Gordie Tentrees wastes no time expressing his view on the term “alt-country.”
“It’s dead,” he says, sipping a coffee at the Java Connection on Wednesday afternoon.
The term became popular in the 1990s when a country sub-genre without pop aspirations began appearing in Canada and the US.
But ever since its inception, it’s helped adjective-starved music reporters describe a field so general it has been been rendered meaningless.
“It was sort of non-mainstream country music,” said Tentrees. “Which meant not having a formula, which then became a formula.”
Any band with a Dobro guitar, mournful vocals and a cowboy hat got the tag.
“That’s what we were called when we first started playing, whether we liked it or not,” he said. “And it was only because we were playing country, folk and blues music.”
Tentrees, who began playing music when he moved to the Yukon 12 years ago, is on tour promoting his third album, Mercy or Sin, released last year. It nabbed him a nomination for the 2010 Western Canadian Music Awards roots album of the year.
“Now it’s called roots music,” he said. “It’s so hard to keep it one word.”
It’s not just trends that complicate defining Tentrees’ music, it’s place.
He’s touring with Sarah MacDougall, a Sweden-born musician based in Vancouver, who has also been slapped with the alt-country label.
On her first tour of the North, she’s promoting a well-crafted album of country-inspired ballads called Across the Atlantic.
“It’s hard because as soon as you get out of North America, you say ‘roots’ and they’re going to think reggae,” she said.
“In Europe, I’m an Americana songwriter,” said Tentrees.
“They call me Americana too,” said MacDougall.
This semantic mind-game is rendered totally pointless once the music starts.
From the guitar’s first pluck, both artists enrapture the listener with straightforward stories and tunes tinged with melancholy. This is really nothing but music – a message in sounds and words sent straight from artist to audience.
But ever since music became a million-dollar industry based on appealing to as many customers as possible, genre-defining has become an industry necessity.
“I mean, before all this, what was it called?” said Tentrees.
It’s hard to imagine asking Hank Williams or a Delta blues guitar player what aisle of a music store they would have put themselves in.
“A lot of musicians are trying to reclaim the word folk,” said MacDougall. “And I think that word, folk, I mean, it’s music for the people.”
Music for the people makes sense. There are no delusions of superstardom here. The attraction toward these musical styles have more to do with allowing an artist to be a storyteller.
MacDougall grew up in Malmoe, Sweden, the country’s third-largest city.
It wasn’t until she was 18 that she got into folk music.
“When I grew up, there wasn’t even much live music anywhere,” she said. “It was all electronic music at that time in Malmoe. It’s changed a lot now so there’s a lot more acoustic music and live venues.”
Slowly expanding her influences with North American and European traditional music, she bridged the continents by finding common threads between country music and her homeland.
“There’s a certain melancholy in Swedish culture and Swedish music,” she said. It wasn’t long until the woeful vocals of cowboy songs found a new breeding ground.
MacDougall also listened to the ballads of Carl Michael Bellman, an 18th-century songwriter and composer, celebrated as one of Sweden’s greatest artists.
“I don’t write songs like him but he’s had a high influence on the Swedish songwriting tradition,” said MacDougall, who compared his ballads to North American yarns spun through song.
She moved to Vancouver in 2001 to find more like-minded artists.
“There’s opportunities to meet more musicians,” she said.
MacDougall produces her own music, something that shocks Tentrees.
“I would never, ever do that,” he said.
When MacDougall composes, she hears in advance the arrangement and instrumental accompaniment, she said. She’s never been able to simply fork over her work to a producer and let it be re-interpreted.
She studied audio engineering to help communicate with others in the studio.
“I can collaborate now because I know the other person won’t take over,” she said.
She released Headed for the Hills in 2005, which is now only available at her live shows. But it’s last year’s Across the Atlantic that’s earning her rave reviews on both sides of the pond.
There’s jumpier rhythmic tunes like Cry Wolf, alongside quieter, more despondent songs. There’s a touch of Gillian Welch and Toronto’s One Hundred Dollars, as well as some of the same acoustic cheeriness as The Be Good Tanyas.
“I personally like songs that have both sides,” she said. “The light and the darkness in a good mixture.”
Tentrees’s album is more bare bones story-telling from the desolate North. It’s music you’d hear on the radio here, but remains an exotic import everywhere else. Local sound engineer Bob Hamilton produced the album.
“He’s the most efficiently creative person I’ve ever met,” said Tentrees.
Both albums master that most comforting of country melodies, a Dobro’s harsh fading sound underscoring a long drawn-out verse.
MacDougall and Tentrees met at the Cottonwood Festival earlier this year in Fort St. James, British Columbia.
“I was an instant fan of her songs,” said Tentrees.
She invited him to Scandinavia, and he invited her to the Yukon and Alaska.
They played Skagway last night and will be in Whitehorse at the Gold Pan Saloon tonight and tomorrow.
While Tentrees usually plays with Matt King and Ken Hermanson, and MacDougall normally has Dobro player Tim Tweedale at her side, they’ve slimmed down their team for their travels through the North.
Bob Hamilton will play Dobro with MacDougall and stand up bass with Tentrees. Hermanson will be joining Tentrees on stage on lap steel, banjo, and electric guitar.
On their way back from Alaska, the pair will also play the Old Fire Hall for the Frostbite Society with Dave Haddock and Andrea Burgoyne on October 4.
But there’s no telling where their European tour will take them. The list keeps growing by the day, said Tentrees.
“I think we’re up to five countries,” said MacDougall.
Contact James Munson at