Sorrow Bound, Elliott Brood and Tim Hus perform at the Calgary Folk Music Festival this weekend at Prince's Island.
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It was in the early 1980s that a severe case of identity crisis nearly convinced veteran country-blues songwriter Tim Williams to quit the music business.
The now 50-something, Calgary-based musician should have been at the peak of his career, having penned a handful of modest country hits in the 1970s that established him as an expert songsmith.
But Williams says he often found himself caught between two distinct camps in country music -- the traditional sounds pioneered by his heroes Lefty Frizzell and Jimmy Rodgers, and the safer, more polished acts being pushed by country radio.
"Some people were pressuring me to gloss it up more and there were other people staying away because it was already too glossy," said Williams. "People at folk festivals saw me as a country singer and the country music people saw me as a folkie, who suspiciously played too much blues. I just wanted to be a musician."
Williams' latest project leaves little doubt as to what side of the fence he eventually landed on. At the Calgary Folk Music Festival, Williams will be joining Jane Hawley, Tom Phillips and Ron Casat for Sorrow Bound -- a tribute to traditional country stalwart Hank Williams. The project places Williams and his Hank-worshipping cohorts at the centre of a distinct theme at this year's festival. A few weeks after the Calgary Stampede propped up beefcake country popsters Alan Jackson and Kenny Chesney as main-stage attractions, festival programmers are focusing on a decidedly darker shade of twang.
Kris Kristofferson, Son Volt, Winnipeg's D. Rangers, Toronto's Elliott Brood, Kathleen Edwards and local hero Tim Hus are just a few of the featured acts who fall into a loose definition of "country." But while they may share a vague western bent, these acts seem to have little else in common with the Alan Jacksons and Kenny Chesneys of the world.
Just what is it about these artists that separates them from the grinning, cowboy-hat wearing chart toppers? And why is it that so many of them are blackballed from country radio?
"A lot of what you hear on contemporary radio is written by committee," Williams says. "Hank Williams wrote almost all of his own tunes, co-wrote some others and covered some by his friends. An act like Tim McGraw or somebody like that would pick songs out of a catalogue written by a group of writers who strictly write with the idea in mind of having a hit record or selling the song to an artist who will have a hit record. The songs don't tend to be that authentic."
Some country purists see the growth of traditional country as a cyclical phenomenon that kicks in whenever Nashville gallops too far into a world of glossy production, U.S. Republican conventions and formulaic songwriting.
"It seems whenever country music goes too far to the pop side, the pendulum balances and you get another wave of alt-country or real country or what people call No Depression," says Allison Brock, host of CKUA's Wide Open Country, a Saturday morning radio show that focuses on the traditional country acts that mainstream radio won't play. "Who knows what the name of it is? I just call it real country music made by young and old."
No Depression or alt-country music sprang from the novel idea of mixing traditional twang with punk rock energy in the 1980s. By the tail end of the 1990s, the traditional country's outlaw ethos had become a surrogate for punk rock's outsider attitude. Soon, a new generation of musicians emerged from the haze of grunge rock with cowboy hats perched on their heads and stories to tell.
Toronto's indie darlings Elliott Brood, who will be making their festival debut this weekend, embraced country music by accident after founder Mark Sasso stumbled upon a banjo at a pawn shop. Country twang forms the centre of the trio's unique sound -- a mix of murder ballads and bluegrass-tinged dirges that Sasso defines as "Death Country."
Still, the closest Sasso ever comes to listening to Hank Williams is when he puts on old Bob Dylan and Neil Young records.
"It's the inter-generational thing," he said. "We are influenced by (Dylan and Young) and they are influenced by Hank Williams. I've never felt the need to pull out a Hank Williams album and listen to it -- not that he isn't great. The only movement we may be a part of is one towards better songwriting. The story is more important than the flashiness of the band. The song is always put before the group . . . When I hear (pop country) it doesn't move me. It's just superficial and it just skims the surface and it doesn't comment on anything."
Calgary singer-songwriter Tim Hus is slightly more diplomatic about mainstream country, admitting that he'll often tune into the pop country stations in his truck to keep on top of Nashville's trends.
But, for his own music, Hus lumps himself in with Steve Earle, Ian Tyson and Willie Nelson rather than Brooks & Dunn, Tim McGraw and Toby Keith. And while Hus says he has nothing against pop country, he isn't sure it should be considered country music at all.
"I've heard that expression that it is just pop music with a fiddle," he said. "I do think there is a growing popularity in the roots, traditional vein and I attribute that to (so many) people shooting for the crossover market. As they push country more and more to the pop world they are leaving out a lot of the songwriting value and a lot of hard-core country fans."