Americana music, namely country, gets a bad rap. Well, aside from the billion dollar industry around it, an entire television channel devoted to it, and a giant chunk of North America blasting it from their top stations — country music gets a bad rap. Until last year, the genre seemed typified by big hair, cornball lyrics, and an insular quality applying only to America’s most conservative states. And of course there’s Taylor Swift.
Country music and Americana (i.e. bluegrass or southern American folk) has had its cool waves in the past, with cowpunk, folk ballads of the ’60s and everyone’s semi-ironic mingling with the Oh Brother Where Art Thou soundtrack. But in the past few years, artists have incorporated country and Americana into their fusion sound like never before. Without a hint of irony, musicians around the world are legitimizing the genres for the cool kids, from Eastern Europe to Canada, even to Jamaica. Turns out twang is infectious, moving, and cross-continental.
Here are eight artists bringing swag to square dance floors around the world.
First Aid Kit
The Swedish sisters of First Aid Kit helped begat the trend of twang folk cool with their album The Big Black and Blue two years ago. Using stunning country harmonies and folk bluegrass acoustics, their virtuosic musicianship and viral cover of Fleet Foxes’ “Tiger Mountain Peasant Song” led to collabs with Jack White and Conor Oberst. On their latest album The Lion’s Roar, they even laid on the southern accents.
Romain Virgo, Etana, Richie Stephens, and other Reggae Artists
What seemed like the strangest compilation of the year in 2011 turned out to make plenty of sense. Unbeknownst to many country stars, Jamaicans grew up on country music and know the classics by heart. In fact, some argue, the two genres have something key in common: they’re both the voice of the disenfranchised. VP Records appealed to the Caribbean Texas-philia by combining the two, having renowned reggae artists cover and revamp country songs, often with a reggae beat and a cameo by the country legends themselves. Watch Romain Virgo cover Larry Gatlin’s “California,” sung with Gatlin himself.
Ewert and the Two Dragons
You wouldn’t think this hard-charging bluegrass hook with the swinging country tempo would hail from Estonia, but indeed, Ewert and the Two Dragons are Tallinn-born and bred. Their album Good Man Down was in fact the top-selling record in Estonia, garnering four Estonian Music Awards. Here’s the title track that got the Baltics dosey do-ing.
The haunting music of Ethiopia-born, Finnish-bred woman of the hour Mirel Wagner sounds like a ghostly Kimya Dawson set to mountain folk melodies and chords. This might be the rawest form of bluesy Americana ever made, and you wouldn’t even know you’re listening to it.
She might be more of a wild west pop girl, but Norway-born record label owner and eight-album-deep singer/songwriter Ane Brun occasionally releases melancholic tumbleweed folk laced with twang. Hear her song “To Let Myself Go” for proof that all my exes…live in Scandinavia.
Cold Specks told us in an interview that much of her influence hails from the southern U.S., though she was Toronto-bred and now lives in London. Her haunting ballads would have made Janis Joplin cry, with roots hailing from Americana folk, gospel, and chain gang hymnals.
Alt-country isn’t new in Nashville, but rarely do the local bands get hipster radio play, and even more rarely do they tour with the likes of Best Coast. With the release of their latest album Screws Get Loose, the three sisters of Those Darlins are taking alt-country to a new level, along with some more conventional rock tracks. For their southernmost vibe, listen to “Wild One”off their debut, self-titled album.
Sunny Ali & the Kid
Philly’s Sunny Ali & The Kid are worth mentioning due to their utter left-fieldness, though they seem to have dropped the country act on their latest release “Chai.” Their first EP Try Harder, however, perplexed the blogosphere with lo-fi country punk made without the help of many instruments, and with even less guile. Here’s hoping their twangtastic tracks “F**k Me” and “I’m a Skinny F*cker” made Garth Brooks blush.