This post is a fun one for me since I’ve always had a soft spot for country music and culture. I grew up in small-town Alberta, one of the bastions of country culture, where the country music countdown is often just as popular as the pop-hit music countdown. But would you believe me if I said that Québec in some ways is one of the few cousins Albertans has on the country-culture front? No? Well then keep reading.
For those of you who know Éric Lapointe, what comes to mind? Perhaps images of a rough’n tough rocker with the tunes to match? After all, he’s been the bad-boy rocker of Québec music for the past 20 years. But I bet you never would have associated country music with Éric Lapointe. Lo, and behold, just a few weeks ago I was completely side-winded when I found out he came out with a new country single! – And not just any country single, but his own French rendition of (brace yourselves…) Mammas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys! (I just about fell off my chair when I heard it on the radio here in Toronto!). The French name is “Moman”. Yes, that’s right, Éric Lapointe reinterpreted the famous mid-1970’s country single, and I’m guessing that 99% of the Québec public is not even aware it was one of the biggest hits in North American history (#49 all-time biggest hit in US history, and #79 all-time biggest hit in Anglophone Canadian history). So how’s that working out for him? Well, I just checked, and at this very moment, it is charting at #33 in Montréal on CKOI-FM, and #5 in Québec’s rural regions on 97.1FM Haute-Mauricie. Go figure !!
So between Éric Lapointe having found his suppressed country side, and Isabelle Boulay having come out with a country album in the last couple of years, does this mean that Québec is taking a turn towards country? Well, I’m not so sure about that. But one thing I am sure about is that Québec always has had a country soul since day one, going back to the 1600s (before Nashville, or much of anything in North America even existed). In fact I’m pretty sure that if it were not for French North America – be it historical French migration to the Western provinces and states, or the spread of Acadian and Cajun music in the US, there would be no North American country music as we know it today.
To put it all in perspective, here’s my shot at a shortened, very general version of the origins of country music. Country is a mixture of four main genres of North American folk music, with various important sub-categories (but let’s just stick with the 4 main genres for simplicity). The first two genres were heavily derived from Celtic music and Celtic rhythm which was mainly brought to North America by
- the French (Celtic Normans from France),
- the Irish, and
- the Scottish
Genre 1. French Acadian / French Cajun / French Canadian Celtic (with an additional infusion of Irish Celtic through later immigration to Québec).
Genre 2. Irish-Scottish Celtic music, highly concentrated in Canada’s Atlantic Provinces, and historically Gaelic regions of Maritime Canada.
Genre 3. Appalachian folk music, a combination of Irish/Scottish Celtic music with other styles (German immigrants, a wider variety of instruments, local Blues, Gospel, Blue Grass sub-genres, and other mixes).
Genre 4. Western Music – originating in Western Canada and the Western US, it stems from the folk music and dance of the settlers and pioneers of the Far West and Prairies (first-wave French Celtic; polka, Ukrainian & Germanic music and dance; folk beats and instruments; other Celtic-based farmers moving West). Combined with storytelling songs on the plight of the Western settlers, it gave rise to a style of music which crossed borders from BC, Alberta and Saskatchewan, all the way down to Oklahoma and Texas.
These four genres of music were loosely related through their Celtic and folk roots, and shared rhythms and styles in their most basic forms. In the 1950s, the Nashville music industry began to consolidate elements of all four genres, stirred them together in a pot, added some music industry dollars, and baked a well-rounded country cake which had appeal power across all four of the traditional genre regions. Voilà! – One-size-fits-all country music that appealed to those living in the original four regions of the founding genres — including Québec. This also explains why there are regions of North America where country music has never been very popular (even in rural regions) … they simply were never part of the traditional areas from which country took its roots (regions where country music had relatively little appeal would be New England, non-Francophone regions of Southern Ontario, the BC Lower Mainland, and California, amongst others). In this sense, Québec / Acadia and Alberta share an historical musical heritage of sorts – musical cousins, if you will.
Much of Québec’s modern pop-music also finds it’s roots in the region’s original folk rhythms and instruments (heavy on the strings and vocals, story-telling lyrics, and a recurring twang).
But enough with the academia of country music, and back to the Québec country music scene…
Many of you may remember the Tommy Hunter country music show on CBC – it was very popular with a generation in Western Canada and the Atlantic Provinces (I remember my dad watched it when I was a small child). Way before my time, older generations may even remember Don Messer’s Jubilee. A more recent country-styled nationally broadcast show was Rita and Friends. Québec also had such programs in French. I recall catching bits-and-pieces of Country Centre-ville with Renée Martel on Radio-Canada. It was also popular in more rural regions of Québec (La Beauce, Gaspésie, Mauricie), Acadia, Francophone Ontario, and rural Francophone regions of Western Canada.
Some names who are specifically associated with French country are
- Cayouche from Moncton, New Brunswick
- Carole Champagne from Shawinigan, Québec (Mauricie region)
- Irvin Blais from Gaspésie, Québec
In a broad sense, a case could be argued that Acadian and Cajun singers also constitute a form of country singers, such as Édith Butler and Zachary Richard (after all, they sing in one of the four main genres that historically constitutes country music) — but I’m not sure they would self-classify themselves as anything but Acadian and Cajun singers.
Québec has numerous country music radio stations: Radio Passion Country Mégantic, Radio Québec-Country in Thetford Mines, CKKI-FM Kahnawake, 1040-AM Montréal to name just a few.
True to its rural and agrarian roots, Québec also has numerous annual Country & Western festivals and rodeos across the province (at least two dozen, possibly three dozen or more). Some of the more notable ones are the Sainte-Béatrix Rodeo held the end of August, the month-long Western Festival in St-Tite in September (rodeos, exhibitions and other events), and the St-Hyacinthe Expo Agricole with chuck-wagon races, livestock competitions, and rodeos in July (I attended the St-Hyacinthe expo many years ago – and it rivalled most of anything you’d find in Alberta).
Roger Lacasse, from Mirabel, Québec, became a yearly favorite competitor at the Canadian Finals Rodeo held in Edmonton, Alberta each year (I’ve seen Lacasse compete in person in Edmonton many years ago, and he’s become famous in rodeo culture). I believe Lacasse has even been inducted into the Canadian Rodeo Hall of Fame – a big thing in country circles.
I hope this post has shown that Québec pop-culture is more than just “Montréwood” (hey, if “Hollywood” is the best-fit term for Anglophone pop-culture industries, and “Bollywood” is the best fit for Indian and Indian Sub-Continent pop-culture industries, then it’s only fitting that we use the term “Montréwood” for Québec and Francophone Canada pop-culture industries – it is Montréal-centred after all).
I’d encourage you to take the time to explore a bit of Québec’s country pop-culture a little further. It only takes a few creative web searches to open this unique and interesting world. Youtube is full of budding new French-country artists who are using it as a platform to garner attention, as well as videos of Québec’s country festivals. Better yet, if you have the chance to attend a country festival in Québec, it will be an experience you will never forget!