Country is pervasive; it seems everywhere you go, you will find its influences: Hank Williams cover bands in Seville, saddle-topped barstools in Prague, line dances in Buenos Aires.
While country may (or may not) be a purely American invention, it certainly owes its roots to foreign countries. At the same time, other countries have developed their own country culture and music. Country music, bluegrass, and folk are quickly gaining large followings worldwide.
Some of the United States’ most popular country musicians have come from other countries. Other countries have their own popular musicians that we may not have heard of, but we may be hearing from soon.
Here are nine foreign countries with vibrant country music scenes.
If for no other reason, Belgium deserves to be mentioned here because of the film The Broken Circle Breakdown, an intensely gripping drama filled to the brim with bluegrass and folk culture and music. Featuring covers by the Broken Circle Breakdown Band of standards like “Sister Rosetta Goes Before Us,” “Country in my Genes,” and “Will the Circle be Unbroken?” the movie has the best-selling soundtrack in Belgian history.
If that weren’t enough, Belgium is also home to guitar virtuoso Django Reinhardt. Reinhardt is known as one of history’s foremost jazz guitarists but in truth played his own brand of gypsy guitar, with many elements of folk.
That’s right; Iran has a blossoming country music scene. Artists taking influences from both American country and Iranian traditional music blend them together in an amalgamation to create Iranian country. The Dream Rovers, Shahryar Masrour, and Thunder are all pioneers in the Iranian scene.
Thunder was the first group that got government permission to play music in English and they celebrated by selling out their first four shows. The group is composed of a mix of men and women, some in cowboy hats and some in head scarves, and as such is a representation of acceptance. Thunder has toured around Europe, but presses for more musical freedom from their home country.
About a million different types of Latin folk, jazz, and everything in between calls Argentina home. So naturally there is a place for country as well. Like Australia, Argentina has a cowboy culture all of its own, and by all rights has authority to call its music true country. The land of cattle and gauchos throws a popular country gathering every fall, the San Pedro Country Music Festival. The festival attracts bands from across Argentina and neighboring countries. Last year’s festival featured over 35 different acts. Line dancing, plaid shirts, and boots can all be found at a handful of joints in Buenos Aires, where Argentinian bands play covers of US country and their own original songs.
6. United Kingdom
The UK has a complicated history with country music. In the 1990s there was a strong backlash against artists such as Garth Brooks and Alan Jackson who played gigs in the UK. However, looking further back, most of the band who comprised the British Invasion were at some point involved with a music styling very similar to country. The London folk-punk band the Pogues pay heritage to their Australian brethren with a heartbreaking folk cover of “The Band Played Waltzing Matilda” off their brilliant 1985 album Rum Sodomy & the Lash.
Outside of England, Scotland shares an interest in country. Their highland culture and ballads have a lot in common with American folk, especially Appalachian music. In fact, American folk draws many of its roots from the Scottish highlands. Glasgow even has its own Grand Old Opry.
You absolutely were not expecting this entry on this list, and certainly not so high. But country music is quickly gaining popularity in India. Jim Reeves was one of the first country musicians to gather a large follow on the subcontinent, and the music tastes of parents has been passed down to the new generation.
On the heels of Bobby Cash’s popularity (the first Indian to record country in Nashville), comes a recent wave of country-infused Bollywood films led by Desi Boyz. In 2014 the Bellamy Brothers toured India and Sri Lanka and sold out every one of their shows. Could country music be a method of cultural diplomacy?
Similar to Scotland, Ireland has a strong country music tradition. The home of Celtic folk remains true to its roots. There are several radio stations devoted to Irish country and the country even has a popular television show Glór Tíre, or Country Voice.
Folk superstar Josh Ritter got his major break in Ireland, where he was album to sell enough music at open mics to finance his first record. Other popular Irish country artists are the Clancy Brothers, the Waterboys, the Boomtown Rats, the Irish Rovers, and Sinéad O’Conner. And although he’s not from Ireland, we can’t forget Steve Earle’s “Galway Girl” (which does feature Irish musician Sharon Shannon).
3. Czech Republic
Today country is as popular as ever in Prague. The Czech Republic is home to Europe’s first all-country radio station. The Rikatado Saloon and the Amerika Country Saloon are two of Prague’s most popular nightspots, each decorated in a western style.
Although there are no well-known crossovers, Gibson banjos use Czech artisans for some of their parts.
It’s not surprise that the country outside of the US with the largest country music following is just north of the border. Both countries have similar roots in the folk music of the British Isles and similar cultures with great expanses of prairie (and the hardships that come with it). The prairie provinces are the true home of country music and culture in Canada, with rodeos and cowboys, while the east produces more folk music.
Early stars from Canada are Tommy Hunter, Hank Snow and Anne Murray. Canada has consistently produced artists who have found success in the US, and the next wave included k.d. lang, Gordon Lightfoot, and Terri Clark. Finally, the most recent wave includes Carolyn Dawn Johnson, the Road Hammers, and Corb Lund (with his fantastically-named band The Hurtin’ Albertans).
Oh, and Shania Twain.
Perhaps the country with the most similarity to the culture of United States country music is Australia. It’s a toss-up between Australia and Canada. In Australia, country music sprang up independent of US influence. Instead it draws its roots, as does US country, from Irish and British folk ballads and intersperses them with a healthy dose of singing about ranching life, political protest, trucking, and issues concerning the native population. Sound familiar?
Australia had their national folk ballad “Waltzing Matilda” before the US had ever heard the names Jimmy Rodgers or the Carter Family. Australia has Slim Dusty, and what name could possibly be more country than that?
The US has seen a fair number of Australian exports, led by Keith Urban. But before Keith there was Olivia Newton-John. Others to achieve moderate success in the US include Catherine Britt, Sherrié Austin, Kasey Chambers, the Waifs, the John Butler Trio, and Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds.