Country music has its original roots tied to the deep south of the States, where blues and folk combined in the 1920s to spawn a new genre of music that spoke to the lifestyle of its inhabitants. Various influences have since transformed what was previously known as country & western and honky tonk into today’s modern country, and formed what we now know as the world-renowned Music City in Nashville, Tennessee.
But Canada is the world’s second biggest home of country music, and today is producing some of Music City’s top stars – many of whom come from Ontario.
Culturally, the roots of country music in Canada are ingrained in the prairies and Atlantic provinces where rural lifestyles prevail and the influence of immigrants from the British Isles is prevalent. Today, the nation, as a whole, embraces the genre and it is demonstrably rising in popularity, even beyond those in rural areas.
Ontario, however, perhaps due to its population density, size and strength of the industry, could easily be viewed as the powerhouse of country music. Ontario is home to many legends and country music superstars, including Shania Twain, Blue Rodeo, The Wilkinsons, Michelle Wright, Stompin’ Tom Connors, Crystal Shawanda, and Gordon Lightfoot. Ontario houses the CMAO, Northern Ontario Country Music Association (NOCMA), Canadian Country Music Association (CCMA), CMT, FACTOR, various country music publications, innumerable country music radio stations, more than 230 recording studios and copious numbers of record companies.
But to get to the heart of why country music really is important to Ontario, we have to get away from the stats and into the minds of its fans and artists. After all, no one can better describe what country music means to Ontarians than those who listen to it, and those who make it. I asked Ontarians from across the province how the genre speaks to them.
“Country music is like a personal journal if it were to be sung. Country music outlines every tragic, rewarding, magical, and loving moment in peoples’ lives. It seems truly genuine compared to more mainstream top-40 hits. Country musicians do music for the fans, rather than solely for the money, so I feel like the quality of music is far beyond that of what comes from Hollywood.”
• Courtney Styles
“The country music I tend to listen to I always associate with this sense of feeling free or a certain desire to take on challenges. A song that comes to mind is “The Long Way Around” by the Dixie Chicks. It’s an amazing song that touches on friendship, challenges, and the journeys we face in life. Whenever I listen to that song, I just want to roll the windows down and keep on driving through whatever barriers stand in my way.”
• Rob Nettleton
“In today’s hectic world, we’re filled with the need to constantly communicate and be ‘attached’ – whether it be with the Blackberry that’s constantly buzzing on your hip, Facebook and Twitter feeds, or the e-mail inbox that never seems to empty. Country music provides a polar opposite to this – whenever I need to relax, the thought of turning my phones off, hopping in my truck and playing a song like ‘Take A Back Road’ fills my face with a huge smile, and is like an instant de-stressor!”
• Andrew Retfalvi
“Ontario is a huge province whose identity has been a bit skewed by its powerful cities. Country and country radio gives small-town Ontario a voice and a sense of pride. I grew up listening to my local country station (Star 96FM) and it really felt like music for ME. I loved hearing Canadian musicians sing about things that matter to them. I feel Canada’s heart is in its little towns and our hearts are in our music.”
• Ann Chaplin, singer/songwriter and CMAO member
“Growing up downtown in Canada’s largest city doesn’t give me much exposure to country music, but I’m thankful to have been recently introduced to the genre. Regardless of where you’re from, country music speaks to the real emotional ups-and-downs of anyone’s life. It can connect its listener to any situation, no matter what your background is. It invokes feelings of freedom, of happiness, and provides an escape from the concrete jungle to a dirt road. Attending concerts in Toronto is always interesting, too, as you’d never see a cowboy hat on Bay Street, but they are out in full-force, no matter which act is in town. Country music brings people together, even if those people are from the city.”
• Adam Stanley
“I fell in love with country music when I moved to Ottawa from British Columbia as a teenager. As I’ve moved back and forth between the two places, country music has kept me grounded in the values I care about and rooted in where I’m from. For me, country is about family, humility, hard work and honesty – and the world would be a better place if everyone would listen up!”
• Emile Scheffel
“I think country music matters to Ontario because country music isn’t just country-wide, it’s world-wide! It’s not isolated, it doesn’t have to be made in Nashville to be country, and everyone across the globe can enjoy it. Country music isn’t just great to dance to; the songs have substance; they tell stories of relatable experiences that all people can feel and appreciate. Country music has seen a massive rise all across the nation in the last five years, and especially here in Ontario! Although it is a different region compared to say, Alberta, when you’re looking at the prevalence of country in the region, we have dedicated and passionate fans who support our festivals, our independent and major artists, and strongly believe in the passion and dedication of the artists.”
• Cadence Grace, singer/songwriter and CMAO member