Canadian Alt-Country artists use genre’s past to push it into the future
The Ren, Bria and many more follow in the footsteps of centuries-old traditions while creating something entirely new
Posted 05 October 2021
They say that in order to do a cover well, you have to make it sound like your own song. In this case, Lauren Spear’s dad certainly did them right. While Spear was growing up, her father played Gordon Lightfoot’s “Early Morning Rain” and she was convinced the song was his.
“I just didn’t make the connection that he sang covers,” she laughs during a conversation with Exclaim! “It’s so beautiful. It’s like a whole book in a song. I’ve always loved it, and [Lightfoot is] such an amazing songwriter. “
Now a country singer-songwriter herself, recording under the name Le Ren, Spear tried her hand at “Early Morning Rain” collaborating with Big Thief’s Buck Meek. The duo’s version finds the voices of Meek and Spear intertwining in perfect harmony over a sparse and melancholy guitar line, doubling the tune of the original’s loneliness and nostalgia.
“It was special to do my own version and do it with Buck, who I admire so much,” said Spear.
The duo’s cover art is one of many new ones from today’s new generation of alternative country artists, paying homage to their predecessors while leaving their mark in the genre by playing and recording folk standards and classics. country, which are part of a long tradition.
“Growing up, I played a lot of bluegrass music, and this whole world just covers old songs,” says Spear. “So that was kind of my entry point into music. Everyone has their own version of a standard.”
She is in good company. Torontonian Bria Salmena – also from fellow country classic Orville Peck and post-punks FRIGS – recently launched her new project Bria (alongside FRIGS / Peck, Duncan Hay Jennings) with Country covers, Vol. 1, a six-track EP featuring works by Karen Dalton, Lucinda Williams and Waylon Jennings, while Fiver debuted with their new band Atlantic School of Spontaneous Composition last year with a similar EP. Did you want the country? Flight. 1, covering Willie Nelson, Gene Clark and Johnny Paycheck.
Other notable reshuffles to the canon of other members of the Canadian alternative country renaissance include Alberta-based Skinny Dyck’s cover of Merle Haggard’s “Running Kind”, recorded for his 2020 LP. Get to know Lonesome, and the Quebec / Colorado duo, the Shredneck Brothers version of “Tennessee Mountain Fox Chase”.
But despite having followed in the footsteps of the country’s centuries-old traditions, Salmena and Spear are surprisingly hesitant to marry the genre.
“We’re obviously not traditional country musicians. It’s not about that,” says Salmena, a self-described “alternative artist”. “We don’t pretend to create traditional classical country music either.”
Jennings retorts: “Even though some of the songs we recorded [are] not what you would define as country songs or unwritten or recorded by country artists in quotes …
Likewise, Spear is generally reluctant to categorize his debut LP Leftovers – released on October 15th via Royal Mountain Records – under the name “Americana”.
“I’m pretty often lumped into this genre,” she says. “[It] Immediately fills my mind with images of people wearing bowler hats, so I’ve always been a little put off by that term. “
More importantly, Spear notes: “As a white artist playing music by black artists, I feel like a lot of white musicians have reckoned with their genre and tried to find the roots from where they are. actually comes and realize that they are invited to this house of music. “
Still, the new versions of Le Ren and Bria are packed with characteristic qualities of the genre: sentimentality, heartbreak, and – most importantly – heartbreak. Leftovers‘Your Cup’ and ‘May Hard Times Pass Us By’, for example, are among Le Ren’s most painfully personal works, while Bria’s heartbreaking version of Lucinda Williams’ ‘Fruits of My Labor’ finds the singer merging the original with a slow, emotional blues style with its own echoing post-rock cinematic foundation, creating something that feels entirely new.
“With country music, for me, I think it breaks my heart so well,” says Salmena. “A lot of these songs are heartbreaking songs, and I think people [are] attracted to these kinds of stories because they are [universal]. “
To their credit, the works of this new wave do away with the genre’s more incongruous and ostensibly patriarchal and capitalist tropes, namely the seemingly endless respect for vans, American patriotism, and outright alcoholism.
Artists like Kacey Musgraves, Lil Nas X and Orville Peck and the Yeehaw Agenda that followed in their wake have spent the past three years challenging the straight white boys club of country music, and this new generation of Canadian artists from across the country. alternative country continues to fight the Boots and Hearts ilk of the national community at large. It’s clear that this cult of alternative country musicians chooses their sonic themes with a higher degree of meticulousness, which ultimately works in favor of their own enduring power. It is this quality that makes the music of Country cover, Leftovers and Fiver Did you want the country? damn timeless.
Le Ren’s early days are primarily about the love business – familial, platonic, and romantic, all in equal measure. Spear achieves her own benchmark of timelessness by avoiding reference to “modern technology” (although she is quick to defend artists like Phoebe Bridgers who choose to go this route). Instead, she offers autobiographical “journal entry” observations of her relationships and the thoroughness that goes with them.
“I think these themes are always going to be relevant and are always going to strike a chord,” Spear said. “It’s certainly not something I’m very aware of. I never say to myself, ‘Oh, here’s something that will stay relevant.'”
On the flip side, Bria credits the accessibility of their music to themselves and other artists – like Orville Peck, Lavender Country and even John Waters, with whom Salmena and Jennings recently shared the Colorado Red Rocks scene. – which push the country genre to new frontiers. Welcoming “freaks, queers, punks” into the fold remains a key part of what they set out to do with their music.
Salmena says: “The fluidity of the genre [is] kind of a good thing – just the gender bridging right now. People fuck with all kinds of music. You have all these highways that take people to other things… I think if we had decided to call this EP something else, we wouldn’t necessarily have the same kind of conversations about it. “
Why Country cover, so?
“Because we thought it was funny.”
More Canadian alt-country artists to discover:
A mix of jazz, ragtime and country, Abbott’s latest record, Little cuties, incorporates acoustic and electric guitar, clarinet and bass clarinet, a lot of whistles and lyricism that sits perfectly between those of the Bahamas and Pokey LaFarge. His 2020 album, Bad but good boys, takes a more direct folk approach, like the mountain town where he and four friends have gathered to record and go out.
In September 2021, East Vancouver outlaw group Daisy Garland released their massive 20-track double LP, Open country. The ambitious release highlights the intersection of dark bar music for late night benders and creeper tunes for ghost hunting on abandoned farms.
The project’s seventh full album, 2021’s Fiver with the Atlantic school of spontaneous composition, finds star Simone Schmidt once again teaming up with the Nova Scotia Improvisation Unit, dropping from Did you want the country? into something higher – the happy medium between psychedelic folk-country and Vince Guaraldi’s soundtracks.
Lauren Spear’s folk quartet – which sold homemade knitted hats to fund their debut album – was inspired by Dolly Parton, Linda Ronstadt and Emmylou Harris Trio when they had a great 2020 Gathering. The group has yet to reunite on a new batch of tracks, but hopefully their absence can be attributed to pandemic restrictions and not a lack of interest.
The Unemployed Pudding
Self-proclaimed “gay country” banjo duo Leh Deuling and Lila Platt, Unemployed Pudding (named after the staple dessert for the unemployed of the Depression), marked their return to live music this year in performing from a canoe on the Lachine Canal. Their 2020 record What would Dolly do takes nods from the titular legend, but throws drastically progressive politics and rippling harmonies into the mix.
Combining mandolin, banjo, double bass and guitar, roommates / comrades / brothers Jean-Baptiste Cardineau and Cédric Thuya Boivin (joined by Émi Lou Johnson) bring the strings at lightning speed in 2021 Magütt Hochelaga sessions EP.
Describing himself as “an equal revivalist and visionary,” veteran Prairie songwriter Ryan Dyck creates his comeback-inspired honky tonk sound using pedal steel and twangy, melancholy lyricism on his debut album. Get to know Lonesome.
The West Coast Five Pieces combine the honky tonk sounds of steel guitar, banjo, and fingerboards with medieval limerick-inspired lyrics and a healthy sense of humor on Songs to glorify the peasant and his tractor. On the middle jangler of the album “Condo”, the group criticizes the situation of terminal capitalism in their home province, which makes it impossible to get a beer when “your favorite bar is now a condo” .