What’s so special about country music? Singer-songwriter Lisa Redford explains what makes this genre unique.
The late, great country singer Glen Campbell summed it up: “There’s a longing in country music that can soften even the rockiest heart.”This longing is a defining aspect of country music, alongside a long history of storytelling and emotional, expressive, yearning vocals – the famous “three chords and the truth”.
Country’s roots lie in the southern states of North America, and the Appalachian mountains. As a genre, it encompasses folk, blues, gospel and Celtic music, with sub-genres such as honky tonk, alt-country and bluegrass. Its many motifs include family, highways, cowboys, the Wild West and, most important of all, heartache and love.
Country singers wear their hearts on their sleeves. They have an innate ability to deliver authentic emotion and a sense of harmony. There’s a confessional quality to their voice often associated with narration, where singing becomes an extension of speaking.
Another component of country music is “twang”, a nasal vocal resonance lending a bright and edgy sound.
How to add twang to your vocals
Twang is key. When you recognise what it feels like in your speaking voice, it’s easier to move it to a singing voice. Repeating phrases such as “nyeah, nyeah, nyeah, nyeah”, paying attention to where the lips and tongue are, and creating forward placement in combination with mouth resonance, will help singers achieve this. Watch this video to learn more.
How To Sing with Twang
Listening to various country artists, styles and songs, both classic and contemporary, will give you a better understanding of the vocal techniques used in country music and the characteristics of the genre.
Country music greats Dolly Parton defines country. Her warm soprano voice possesses tenderness, power and agility. She is one of country’s most successful songwriters writing two classics (the haunting Jolene and bittersweet ballad I Will Always Love You) in a single day in 1973. Her writing has a personal perspective and the truthfulness of her songs connects with fans. Coat of Many Colours, the story of how her mother stitched a coat for her out of rags given to the family, is particularly personal and resonant.
Dolly Parton – Coat of Many Colours
Another country great is Patsy Cline. In 1961 she recorded Crazy, written by Willie Nelson. The became a country standard. Cline deftly navigates a sophisticated melody and shows demonstrable personal style by employing a back-phrasing technique, singing either ahead or behind the beat.
Crazy – Patsy Cline
Johnny Cash, with his unique bass-baritone voice, was peerless. Cash possessed great control over his signature low register and was an outstanding songwriter, as shown in I Walk The Line and Folsom Prison Blues. He was also acclaimed for his interpretations of other artists’ work. His version of Nine Inch Nails’ Hurt (1994) brought new meaning to the song, which was originally written as an exploration of heroin addiction and depression. Cash’s own version feels like it was written for his 70-year-old self, thanks to a distinctive vocal and Rick Rubin’s stripped down production.
Hurt – Johnny Cash
Contemporary country artists
Two contemporary artists worth discovering are Alison Krauss, who has an angelic soprano voice and displays stunning musicianship, and Emmylou Harris, who has a distinctive voice, known for its tender vibrato. She’s a great interpreter of other’s songs and has a hunger for experimentation best shown on the seminal album Wrecking Ball (1995) with its atmospheric and highly textured songs. LeAnne Rimes is often compared to Cline because of her rich vocal style. She broke through in 1996 with her first single, Blue, which also illustrated another popular country singing style, yodelling, which involves rapid, alternation between chest voice and falsetto.
Blue – Leann Rimes
Trisha Yearwood has a great ability to tell a story with her colourful, strong vocals full of emotional expression.
Carrie Underwood is renowned for her range, versatility and vocal stamina. She also possesses great dynamic control, singing lightly in softer moments, then a heavier tone when required. For a masterclass in contemporary country songwriting, look no further than two-time Grammy winner Lori McKenna, who shines a light on small town life with her conversational lyrics. She co-wrote Little Big Town’s song of yearning and jealousy Girl Crush, and Humble and Kind, recorded by Tim McGraw. Written over a three chord progression, this touching song is a list of things McKenna wanted to ensure she told her children. It has a simple but hugely effective rhyme form, melody and chord progression. The moving lyrics include,
“Don’t steal, don’t cheat and don’t lie / I know you got mountains to climb /Always stay humble and kind.”
Singer-songwriter Kacey Musgraves has a refreshing and honest style of writing. She writes about personal experiences and has caused a stir in the conservative country music scene by writing about controversial subjects.
Her single Follow Your Arrow, which encourages people to be true to themselves, ruffled some feathers. She excellently evokes a small town community in the sublime Grammy winning Merry Go ‘Round.
Merry Go ‘Round – Kacey Musgraves
Country music is diverse and vibrant and has at its heart an ability to deliver material with real feeling. As Taylor Swift says, “My definition of country music is really pretty simple. It’s when someone sings about their life and what they know, from an authentic place.”