A Voice, a Guitar and a Story: The New Folkies
What we now call folk music is not really folk music in the academic sense; it’s not rural working-class people gathering on the front porch or at the local tavern to sing and dance to the songs their grandparents taught them. If you go to a folk festival or folk music conference these days, most of the artists you’ll hear are educated urbanites employing the tools of actual folk musicians to perform newly written songs. Not, as Jerry Seinfeld would say, that there’s anything wrong with that.
In fact, the decision to limit oneself to an untreated voice and easily portable acoustic instruments produces two salutary effects: It allows a cheap and quick entry into the world of music-making, and it forces one to rely on really good songwriting to compensate for the missing instruments and production. This approach worked for both those who remained folk musicians all their lives (Woody Guthrie, Rhiannon Giddens) and those who started there (Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell) and then moved on to other styles, their songwriting chops already in solid shape.
You can add things to this process to create freak-folk, psych-folk or folk-punk, but the central idea of the modern folk movement is to strip things down to the minimum: a voice, a guitar and a story. Here are six younger artists, among many, who do that effectively. Even if they often use others in the studio, on stage they usually perform alone, quite brilliantly.
The Milk Carton Kids
Joey Ryan and Kenneth Pattengale were solo singer-songwriters in Los Angeles before they joined forces to see if a duo might be greater than the sum of its parts. It was. They soon developed tight, close-harmony vocals that deserved their frequent comparisons to the Everly Brothers and Simon & Garfunkel. They also developed a deadpan stage banter that earned comparisons to the Smothers Brothers. In fact, they’re so funny it’s easy to overlook just how gifted they are as songwriters and arrangers. Those gifts are more apparent than ever on their 2018 album All the Things That I Did and All the Things That I Didn’t Do.
Ondara first discovered Bob Dylan via the Guns N’ Roses cover of “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” on a bootleg cassette in his hometown of Nairobi. That led the young Kenyan to Dylan’s own records, which inspired him to become a songwriter and move to Dylan’s native Minnesota. Once there, he worked his way up through open mic nights to Tales of America, his 2019 debut album. That disc reveals a fresh take on the immigrant experience and a piercing tenor that cuts through the crowded singer-songwriter scene like a scalpel through butter. [Check out an exclusive TIDAL Rising video.]
This Oklahoma songwriter has a raspy baritone that rises from deep within his mammoth body, like an oilrig that brings up his darkest feelings about unrequited love and an unjust world. A listener might want to turn away, but it’s not easy given the spellbinding quality of his passion and the universality of the frustrations he’s unearthing. On his 2017 masterpiece, Big Bad Luv, he displays the confidence that he can command attention with his seemingly reluctant vocals and the mere suggestion of a moral in his stories. Another worthy singer-songwriter from Oklahoma is Moreland’s frequent duomate, John Calvin Abney.
Shelley grew up in Louisville, Kentucky, but the more she dove into old Appalachian field recordings, the more she sounded like those mountain women and their Anglo-Celtic ancestors. Her soprano acquired a blues-less clarity remote from modern practices, and she began to write minimalist new songs that burrowed into that sound. On 2017’s Jeff Tweedy-produced Joan Shelley, the echo of an ancient song such as “The Cuckoo” can be heard in the new composition “Go Wild,” another song about a free-flying bird and the singer who envies it.
In recent years, Saskatchewan’s Colter Wall has garnered attention for his songs about life on the Canadian prairies. As good as Wall is, Manitoba’s Barber brings a sharper songwriting eye to the same subject matter. Though little known south of the border, he has won multiple Western Canadian Music Awards for his disarming humor and relaxed tenor. When he creates story songs about an oil wildcatter, a waitress, a motel clerk and a ranch hand on his classic 2014 album, Prairieography, they always seem like real people, never “types.”
Dave Cobb, producer for everyone from Jason Isbell to John Prine, insisted on taking time out of his busy schedule to produce Noe’s 2019 debut album, Between the Country, as soon as he heard the young singer-songwriter open for Colter Wall. Cobb was that taken by the stark, vivid realism and seductive country melodies in Noe’s tales of meth dealers, laid-off coal miners, sex workers, junkyard scavengers and elusive lovers. Anyone would have been that taken.
Geoffrey Himes writes about music for the Washington Post, Paste, American Songwriter, the Nashville Scene, JazzTimes and DownBeat.
Image: J.S. Ondara performs in Singapore in 2019. Credit: Suhaimi Abdullah/Getty.
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