Folk music is a very traditionalist art form. With a history that runs much deeper than other forms of American music, “folk” carries certain connotations with it. The sparse single guitar and vocal delivery of a man like Woodie Guthrie quickly comes to mind for most, while political statements and songs so old they are property of the public domain are right behind the base timbre. Often people look no further than Bob Dylan on the timeline when listening to folk, a mistake that is quite regrettable considering the wonderful folk-based music that currently inhabits that independent music scene. From freak folk to folk punk, indie-folk to alt-country the genre has expanded and blossomed.
So cast aside your preconceived notions, and prepare to scope out the new world of folk music. From eloquent and beautiful, to lo-fi and energized folk still keeps a stripped down troubadour feeling at its core, but musicians have found a way to re-write the canon without destroying its original intent. Here are some new folk artists worth checking out.
The Mountain Goats
John Darnielle, the man behind the Mountain Goats, may be one of underground folk’s most prolific artists. For most of his career Darnielle has recorded his story based songs direct to a boom box. The results are lo-fi but lovely, charming tunes delivered with honesty and no nonsense. On his last few albums however, Darnielle has found himself in a studio, expanding to a full band sound and producing songs that may be acoustic based, but are more lush and grand. A great lyricist Darnielle seems capable of crafting a tale about almost anything and his 100s of recorded songs only lend credence to this fact.
Fingers Cut Megamachine
Once the front man for angst-fueled punk rockers Osker, Devon Williams shows off his acoustic side with Fingers Cut Megamachine. Still rooted in the passion that drives punk, Devon delivers folk based tunes that are laced with youth. Sometimes backed by a band and sometimes solo, his imperfect vocals are sincere and endearing while his nods to Americana are far from contrived.
Lewis and Clarke
The music of Lewis and Clarke plays out with the relaxed nature of friend strumming some tunes by the fireside. Warmth emanates from the soft production and sweet delivery, showing that quiet does not always translate to somber or depressing. Instead you will find well-conceived pieces of music that are easily accessible and even more memorable.
Iron and Wine
With nearly whispered vocals and softly plucked guitars, haunting seems almost an understatement for Iron and Wine. The project of musician Sam Beam, Iron and Wine started as a lo-fi hobby before Sub Pop picked up on Beam’s music. Beautiful and soft, Iron and Wine is almost sleepy time folk, but as Beam has continued to work on the project it has expanded through more instrumentation and diverse arrangements, but always kept his hushed relaxed delivery at the heart.
An Omaha native who inspired Conner Oberst, Simon Joyner started his recorded career with a mix of sloppy and fast folk-punk and some Dylan like finger pickers. Over the years Joyner has slowed himself a bit while adding more of a grandiose feel through instrumentation and a more controlled singing style. Joyner hasn’t lost his original passion, just found a way to harness it in the hands of a great songwriter that knows how to tell a story.
David Dondero started his musical career as the front man for rock band Sunbrain. In 1999 he went solo, picking up an acoustic guitar and keen story-telling ability. Dondero’s wavering vocal chords often draw comparisons to Conner Oberst, while his speedy guitar playing seems to owe as much to punk rock as folk. Dondero can cover serious topics like prison life, loneliness, and politics, but he also sometimes wanders into the realm of light-hearted romps. He is also not afraid to experiment musically, moving from soft folk ballads, to country twang, beatnik swagger, electronic drum beat pop, and bluesy rock.
Smog is the alias of singer/songwriter Bill Callahan, a lo-fi folk artist that has put his 4 track to good use. The deeply personal and sometimes bizarre Callahan covers everything from simple guitar and vocal numbers, to ambient and airy arrangements, and fuzzed out basement pop. Like the Mountain Goats, Callahan has been rather prolific, creating many hard to find releases that collectors still fiend for today. Yet, Callahan does not revel in the same friend telling a story world of the Mountain Goats, but instead often reaches for darker realms or spacious soundscapes and detached vocals.