How Sweden Became A Surprising Enclave for Country and Roots Music

Starting on May 15th, Bloodshot Records recording artist Sarah Shook and the Disarmers will take the songs from their critically-lauded record Years on a tour of Sweden and parts of Norway. The tour consists of a total of 23 dates over a month-long span, but this isn’t part of an extended European tour where the band will hit a multitude of countries over a grueling month and travel many square kilometers. This is a very specialized and dedicated tour in a specific region of Scandinavia with half the population of Texas, but a much larger appetite for traditional country music per capita than even in country music’s country of origin.

This isn’t an unusual occurrence for a traditional country or Americana band from the United States to plan such a tour in Sweden these days. In fact it’s pretty commonplace. Sam Outlaw, Anderson East, and Trampled By Turtles are also planning runs through the region this summer and fall for an extended period. Other traditional country artists such as J.P Harris, Corb Lund, Nikki Lane, Bob Wayne, The Deslondes, Tyler Childers, Jack Grelle, and Whitney Rose have made the trek to Sweden recently, as have Americana names such as Justin Townes Earle, Otis Gibbs, and even big stalwarts like the Drive By Truckers, Jason Isbell, and Sturgill Simpson.

We’ve known for years that per capita, Europe is a better support center for independent country and roots music compared to the United States, with venues and festivals in the U.K., France, Germany, Italy, and beyond full of thankful and appreciative fans hungry for American artists, and willing to go the extra mile to support authentic music. But something is brewing in Sweden specifically that is helping to give rise to one of the strongest, most vibrant enclaves for country music outside of North America, and is even inspiring Sweden’s own native traditional country performers who quality wise compete on an equal playing field with their American counterparts.

A promotional company and record label called Rootsy has been helping to put it all together, enticing some of the best of country and roots music far distances to play for Swedish country music fans, and helping to create a foothold for country music on the European continent. Rootsy opened a booking agency called Rootsy Live in 2009, and started pairing up country and Americana names from the United States with local talent, cross breeding name recognition across continents, and creating a thriving scene for country and roots in one of the most unexpected places.

For some American artists, Sweden has become the power base for their careers. In 2014, the story of country music singer and songwriter Doug Seegers being discovered by a Swedish television program while homeless on the streets of Nashville became one of the most touching stories of the last few years. Once a promising songwriter in Austin, Seegers fell on hard times. After his exposure to the Swedish market, Seegers became somewhat of a superstar in Scandinavia.

Now Sweden is the home market for Doug Seegers, and where he plays live most often. His 2015 record In Tandem with Jill Johnson released on the major label Capitol wasn’t even promoted in the United States, and can only be purchased physically in the US via import. It was dealt with as a Swedish release. Where Doug was never able to make it in America as a country performer and ultimately became homeless on the streets of Nashville, Sweden offered Doug Seegers a home.

Country music in Sweden is not a new phenomenon. An artist by the name of Red Jenkins was cutting songs about Texas and doing Outlaw country covers starting in 1974 with his album Neon Playboy. Throughout the 70’s and into the 80’s, Red continued to record and release country records such as Texas Honky Tonk, King of the Honky Tonks, Red Jenkins in Nashville, and others that have become cult favorites, setting the table for the appeal for country music we’re seeing in Sweden today.

Red Jenkins

Red Jenkins did country music so well, he became well-respected in the United States. In 1991, Johnny Paycheck recorded Red’s song “A Violin That Has Never Been Played.” Red has also regularly collaborated with Amber Digby. In 2015, Jenkins released a new record called Stone Country—a duets album with appearances by Willie Nelson, Dean Dillon, Johnny Bush, Red Stegall, Amber Digby, Leona Williams, and others.

The efforts of Rootsy and early Swedish artists have resulted in homegrown country and roots talent from Sweden making their mark locally, regionally, and internationally. Most know about First Aid Kit, whose song “Emmylou” helped make them international superstars throughout Sweden, Europe, the United States, and beyond. Their adoption of an American roots sound has helped open markets to roots music beyond English-speaking markets. But that’s only the beginning.

There are now numerous Swedish country and roots bands, often doing traditional country music as good or better than their American peers. The Country Side of Harmonica Sam has become a well-respected traditional country group stateside, participating in Dale Watson’s Ameripolitan Awards, and wowing even the most hardened and skeptical traditional country fans with their steadfast and studios articulation of classic country. The band’s 2017 album A Drink After Midnight was considered one of the best in the traditional country music space of the year.

Country Heroes from nearby Norway is another project that has American listeners blinking their eyes in disbelief that the band is not from the United States. Their 2017 record Southern Insecurity, and the recently-released Honky Tonk Tears prove the efforts of Scandinavian bands are not just close approximations. Of course some gets lost in the translation, but their ability to understand country music and deliver it in original songs is something even most domestic artists struggle with. There have always been bands from Europe trying their hands at country music. What’s unique about the Swedish phenomenon is how skilled many of the bands are at perfecting the traditional country sound.

But the Swedish movement is not just confined to traditional country. A current traditional bluegrass band called The Spinning Jennies bears striking resemblance to the bluegrass greats of old, even though unlike the aforementioned Swedish artists, the Spinning Jennies choose to sing in their native tongue. The music still translates though, just like it has for generations of Swedish fans listening to a distinctly English-speaking art form.

You can almost get in trouble trying to list off all the country bands in Sweden since they’ve become so numerous lately. Albin & the Honky Tonk Express is another more traditional style country artist from Sweden that has been doing it for years. So is Hold Your Horses, which just released a new, strikingly-good country album for a Swedish band called Broken Bones and Shattered Dreams. The Green Line Travelers is another band that has been recognized by Dale Watson’s Ameripolitan Awards. Cina Samuelson just released a couple of songs ahead of a full album later this year. And Fami is another who just released a new self-titled album that features a more rocking-style of Swedish country.

The record label behind the Rootsy booking agency has also helped to foster the Swedish country scene by launching the Willy Clay Band, who brings a bit more of a contemporary and Americana feel to country, as do other bands such Basko Believes and Ellen Sundberg who’ve all found support through Sweden’s burgeoning roots channels and tour routes.

Zooming in on what is happening in Sweden and the emergence of a vibrant and supportive music scene for traditional country and roots artist proves the universal appeal of the music. Artists from the South and West, and from rural regions of the United States will always have a greater claim to the sounds and sentiments of country music than others. But the appeal to listen to and perform country music should never be inhibited by international borders, or any other arbitrary delineation, whether it be race or anything else. What’s happening in Sweden right now is proof.

Country music is for all, and as long as there’s a true appeal for the music in your heart, it doesn’t matter who you are, or where you’re from.

– – – – – – – – –

Apologies to any Swedish artists not mentioned here. Feel free to chime in with suggestion of other Swedish country artists and bands via the comments section.