Editor’s Note: see the three previous reflections in this series on country music and American values: “3 Reasons Why I Like Country Music,” “Where Were You When the World Stopped Turning?” “Why Politics and Music Are Like Oil and Water.”
When it comes to Canadian country music, one may legitimately wonder: why has Canada produced no equivalent of an American country great? Where are our Tim McGraws and Alan Jacksons, our Dolly Partons and Reba McEntires?
Perhaps an insecure relation to homeland has something to do with the matter. True country music is nothing if not committed to honoring the ordinary people who live on the land and work it, who produce its crops and foodstuffs, who run the shops and the greasy spoons, who drive the trucks and man the factories; it celebrates their lives as the backbone of the nation. Canadian country does this rarely.
It is not so much that we are devoid of national pride and patriotic feeling, but that our tendency is more toward a native chauvinism that is limiting in its expression—of the “American woman, stay away from me” variety that propelled The Guess Who into the spotlight. It is difficult to build an authentic tradition on rejection of another culture. One thinks of Neil Young’s put-downs of the American south as racist, “bullwhip crackin’” and “cross burning” in “Southern Man” and “Alabama,” appropriately mocked in Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Sweet Home Alabama.” Young later came to regret his hectoring manner, but the priggish self-satisfaction inherent in those lyrics expresses a great deal about Canadian attitudes.
At the same time, Canadian country singers cannot help but be aware that the big market is south of the border: as a result, the expression of national sentiment is compromised by ambition, the desire and felt need to live in America or to break through the Billboard ceiling, and the natural reorientation of subject matter and perspective thus produced. The legendary Hank Snow, in many ways the quintessential Canadian country singer, talented and successful, was born and raised in the Maritimes, but migrated to Nashville in 1945, eventually becoming an American citizen, and seems more American than Canadian in musical feel and texture—despite his lyrics of praise and longing for his “cherished” Nova Scotia (“My Nova Scotia Home”). The one exception to this rule I’m familiar with is Rompin’ Ronnie Hawkins, who left his home in Arkansas and relocated to Ontario; although he received the 1984 Juno Award as Canada’s best Country Male Vocalist, Hawkins is more rockabilly than country.
The desire to be part of the American experience usually requires avoidance of particular Canadian place names and contexts. Think easy-listening Anne Murray, with her multiple awards and soulful love songs, and country-lite Shania Twain’s spunky paeans to female empowerment—nothing distinctly Canadian (or country actually) about them. Then there’s Tommy Hunter, a country icon back in the good old days but basically a showman, whose popular TV program, though promoting Canadian talent, was largely peopled by American musicians.
In addition, many of Canada’s major singers, country, folk, pop, ballad, or hybrid—Gordon Lightfoot, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Céline Dion, Bruce Cockburn, k.d. lang, etc.—align ideologically and politically with the soft left, making them temperamentally unsuited to the more robust and fervent national tributes that are the hallmark of American country songs with their celebratory ring of downhome feeling.
Leonard Cohen’s “Democracy” (“Democracy is coming to the U.S.A.”) has some claim to being a song of the people—or at any rate a communal hymn to the beautiful losers among us—but it is so bizarre as a serious expression of human salvation as to be somewhat disconcerting (though it’s still a good song qua song); after all, the United States is one of the few countries in the world where, for all its flaws, a flourishing democracy does exist (or at any rate, did until recently). Ian and Sylvia (e.g., “Four Strong Winds”) and the prolific and much-admired Stompin’ Tom Connors (e.g., “Bud the Spud,” “The Hockey Song”) hew about as close to a sense of land, place and people as I am aware of, but can hardly be thought of as nationalistic heroes of the American country and western stripe. Stompin’ Tom (not to be confused with Rompin’ Ron), whom I tend to regard as country/folk’s version of poet Robert Service (aka, “the bard of the Yukon,” best known for his “The Cremation of Sam McGee,” brilliantly read by Johnny Cash) deals more in borderline parody, in the amusing and the anecdotal, rather than in unabashed love of the land and the people.
Among younger performers who skirt the margins of the territory, Dallas Smith does a kind of country/rock, but sounds on the whole rather generic, more like a Tim McGraw or Ronnie Dunn wannabe. You’ll never see him in a cowboy hat, he comments, disingenuously, in order to avoid “contrivance.” But Smith is no more Canadian in his music than the people he resembles, comparing, for example, in his recent “Tippin’ Point,” the sparks of love, not to July 1rst (Canada Day) but to the 4th of July. The Manitoba group Doc Walker is sorta country/rock (“Good Day to Ride,” “Country Girl”), but scarcely distinguishable from other merely competent performers, and, like Smith, very American rather than Canadian in style and substance.
So our patriotic or national feeling splits in two conflicting directions, characterized by an aggressive anti-Americanism on the one hand and a hankering to profit from or become part of the American experience on the other. When it comes to genuine pride of place, some of the attitudes and sentiments associated with American country music seem, in Canada, to have moved into other genres. Take, for instance, the immensely talented satiric duo Bowser and Blue. They work in another style entirely, but their perforations of Canadian tics and mannerisms betray a real affection for Canada irrespective of the political nonsense and sanctimonious assumptions that typify us (e.g., “Curling”; ‘Twas the Scots that Built this Country”); indeed, Ricky Blue’s train-whistle harmonica, in timbre and dexterity reminiscent of Charlie McCoy, conveys the loneliness and distance of this vast country. Bowser and Blue are as good in their way as Weird Al Yankovic or Remy Munasifi, with the added dimension of underlying solicitude and warmth for their subjects. But as I say, this is a radically different realm.
It seems there is something in the Canadian cultural sensibility that militates against the development of a strong and ubiquitous country patriotism. Given that Canadian nationalism has always been most unembarrassed and assertive in its anti-American animus, perhaps it is simply impossible for Canadian country musicians to draw on the vocabulary, cadences, staple themes, and sentiment of American country’s nation-loving songs. There is often a sense of the forlorn, of loss and evanescence that separates Canadian country music from its more festive and muscular American counterpart. “The good times are all gone,” Ian and Sylvia sing in “Four Strong Winds,” a melancholy anthem that defines, to a considerable extent, what Canadians feel about the land.
For a contemporary example, one need look no further than Blue Rodeo, considered by many among our cognoscenti to be possibly the finest Canadian band: “Hasn’t Hit Me Yet,” irrespective of its senseless lyrics, is similarly charged with sadness, a longing for something not quite articulate, in which the snow falling on Lake Ontario becomes, in the song’s Coda, the snows swirling around the speaker’s heavy heart. Affiliation with the land, in such music, can only be experienced as a result of pain and loss (just as Hank Snow, as previously mentioned, expresses his love for Nova Scotia as the place to which he returns for “sanctuary,” but not as the place in which he lives).
Not unlike what Margaret Atwood noted of Canadian literature in her landmark Survival: A Thematic Guide to Canadian Literature, Canadian country musicians seem to manifest a “will to lose which is as strong and pervasive as the Americans’ will to win,” a mournful conviction of not only the necessity but even the desirability and moral superiority of losing, of achieving what she calls a “satisfactory failure”; and this is what makes their music different from, and antithetical to, American country music. Canadian country affirms mainly in the midst of loss, and therefore it can’t really affirm at all.
Perhaps because of the long tradition of anti-Americanism, Canadian popular songwriters and singers are far more likely to incline towards Celtic-affiliated folk music (cf. Spirit of the West playing “The Old Sod”) than American-affiliated country. The soulful memorializing of a Gordon Lightfoot, perhaps our representative singer-songwriter (“Canadian Railroad Trilogy”), is classically Canadian both in sound and subject, essentially sad, elegiac, inspired by the dying fall of beauty lost, rather than celebratory and confident in the manner of traditional country music. The magically enigmatic, metaphor-rich compositions of Leonard Cohen seem to know no homeland at all. He is patently not country, though plainly our most famous singer-songwriter. Cohen and Lightfoot are two of our greatest, but the point is that greatness in the popular field does not reside in the country genre, and the maple leaf cannot vie with the red, white and blue when it comes to proud and ardent country feeling.
Note: French Québécois music with its passionate celebration and defense of a unique hereditary tradition lives in a different universe, and is not my concern here.
Two of Our Greatest