one of his several interests, and toured and recorded in a such a setting in the mid-1980s. Other Canadians have had hit records in the USA, but have maintained (or returned to) Canada as their home, among them Gary Buck, Tommy Hunter, k.d. lang, Myrna Lorrie, Anne Murray, Orval Prophet, and Joyce Smith ('Leave It on Your Mind' 1961). In turn, US-born performers to live, work extensively, or record in Canada include Hal 'Lone Pine' Breau and his wife Betty Cody, Ronnie Hawkins, Tom Russell, and North Carolina-born George Hamilton IV, who has been, through his recordings and TV show, an ardent supporter of Canadian country music.

Many Canadians also have found followings in Europe: Carroll Baker, Dick Damron, Dallas Harms, and others began touring there in the mid-1970s, and Lucille Starr and artists associated with the Savannah label (Gary Fjellgaard, the Good Brothers, Anita Peras, etc) made the first of several excusions in the late 1980s. In the early 1990s lang and Murray maintained their international standing and several new singers and groups had begun to generate some US interest, among them Sharon Anderson, Blue Rodeo, Eagle Feather, George Fox, Prairie Oyster, Brian Sklar, Michelle Wright, and Lori Yates.

See also Bluegrass, Native North Americans in Canada, non-traditional music

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