Only Connect: Some Modern Folk

Timothy Cushing


It’s not surprising that in this often confusing technological age, there is a large group turning to much simpler music. Acoustic-motivated song is, in some way, able to cut through the electronic capriciousness and alienation that much current music offers. Instead of embracing this alienation, much current folk music is able to challenge it through its lo-fi medium. Folk music has always had a place in the American music scene, and is undoubtedly once again on the rise. Adopting E.M. Forster’s creed of “only connect,” today’s folk music follows an established tradition and applies it to modern themes in order to simplify and remedy struggle.

One proposed reason for this resurgence in folk and bluegrass music is the age of the baby boomers. Roger McGuinn of the Byrds recently said that much of today’s youth is following the lead of their elders. He hypothesizes that folk musicians of the 60’s have turned to teaching in their older age and are passing on the folk tradition to their students. Many of today’s musicians are rediscovering and reinventing styles that were, at least for a while, somewhat dormant.

One band that has received much attention as of late is the Avett Brothers. Hailing from Concord, North Carolina, the group mixes aspects of bluegrass, country, ragtime, folk, and punk, and is composed of Seth Avett, Scott Avett and Bob Crawford. For a trio, the group offers an explosive sound. Held together by Bob Crawford’s background in jazz upright bass (which constitutes his solo career), the brothers rollick through catchy melodies and simple yet poignant topics. While manning the high-hat, Seth Avett exhibits precise technical acoustic guitar talent and an ever-strengthening voice that often erupts in wild screaming to back Scott’s more melodic singing. Scott Avett is in charge of banjo and kick drum for most of the band’s repertoire, but jumps on drums for “Die, Die, Die” and other songs.

Boasting an incredible live show, the Avett Brothers have steadily been growing in popularity over the course of the past few years. On stage, Seth and Scott constantly (and without any degradation to the song) break strings. They have also recently added Joe Kwon on cello, who is animated in his bowing, plucking and unmiked yelling. Although their studio albums decently represent the band, on stage is where they truly shine. Their self-produced sound has attracted the attention of the American Recordings/Columbia Records label who has given the group a record deal for their next LP. Under the production of Rick Rubin, the next album is due out in 2009.

The general message of the group is grounded in Southern traditions of family and religion, but is also able to seamlessly identify and incorporate the confusion of modernity. The traditional influence is not overbearing in the group’s sound, but rather serves as a basis for meaning within their songs. This is especially apparent on their newest release The Second Gleam. In this EP the band returns to the slow paced musings of the first Gleam and focuses on an uplifting message. In the song “Murder in the City,” Scott Avett poses the hypothetical scenario: “If I get murdered in the city,” then instantly rebukes any need for retribution with the line, “Don’t go revenging in my name.” He expands upon this theme throughout the song until an overarching viewpoint culminates in the simple statement: “Always remember there was nothing worth sharing like the love that let us share our name.” The tune exhibits a maturity and hope in its reneging of self and celebration of a unifying theme. The Avett Brothers are somewhat rare in that, although they do have their fair share of unrequited love struggle, the general message of their songs is rarely malicious or self serving. They have evolved from their first release, A Carolina Jubilee, which boasts such foot-stompers as “I Killed Sally’s Lover” and “The Traveling Song” – tunes about murderous revenge and unhindered travel, respectively. Perhaps this ever-increasing maturity and wisdom is what defines them as a leader of their genre.

Modern folk bands such as the Avett Brothers are not the only groups that have grown in popularity. There has also been a resurgence of interest in the folk troubadour. One individual who has much merit in the scene is Ian Thomas. With nimble fingers and an even nimbler mind, Thomas’ image is elusively intriguing (his Myspace location is listed as Isle of Man in the United States Minor Outlying Islands). A self-described “American Songster,” he defines the traveling and starving musician. Backed by an acoustic guitar, Thomas often adds harmonica and kazoo, retaining a simplicity as he places pensive lyrics over a backdrop of blues, ragtime and folk. His quick-witted songs of love, loss, and character are never grounded in any specific locale, but instead they opt for an exploration of androgynous location that eventually finds a home in a vast spectrum of emotion.

Ian Thomas’ sound is also strongly based in traditional song and wisdom. His metaphors take root in myth and distorted folklore, never turning to modernity as a source of wisdom or progress. There is a certain reassurance in his songs that mention rattlesnakes and mountains or the vastness of the sea. One tune that overtly addresses the problems of city life and, in a broader sense, modernity in general is “Sweet Celeny.” Released on his LP A Young Man’s Blues, the song urges a girl to desert her city life for a simple existence and love. Interestingly, the song has many parallels to the Avett Brothers song, “Famous Flower of Manhattan.” Thomas sings, “Sweet Celeny/ You’ve been too long in the noise/ Wasting time on those city boys/ And if I offered you the choice/ Would you run away with me?” The song takes refuge in a simple way of living as antidote to difficult love. There is a sense of hopelessness in that Celeny will most likely not opt out of her city life, but also comfort in Thomas’ steadfast love of the countryside and the values that it entails.

Commitment is a theme that is inherent to many of Thomas’ songs. Although the turbulence of a young man’s life may cast doubt, Thomas’ music seems determined to maintain moral fortitude. He seeks truth, and is not ashamed to point out fault. On perhaps one of his most thoughtful and beautiful songs, “I Ain’t Lonesome,” which closes A Young Man’s Blues, Thomas sings, “And I ain’t callin’ out anybody’s name/ ‘Nor whinin’ for the trees above to bend/ And I ain’t lonesome about any one girl/ I’m just lonesome ‘bout bein’ in this world.” The resonance of these few lines is astounding. Thomas knows that he is the only one in control of himself, and it is his responsibility to find his own path. He cannot necessarily change the outlook of others, but is committed to trying to find his way in the world. If that means making music then so be it.

Another up-and-coming troubadour in the American folk scene is Brooklyn-based Langhorne Slim. Born Sean Scolnick, Slim adopts the hobo tradition and takes his name, Langhorne, from his hometown in Pennsylvania. He combines aspects of country, punk, polka, and folk to make a melodic blend of music that ranges from simple love ballads to feral romps. His main focus is the tribulations of relationships, and his aim is to remedy discord that lies within these relationships.

Langhorne Slim’s newest release, Langhorne Slim and the War Eagles, marks a definitive maturation of his sound. The album has a distinctly positive tone that borders on a celebration. The sound is undercut by lyrics on the album’s stronger songs, such as the single “Restless,” in which Slim finds a great balance of joy and loss.

Slim’s music and lyrics are simple and melodic, and because of this they sometimes risk bordering on tacky. This problem is easily remedied, however, by his soulful and grinding voice that oozes earnestness. Some of this rawness may be lost in the studio, but Slim’s live charismatic presence and sound is unparalleled. In the song “Sometimes,” Slim is able to deliver awkward lines such as, “Sometimes I hate the things that you do/ Sometimes I hate the things that you say/ I won’t lie, I won’t even try/ I know sometimes I drive you crazy/ Maybe that’s why we love each other forever and for always,” with such unhindered drive that they may remain unchecked.

One of Slim’s most impressive recordings to date appears on his 2004 EP, The Electric Love Letter. This song leaves Slim naked with just his voice and his guitar in conversation with God. The instrumentation and subject matter gives Slim a chance to thoroughly expose his mournful undertones in a heart-rending way. The listener is drenched in grief as Slim moans, “A man’s heart is his own/ And only he can break it/ I’d start all over alone/ If only I could take it.” The loss of the singer causes an exploration of doubt that is Langhorne Slim at his best.