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The Western spirit of modern Canadian country

You might be surprised to learn Canada has a thriving country music scene. Or maybe that seems obvious for a nation founded on an industry of fur trappers and traders. After all, the Calgary Stampede and Rodeo attracts more a million visitors annually. I hadn't thought about it until I saw a singer at Washburn University in high school. She said she'd moved to Nashville from Canada to be a ghostwriter for big stars and she wasn't alone.

In recent years, I've noticed quite a few Canadian country artists crossover successfully to the U.S. They may not have swept the Canadian Country Music Awards, save for Lund. But there's a crop of country artists who have made a name for themselves online, on soundtracks and on tour stateside. The library just so happens to own several of their albums so let's venture up north for some western tunes.

Colter Wall Little Songs (CD | Hoopla)

CD cover cowboy on a horseColter Wall defies his young age with one of the oldest voices in modern country. He recorded his first EP at the age of 20 with help from the band below. He's the son of Saskachewan's 14th premier, which must have helped. But he earned his spurs by working as an actual cowboy when COVID hit. His music's appeared on the soundtracks for Yellowstone, Hell or High Water and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.

2023's Little Songs is his fourth album after being signed by Johnny Cash's storied producer Rick Rubin. While his first albums indulged the tradition of country murder ballads, this one is reflective of his time on the Canadian plains. Mostly acoustic and slower paced, Wall's writing is full of longing for life's simple pleasures as he croons, "I don't care what's cool or where it's at."

What sells this from a 28-year-old is his incredible voice. Truly, you hear the toll of every cigarette and kick of dust he ever breathed. His baritone register is unlike any other in country today, sounding like well-worn leather or a man with way more decades lived than Wall.

The Dead South Good Company | Chains & Stakes (CD)

CD cover tie, beard, bull scullThis Saskatchewan group got their start as a two-piece rock band with grunge stylings. With some reflection on their early influences and the addition of two more members, they switched gears to bluegrass. A formative thought was, "What if we played heavy metal licks on banjo?" And that stompin' spirit lives on more than a decade later and a few more personnel changes. 

CD cover drawing western buildings with a coffin floating out of a churchThe Dead South present their fiery brand of bluegrass with a touch of southern gothic style. For example, they dress in classic black and white attire with beards and wide-brimmed hats. Their album art, titles and lyrics reflect that heightened, mythic outlaw country influence. They've been called Mumford & Sons' evil twin. But it's their energetic live show that's made them such a hit at festivals around the world (and the Grand Ole Opry). They weave their ribald tales with hollered harmonies, a running upright bass, fiddle, banjo and occasional steel guitar.

Corb Lund El Viejo (CD) | Things That Can't Be Undone (Hoopla)

CD cover Corb sittle on a sofa with an acoustic guitarHailing from Alberta, Corb Lund started with rock roots similar to The Dead South. His early Black Sabbath fandom still informs a versatility in his rockabilly swing. But his family's Utah ancestry endeared him to western storytellers like Marty Robbins. By the time his Hurtin' Albertans band moved to Austin, Texas, the country influence had put the twang in his guitar for good.

CD cover white horse saddle on black2024's El Viejo is a tribute to his late mentor "old man" Ian Tyson and the title track dedicated to him. In fact, Colter Wall covered a Tyson song on Little Songs, such was his influence. El Viejo was recorded entirely in Lund's living room using only acoustic instruments. This unadorned setting allows the stories of gamblers and cowboys to take center stage. Lund's boyish vocals and thick Canadian accent play against his clever storytelling and assured instrumentation.


Country's deep roots

Not unlike the way Canada's folk artists mirrored the Greenwich Village scene in the '60s, country music has found deep roots in our northern neighbors. Despite stateside crossover appeal, these three artists show there's still a tight-knit kinship in that Canadian music scene. Give these three a try if you're looking to break out from the radio-friendly U.S. country fare for something a little more traditional and outlaw. Who knows, you just might hear them in the next season of Yellowstone.

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