Why Canadian country performers sing in a southern twang

The way we talk and sing is often below our conscious awareness — and it can change because our identities will shift depending on why we are engaging with someone, a linguistics professor says.

Shifting identities and unconscious impulse to mirror speech patterns behind affected accents, prof says

Aaron Pritchett, left, and Shaela Miller, right, are two Canadian country singers who sing with southern U.S. accents. (Submitted by Anya Wilson, Shaela Miller)

Lethbridge-based country singer Shaela Miller strummed her guitar and struggled with a strange request: to sing the lyrics from one of her songs in her own Canadian accent, and without a southern U.S. twang.

"I woke up/In my bed/With a loud, loud ringin' in my head…"

Miller sang the lines unaccompanied by the lilt in her voice that usually drawls words like bed and head until she stopped, laughing. 

"I can't do it, it just — I couldn't even sing it. I would have to sit down and really think of this song in a different style of music."

Miller said that twang is because of influences that include singers like Patsy Cline, Loretta Lynn and Dolly Parton. Her own songs just wouldn't sound right without it.

Lethbridge-based country singer Shaela Miller says her southern twang is because of musical influences that include singers like Patsy Cline, Loretta Lynn and Dolly Parton. (Submitted by Shaela Miller)

But according to Marianna Di Paolo, an associate professor emeritus in the departments of linguistics and anthropology at the University of Utah, a country singer's adoption of an accent at the mic is not always something they are aware of.

Di Paolo told the Calgary Eyeopener's Paul Karchut on Thursday that the way we talk and sing is often below our conscious awareness — and it can change because our identities will shift depending on why we are engaging with someone.

"At any given time, we might be projecting one part of our personality rather than another," Di Paolo said.

"We may feel compelled to perform an identity, to project a similar kind of identity, and this happens all the time … and the same thing happens with singing."

Mirroring and accommodation

Part of Di Paolo's work focuses on sociolinguistics in western American English.

It includes studying the differences in the way we speak that are dependent on our social context — and the variation in language between communities, as well as within individuals.

She said that the unconscious impulse to mirror the speech patterns of others is called "accommodation."

It happens because human beings are generally empathetic and social, and seek to connect with people who are similar to them.

"Part of the reason that we change the way we speak depending on what we're trying to do — essentially, the 'act of identity' — is in order to position ourselves so that we get the most benefit out of all of our interactions," Di Paolo said.

"The same would apply for singing … [and] if you are going to be an authentic country western singer, well, you better sound like one."

And the tendency to adopt accents isn't limited to country singers who subconsciously seek to connect with their audience, and benefit from the affectation.

A prominent example of this is actually the Beatles, Di Paolo said.

"Their Liverpool accents are right there, but … when they sing, sound like they are Buddy Holly or Elvis Presley, to artistically present their music within the tradition of [American] rock 'n' roll."

Putting it on a little thick

Alberta-based country singer Drew Gregory said he hadn't even noticed he was assuming a Nashville accent when he sang until he was asked about it.

And similarly to what Di Paolo had to say about mirroring and accommodation, according to Gregory, he was unintentionally modelling his performances after others.

"[I was] just kind of copying people off the radio and learning to sing off them. So I think when I started getting in the studio and stuff, it just kind of came out a little subconsciously," Gregory said.

"I've even listened back to shows where you kind of get a chuckle at yourself — where you hear a word or two and think, 'Maybe I put it on a little thick there.'"

While singing with an accent has attracted some criticism, to Aaron Pritchett, the accent is simply an extension of being a performer. (Justin Tang/The Canadian Press)

As Gregory grows with his craft, and continues to forge his artistic identity, he said his accent is starting to wane.

But for Canadian country star Aaron Pritchett, the southern drawl is no accident.

Instead, it's an affected and deliberate choice, he said, acquired to integrate his own music into the genre.

"It's something that I created early on, and if I had gotten away from it … people probably wouldn't have bought me as an artist," Pritchett said.

'But I don't overdo it'

While it has attracted some criticism — as a musician living in Vancouver, Prichett said he has sometimes been accused of being a poser — to him, the accent is simply an extension of being a performer.

"It is an act. That's what we're here for; we're a form of entertainment," Pritchett said. "But I don't overdo it. I just pick up little words here and there."

  • LISTEN to the segment on the Calgary Eyeopener below

And according to Di Paolo, as susceptible as we are to slipping into unconscious speech patterns, we are also capable of intentionally putting on a vocal "performance" that is more conscious.

It can allow professors to sound more authoritative, for example, or parents to sound more nurturing.

"In essence, we take on more agency," she said. "It is possible for us to … take more control of how we talk."

However, Di Paolo said it takes a lot of work and practice to make the decision to speak differently stick.

For Pritchett, at least, that work and practice suits him just fine.

"[My accent] won't be stopping … until I do a jazz album one day," Pritchett said.

With files from Paul Karchut and the Calgary Eyeopener.


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