Canadian Alt-Country Artists Use the Genre's Past to Push It into the Future
Le Ren, Bria and more follow in the footsteps of centuries-old traditions while making something that feels entirely new
Published Oct 05, 2021They say to do a cover right, you have to make it sound like your own song. In that case, Lauren Spear's father definitely did them right. While Spear was growing up, her father would play Gordon Lightfoot's "Early Morning Rain," and she was convinced the song was his.
"I just didn't make the connection that he was singing covers," she says with a laugh during a conversation with Exclaim! "It's just so beautiful. It's like an entire book in a song. I've always loved it, and [Lightfoot is] just such an incredible songwriter."
Now a country singer-songwriter herself, recording as Le Ren, Spear tried her hand at "Early Morning Rain" by collaborating with Big Thief's Buck Meek. The pair's version finds Meek's and Spear's voices intertwining in perfect harmony over a sparse and melancholy guitar line, doubling down on the original's air of loneliness and longing.
"It felt special to do my own version and to do it with Buck, who I look up to so much," says Spear.
The pair's cover is one of many from today's new crop of alt-country artists, paying homage to their predecessors while making their own marks in the genre by playing and recording folk standards and country classics — part of a longstanding tradition.
"Growing up, I played a lot of bluegrass music, and that entire world is just covering old songs," says Spear. "So that was kind of my entry point into playing music. Everyone has their own version of a standard."
She's in good company. Toronto's Bria Salmena — also of fellow classic country revivalist Orville Peck's band and post-punks FRIGS — recently launched her new project Bria (alongside FRIGS/Peck bandmate Duncan Hay Jennings) with Cuntry Covers, Vol. 1, a six-track covers EP featuring the works of Karen Dalton, Lucinda Williams and Waylon Jennings, while Fiver debuted their new band the Atlantic School of Spontaneous Composition last year with similarly minded EP You Wanted Country? Vol. 1, covering Willie Nelson, Gene Clark, and Johnny Paycheck.
Other standout reworks of the canon from fellow members of the Canadian alt-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 Quebec/Colorado duo the Shredneck Brothers' version of "Tennessee Mountain Fox Chase."
But despite following in the footsteps of country's centuries-old traditions, both Salmena and Spear are surprisingly hesitant to marry themselves to the genre.
"We're obviously not traditional country musicians. It's not about that," Salmena, a self-described "alternative artist," explains. "We're also not claiming to be creating traditional classic country music."
Jennings counters: "Even though some of the songs we recorded [are] not what you would define as country songs or not written or recorded by quote-unquote country artists ... we felt in some of those songs there are tropes and emotions that express to us what country music kinda is."
Likewise, Spear is generally reluctant to categorize her debut LP Leftovers — out October 15 through Royal Mountain Records — as "Americana."
"I get grouped into that genre quite often," she says. "[It] immediately fills my mind with images of people wearing bowler hats, so I've always been a bit put off by that term."
More importantly, Spear notes, "As a white artist playing music that is from Black artists, I feel like a lot of people who are white musicians have been reckoning with their genre and trying to find the roots of where it actually comes from and realizing that they're guests in this house of music."
Still, both Le Ren and Bria's new releases are chock-full of the genre's hallmark qualities: sentimentality, sorrow and — most importantly — heartbreak. Leftovers' "Your Cup" and "May Hard Times Pass Us By," for instance, are among Le Ren's most painfully personal works yet, while Bria's soul-crushing version of Lucinda Williams' "Fruits of My Labour" finds the singer melding the original's emotive, slow blues style with her own echoey post-rock cinematic foundation, making something that feels entirely new.
"With country music, for me, I think it does heartbreak so well," Salmena explains. "A lot of these songs are heartbreak songs, and I think people [are] drawn to those types of stories because they're [universal]."
To their credit, this new wave's works do away with the genre's cornier and more conspicuously patriarchal and capitalistic tropes — namely, the seemingly ceaseless reverence for pickup trucks, American patriotism and straight-up boozin'.
The likes of Kacey Musgraves, Lil Nas X and Orville Peck and the Yeehaw Agenda that followed in their wake have spent the last three years challenging the straight white boys' club of country music, and this new crop of Canadian alt-country artists continue to combat the Boots and Hearts ilk of the nation's broader country community. It's clear that this sect of alt-country musicians pick and choose their sonic themes with a higher degree of fastidiousness — which ultimately works in favour of its own lasting power. It's that quality that makes the music of Cuntry Covers, Leftovers and Fiver's You Wanted Country? pretty damn timeless.
Le Ren's debut deals most heavily in the trade of love — familial, platonic and romantic, all in equal measure. Spear achieves her own benchmark of timelessness by avoiding reference to "modern-day technology" (though she's quick to defend artists like Phoebe Bridgers who choose to go that route). Instead, she offers autobiographical "journal entry-ish" observations of her relationships and the minutia that accompanies them.
"I think those themes are always going to be relevant and are always going to strike a chord," Spear says. "It's definitely not something that I'm super conscious of. I'm never like, 'Oh, here's something that will remain relevant.'"
On the other hand, Bria chalk the accessibility of their music up to themselves and other artists — like Orville Peck, Lavender Country and even John Waters, with whom Salmena and Jennings recently shared Colorado's Red Rocks stage — who are pushing the country genre into new frontiers. Welcoming "the freaks, the queers, the punks" into the fold remains a key element of what they've set out to do with their music.
Salmena says, "Genre fluidity [is] kind of a nice thing — just the bridging of genres right now. People are fucking with all sorts of music. You have all of these highways that lead people to other things … I think if we had decided to call this EP something else, we wouldn't necessarily be having the same kinds of conversations about it."
Why Cuntry Covers, then?
"'Cause 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, plenty of whistling and lyricism that sits neatly somewhere between that of Bahamas and Pokey LaFarge. His 2020 album, Bad but Good Boys, takes a more straightforward folk approach, mirroring the mountain town where he and four pals got together to record and hang out.
In September 2021, East Vancouver outlaw outfit Daisy Garland released their massive 20-track double-LP, Open Country. The ambitious release pinpoints the intersection of dark barroom music for late-night benders and creeper tunes for ghost-hunting in abandoned farmhouses.
The project's seventh full-length album, 2021's Fiver with the Atlantic School of Spontaneous Composition, finds frontperson Simone Schmidt teaming once again with the Nova Scotia improvisational unit, shifting gears from You Wanted Country? into something more elevated — the happy medium between psychedelic folk-country and the soundtracks of Vince Guaraldi.
Lauren Spear's folk four-piece — who famously sold homemade knitted hats to fund their debut album — were inspired by Dolly Parton, Linda Ronstadt and Emmylou Harris's Trio when they made 2020's excellent Gathering. The group have yet to reconvene on a new batch of tunes, but we're hoping their absence can be chalked up to pandemic restrictions and not for a lack of interest.
The Pudding Chômeur
Self-described "gay country" banjo duo of Leh Deuling and Lila Platt, the Pudding Chômeur (named after the Depression-era staple dessert for unemployed people), marked their return to live music this year by performing from a canoe on the Lachine Canal. Their 2020 record What Would Dolly Do takes nods from the titular legend, but tosses radically progressive politics and undulating harmonies into the mix.
Combining mandolin, banjo, upright bass and guitar, roommates/comrades/brothers Jean-Baptiste Cardineau and Cédric Thuya Boivin (joined by Émi Lou Johnson) bring the lightning-speed strings on 2021's Magütt Hochelaga Sessions EP.
Self-describing as "equal parts revivalist and visionary," Prairie-hailing veteran songsmith Ryan Dyck crafts his throwback-informed honky tonk sound using pedal steel and twangy, melancholic lyricism on debut album Get to Know Lonesome.
The West Coast five-piece combine the honky tonk sounds of steel guitar, banjo and keys with medieval limerick-inspired lyrics and a healthy sense of humour on Songs to Glorify the Peasant and His Tractor. On mid-album jangler "Condo," the group slam the late-stage capitalism state of affairs in their home province that make it impossible to get a beer when "your favourite bar is now a condo."