After 55 years, the Newport Folk Festival is still relevant. Not only is it relevant, it is still bringing together disparate influences and challenging the notions of “folk” music in the same way that Bob Dylan did back in 1965 (though now the public expects it). Case in point, Son House admirer, producer, blues, folk writer, Jack White is one of the headline performers this year. Jack White’s history proves that he certainly won’t stay put in any one genre. Jack White has dabbled in old-time (“Wayfaring Stranger” from Cold Mountain), folk (“We Are Going to be Friends”) and the usual blues-rock. But wait, maybe those are all different views of the same thing. I’m not sure, but I’m excited to see Jack and his band.
Another genre bender has certainly been Ryan Adams. He’s single-handedly responsible for opening me and my wife up to country music. Ryan started that way with his seminal alt-country band Whiskeytown. Then he spun through a dizzying array of genres: singer/songwriter, rock & roll, punk, lo-fi, jam band, and country to name a few. While some may criticize his prolificacy and his derivativeness, those are the very things that make him so likable. In fact, those things are what drew me to his foray in straight ahead rock “Gold” and opened my eyes to the other genres that Ryan spun through, particularly country iterations. He even dabbled his toes in bluegrass in “Pearls on a String.” This certainly makes Ryan Adams a performer who has gone through many different iterations and can be unpredictable. That’s certainly part of his appeal.
Another band, seemingly the most traditional in the list, has managed to come back together after seven years off, better than ever. Nickel Creek, while generally keeping to their genre amalgamation (bluegrass, folk, country mixture), have released an absolutely classically crafted set of tunes. They’ve always bent the rules a bit by playing bluegrass-y stuff without a banjo, without the traditional tunes, but with all of the immaculate chops and often more of the beautiful compositions. They’ve attracted the attention not just from the folk music crowd, but managed to appeal to the young indie rockers. They have opened up bluegrass/acoustic country to a whole new generation and they bring their rock roots back to that group. They’re the hardest rocking bluegrass band I’ve ever heard. Oh and the new record has some serious bluegrass harmony.
That’s just the beginning; Mavis Staples, Jeff Tweedy, and Robert Hunter round out the legends. Dawes, Lake Street Dive, the Milk Carton Kids, and Shovels & Rope are bands that I keep hearing about but haven’t had the chance to see yet. Which brings me to one of my personal favorites: Sun Kil Moon. I’ve been a fan of Mark Kozelek since he was in Red House Painters. He’s an atmospheric master whose lyrics are profoundly affecting. Red House Painters tune “Have You Forgotten How to Love Yourself” roped me in a decade ago.
The Newport Folk Festival is not only relevant these days, but for an alt-country kid like myself, it’s the most exciting summer concert festival. It’s a bit of a coming out party for Americana music. Can’t wait!