News Column

Today's folk music: Real people singing real stories

September 13, 2013

YellowBrix

Sept. 13--Not since the heyday of Bob Dylan, The Band and The Byrds has folk music been more mainstream.

Keeping company on the charts with the likes of Lady Gaga and Daft Punk are unplugged, unadorned acts like England's Mumford & Sons; Portland, Ore.'s The Decemberists; and Colorado's Lumineers, who play Saltair on Tuesday, Sept. 17.

Chris Cullen, who works both solo and with other artists under the moniker Candid Coyote, is an Ogden musician just out of his teens. He counts folkies and bluesmen of yore, such as Woody Guthrie, Mississippi John Hurt, Son House and Townes Van Zandt, among his inspirations.

Cullen believes that the resurgence of folk instrumentation and songsmithing demonstrates a craving for something handcrafted and heartfelt in today's music.

"More than anything, I love the authenticity of this stuff," said Cullen. "You have real people singing real stories. With rock, authentic guys like Elvis were the beginning, but then, over time, much of that music became impersonal. There is a greater presence, a greater honesty and sincerity, in this roots music, or Americana, or whatever you want to call it. And that always has a way of sounding a little bit better to my ears, at least."

Michelle Tanner is the founder of Ogden Friends of Acoustic Music, an organization that presents both an Americana-style festival and a roots and blues festival in the Top of Utah. With all of the overprocessing done in studio and onstage, Tanner said she thinks people's ears are piqued when they hear traditional instruments played in unvarnished fashion.

"You hear good banjo playing, good acoustic guitar, and it does not get better than that," she said. "They don't need amplification, or a lot of distortion. And there is strong songwriting and playing abilities in these bands, too, because you've got nothing to hide behind but your skills.

"These groups are also coming up with catchy tunes that people want to listen to. You just want more when you hear something like 'Wagon Wheel.' "

Added Cullen: "I think there is a return to instruments that most people are familiar with -- they know these sounds, they've been pleasing sounds to us for a long time. What makes it new and unique to today, and hopefully makes it timeless, is not what you lay on technically, but the arc of the story in music and lyrics. The song and the person singing it become what's important, not the innovations of technology."

Simple sophistication

Ron Atencio has seen many styles come and go in the nearly nine years his all-ages club, Mojo's, has operated in downtown Ogden.

He said he has seen roots music become a rising force among young bands: Ogden groups like Candid Coyote and The Old World and Salt Lake City bands like Ferocious Oaks and The Folka Dots are filling shows in nearly equal numbers as that of harder rock and metal acts.

Some young musicians are also splitting time between amplified and unplugged outfits in a way that would have been rare in previous years.

"It's a kind of new evolution that goes to the basics," said Atencio. "I find it hard to identify this as under a single genre, but something is happening. Metal and rock has its own evolution. Within this movement, simplicity is where it all begins, and then they build off of that to make it their own."

Atencio said he notices a difference in the young people coming out for these unplugged outfits.

"This tends to be a group that has a little more sophisticated tastes," said Atencio. "They are open to new sounds. They get sort of lumped into the indie or progressive side of things, but it is not at all that. The music is really creative and free-flowing. It is kind of an overused phrase, but I really do see these artists as taking something old and making it new again."

Cullen said that stories are also elemental to this style. Lyrics tend to deal with very real and relatable experiences -- loss, love, loneliness.

"Mostly, the material is about life as a human being on planet Earth -- the timeless stuff that can cross cultures," said Cullen. "The backbone comes from traditional American tunes, Celtic songs, blues. You don't need every little detail spelled out, but if told eloquently, a simple song can become a bigger, thematic exploration of life. They touch a part of us, touch on subjects that don't necessarily get examined in the excess of our culture today."

Broader training

One distinction of these bands that makes them a bit different from their folkie ancestors is that members have oftentimes played a wide variety of styles before focusing down.

In local outfits and national groups, lineups might include at least one member who spent time in the classical world -- which helps make for strong arrangements.

On the other end of the spectrum, many have members who have done their time in rock, metal or punk groups before pulling the plug.

"This is not museum stuff," said Tanner. "This is new music that is drawn from roots music. I mean, even rock, at 60 years old, is becoming not a thing of the past, but something historical in scope, at least. It was originally a mixture of country and blues with a new beat. And that's what the rock influence has done to this music, perhaps -- added a fresh new beat to it."

This mix of training and experience, from conservatory to punk clubs to fiddling hoedowns, holds true in the lineup of Elephant Revival, a Colorado-based new-folk band that has won the hearts of Ogden fans. The band has played and presented workshops for the last two years at OFOAM's Ogden Music Festival at Fort Buenaventura.

"They are a great example of this movement, too -- so enthusiastic about their traditional instruments, and it just shows in their music," Tanner said. "It is infectious. And I think when people see it happening right in front of them, they feel they want to, and can do, something like that themselves. So the music spreads that way, too -- hand to hand."

Added Atencio: "Always what I say about this last decade in music trends is that with most bands, it is hard to fit them into one genre. And that is the fun part of watching them take something old and make something new with it, whether it is blues or punk or this new brand of Americana. This music is as unique and individual as the musicians themselves."

Contact reporter Linda East Brady at 801-625-4279 or lbrady@standard.net. Follow her on Twitter @LindaEastBrady.

New old-time bands

--Old Crow Medicine Show (Harrisonburg, Va.) -- This group, with roots in the honest-to-goodness Appalachian hills, were among the first wave of neo-folkies when they began recording and busking around the Northeast U.S. and Southeast Canada in 1998. They scored big with Ketch Secor's fleshing out of an old Bob Dylan song sketch, "Wagon Wheel." The song had a timelessness that seemed to cross a variety of genres.

The song has sold steadily since being recorded in 2004. As of April 2013, the song went platinum, no doubt helped by Darius Rucker's Top 40 hit with his version earlier in the year.

--Avett Brothers (Concord, N.C.) -- Brothers Scott and Seth Avett also had roots in the traditional birthplace of folk and American bluegrass. They founded the acoustic outfit in 2000, though both brothers had firm footings in rock 'n' roll before exploring more traditional styles.

The Avetts have now made eight studio albums, four EPs and three live albums. Four of the Avetts' albums have made it to the Billboard Top 200. Their 2013 album, "The Carpenter," went to No. 4 on the Top 200.

--Trampled by Turtles (Duluth, Minn.) -- This quintet also has its roots in rock bands, all having played electric guitar in at least one other Minnesota rock band before forming the Turtles.

Their music, written primarily by lead singer Dave Simonette, never strays from traditional instruments, but the dramatic arc of some of these tunes almost feels like unplugged prog rock at times.

The 2012 indie release, "Stars & Satellites," debuted at No. 32 on the Billboard Top 200, and spent 52 weeks in the Top 10 of the Billboard bluegrass charts.

--Mumford & Sons (London) -- When you are an Englishman Dickens-ishly named Marcus Mumford, folk might seem almost preordained. Mumford formed the group in 2007, and the band's debut album, "Sigh No More," released in 2009, went to No. 2 on both the UK Album Chart and the Billboard Top 200.

The buzz drew crowds, and the band became a popular live act. Their follow-up, "Babel," debuted at No. 1 on both British and American charts. The band won the Album of the Year Grammy in 2013.

--The Lumineers (Ramsey, N.J./Brooklyn, N.Y./Denver, Colo.) -- Founders Wesley Schultz and Jeremiah Fraites formed the band back East before eventually finding a home in Denver -- and the key element of cellist Neyla Pekarek, who responded to a Craigslist ad.

Their self-titled debut album came out on April 3, 2012. It built slowly but steadily, claiming the No. 2 spot on the Billboard Top 200 in January 2013.

The Lumineers drew nominations in both the Best New Artist and Best Americana Album at the 2013 Grammy Awards.

Sources: allmusic.com, billboard.com, thelumineers.com, www.mumfordandsons.com, trampledbyturtles.com, www.theavettbrothers.com, www.crowmedicine.com

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