“I hope banjo and yelling ‘hey!’ are still cool, because that’s half of our new record,” quipped New Pornographers frontman Carl Newman in a much-retweeted Twitter post this summer. The indie-powerpop songwriter of course was mocking bands such as Mumford & Sons, the Lumineers, the Avett Brothers, and others who’ve emerged in recent years as an improbably popular offshoot of the squeaky-cleanest side of folk music, filling arenas with young people shouting along to exclamatory Anglo-American acoustic anthems.
If nothing else, the trend has been great at provoking priceless kids-today ire from rockers such as Newman, the Fall’s Mark E. Smith, and even Alice Cooper. But I too have to confess my nonplussedness: Of all the strains of 1960s folk revivalism, the last I’d have figured anyone missed was the happy-clappy collegiate spirit of the New Christy Minstrels. Yet here it is enjoying a reanimation in the second decade of the 21st century. And it’s not only the multiplatinum, Grammy-guesting, hanging-with-celebs hootenanny-jam bands—old-timey music is hip with tribes of boho youth who can be found affecting creaky hill-people vocals and busking favorite cuts from the Anthology of American Folk Music in porkpie hats and/or cutoff Crass T-shirts at indie music festivals and/or street corners in New Orleans.
It’s a very inexact science to dissect why musical movements happen. They might be set in motion by individual inspiration, respond to socio-economic conditions, or evolve out of innovations within a form (from, e.g., swing to bebop) or via new technology (1980s synth-pop or 1990s techno) or from distinctive street cultures (1950s doo-wop). Often—for instance with hip-hop—you’d have to say all of the above. Revivalist waves are more mysterious still: Why do clusters of young musicians and listeners gravitate to particular bygone sounds at particular times, and is there more to it than nostalgic arrested development?
New records this month from Newman’s sometime-bandmate Neko Case and from songwriter Richard Buckner reminded me of another roots movement, in its own way as unlikely as the current litter of Brothers and Sons: the rise in the early 1990s of “alternative country” (or alt-country), which saw artists with rock and punk backgrounds filling their records with fiddles, mandolins, pedal steel, and twangy accents of dubious regional provenance. Case and Buckner were grouped under that umbrella along with early Wilco, the Old 97s, Son Volt and many more, and though alt-country’s track record now looks pretty good, at the time music snobs scorned it as phony carpetbagging as often as they embraced it.
You could read each of these “roots” moves as reactions to the anxiety of cultural rootlessness: in the 1990s, to the mushrooming of the exurbs and to media saturation; today, to the displacement and disembodiment brought on by digital lifestyles. They’re gestures against the modern. They’re also both cases of young generations bruised by recessions identifying with genres associated with past economic deprivation. This is where the revivals run into trouble, of course, because borrowing the cultural markers of an “other” as metaphors for your own condition can get awkward, if not downright offensive, as Miley Cyrus’ Twerkmageddon at the Video Music Awards amply demonstrated. It’s just a little less blatant when it’s a case of white-on-white appropriation that fetishizes, say, the rural as a form of authenticity it can inhabit selectively—all of the “character” with none of the farm work.
I admired many 1990s alt-country acts, but I’ll always remember being taken patiently to task by a broad-minded Nashville bluegrass player who pointed out that punky slipshod musicianship would not get a pass in any branch of country, and that the “hat acts” I then disdained (Garth Brooks, for instance) were far more squarely within the tradition. He was understandably irritated by the young Ryan Adams crooning, with his band Whiskeytown, that he “started this damn country band/ ’cuz punk rock was too hard to sing.”
Spin’s Chuck Eddy has done an excellent job of playing my bluegrass friend’s part for the Mumfords, plumbing their historical shallows compared to previous British folk revivalists: “Fairport Convention and Steeleye Span were students of centuries of jigs, reels, waltzes, and Morris Dances, and figured out how to modernize them, beautifully. … [But] the Mumfords barely skim the surface. They don't seem remotely musically curious.”
Yet I think there are more sympathetic ways to look at these phenomena, socially and musically. Ann Powers of NPR has argued that the Mumfetts’ appeal to communal-singalong positivity has a spiritual upside: “[When] I hear Mumford & Sons or the Avett Brothers, I recognize the same internal fights, the same desire to grapple with impossibly big terms like ‘sincerity’ and ‘belief,’ that U2's music helped me through twenty years ago. … [To] deny that widely shared notions of being good and strong and fulfilled — the things Marcus Mumford sings about — don't have power is to dismiss a lot of what lives in people's hearts.”
That effect is reinforced by the fact that these are bands (or at least duos) at a time when pop is dominated by solo rappers and divas. You could call Mumford & Sons a One Direction for more grown-up audiences or an Arcade Fire for the more mainstream—they have the attraction of collectivity, even of surrogate family.
Alt-country was in part about those emotional connections as well. It was no coincidence that it surfaced right around “the year punk broke,” when what had been a clannish rock subculture in the 1980s turned into music-industry big business. Folkie and country sounds offered a doubling down on DIY, in which friends could grab guitars and make noise without needing Marshall stacks and a tour bus, as if around the campfire or the kitchen table. Boston’s Scud Mountain Boys (who recently released their first album together in over 16 years and are on tour this month) would even haul an actual table and lamps on stage.
But there was also an individualist counterdynamic. In the era of post-punk and grunge, groups ruled and singer-songwriters were thought limp and uncool. Solo artists tried to muddy that distinction by adopting handles that sounded like band names—bandonyms, as I’ve called them, such as Smog, the Mountain Goats, or Palace. Drawing on the “old, weird America” (in Greil Marcus’ problematic phrase) of country and hillbilly music was another way that artists who leaned toward introspective acoustic music could find a niche and some crucial mystique. There were many kinds of alt-country, but one of its functions was as a refuge for the singer-songwriter in an inhospitable time.