There are two types of country music coming to the U.S from Canada.
There’s the big, radio-friendly pop country that sounds just like what’s coming out of Nashville, essentially ‘80s rock with the tiniest bit of twang. It’s dominated by bros wearing backward ballcaps and tight T-shirts, singing only about beer, babes, cars and fishing, and they all sound just the same.
“I’m all boom, boom, boom/
So, get in your car/
And make it go/
Vroom, vroom, vroom.”
That’s an actual lyric from one of the hottest country songs from Canada, Aaron Goodvin’s “Lonely Drum,” which was nominated as single of the year by the Canadian Country Music Association.
It didn’t win. A song that sounds exactly like it won, James Barker’s “Chills,” an undemanding song that repeats the line, “Yeah, I get chills, oh whoa,” 19 times.
The other kind of Canadian country music comes from the actual country, especially the cold, empty, wind-flattened prairies of southern Saskatchewan.
It’s the music of men and women still working the stingy land, still chasing cattle out of coulees on horseback, or waiting tables, building houses, cleaning motel rooms, or selling a little weed. Their stories are told by blue-collar artists whose more truthful lyrics are closer to Hank Williams and Townes Van Zandt than the sound-alike, repetitive, adult nursery rhymes of modern pop country.
Canadian alt-country artists like Corb Lund, Blake Berglund, Belle Plaine, Whitney Rose, Lindi Ortega and Zach Lucky have long been carrying the twang torch in the provinces. In Canada they have a large and growing following, anchoring folk festivals and packing theaters. But, they haven’t yet gotten the listeners they deserve in the U.S.
There are, however, two glimmers of hope for alt-country in both countries. One is that Nashville may have a soul after all, finally taking a shine to outlaws like Chris Stapleton, Sturgill Simpson, Jason Isbell and Margo Price.
The other hope is Colter Wall, a 23-year-old singer/songwriter from Swift Current, Saskatchewan, a lonesome farm and oil town about 50 miles north the Montana border.
Although he’s young, he’s got the weathered baritone of someone who’s been sharing a damp flophouse with Waylon Jennings for about 40 years.
Already, he got a standing ovation from Steve Earle in a Nashville club show, and he’s opened for Lucinda Williams in holy of holies, the Ryman Auditorium. The New Yorker magazine called him one of “the most reflective young country singers of his generation.” Even super producer Rick Rubin is nuts about him, courting him for his American Recordings label.
Wall has managed this rapid rise not by taking alt-country in a new direction, but by taking it back to its folky roots. His new album “Songs of the Plains” is a mix of originals and obscure public domain songs, and you can’t tell which is which. Even with high-powered guests like harmonica legend Mickey Raphael, the songs remain spare and often heartbreaking.
It's the "beautiful language" of the old songs, and the stories, that Wall loves most.
“People don’t talk like that anymore and they don’t write like that,” he said. “As a songwriter, I want to be able to write like that. That's what I'm aiming for.”
Wall is well aware he’s not on the path to filling arenas like Brad Paisley or Carrie Underwood.
“The best music has always been underground anyway,” he said.
Wall’s friend and fellow Saskatchewanian (that can’t be what they call each other) is alt-country artist Blake Berglund, who grew up on a horse farm in the southeast corner of the province. His grandfather was a rodeo pickup man and his brother was a rodeo champion. He himself rode bulls, three in total, before realizing he was more suited to singing about bull riding.
Berglund and his tight band have built a dependable following in Canada and have just started touring more in the American West and South. He has strong words for popular country music, calling it the product of “corporatization,” “deceptive marketing” and even “perverted.” That goes for Canadian pop country, too.
“The trouble with Canadian country is they can’t even do a good job of writing bad songs,” Berglund said in a conversation with The Gazette. “The songs are carbon copies of what’s coming out of the states.”
But, Berglund has a funny way of looking on the sunny side of everything. He believes pop country is so bad that more fans are being pushed to rediscover twang where it has existed all along, in alt-country.
“People are smart. I really believe that,” said Berglund. “I think most people have a default to intelligence and common sense. They can see popular country for what it is and they will get tired of that and will search for authenticity and truth.”
Alt-country will never take over country radio or get the marketing power it deserves. But, alt-country artists like Stapleton, Isbell and Eric Church will continue to break out. And, Canada has a long history of artists breaking out without selling out, like Ian Tyson, Buffy Saint Marie, k.d. lang, Neil Young, Leonard Cohen and Joni Mitchell.
Berglund has been told before by record executives to dumb down his songs. He has responded by writing smarter and smarter songs. His newest record “Realms” isn’t meant to be a huge middle finger to corporate country music, but it may as well be.
The lyrics-driven record owes as much to mystic writers like Joseph Campbell and Robert Graves as it does Townes Van Zandt, Guy Clark and The Byrds.
“They say that there's a silver chord/
Connects us to a higher place/
A lifeline of nourishment/
Protected in a sheet of light,” he sings in the title cut.
That sounds crazy, but Berglund makes it work.
And, there are pure country lyrics like this from “Pretty Good Guy.”
“He's gone and cheated on a couple of his lovers/
He never tells the cops his real name/
So they call him Boss, or Hoss, or Handsome.”
And this from “Crooked Old Earth.”
“Alcohol and broken homes/
The illusions of what we own/
We used up all the dinosaur bones/
In cars that we can't fix."
The goal for a lot of alt-country singers is not necessarily fame, but to make a living and be able to look back in old age and be proud of your work, Berglund said.
The songs of long-dead singers can still make people cry, or hope.
“How is my music going to affect people after I’m dead? That’s my job as a writer, to leave something that outlives me,” he said.