The average staffer at Paste is a walking repository of musical knowledge. When I joined that staff in late 2014, I knew that I was never going to be able to match up to that average level of knowledge, at least when it comes to rock ‘n roll, pop and indie bands. I do enjoy that stuff, but on the Paste hierarchy I’m probably still near the bottom when it comes to my ability to participate at a rock ‘n roll trivia night.
The one area where I do hold court is in folk music, or a specific subset of folk music—traditional and progressive/experimental folk music. I leveraged all of that taste when I wrote a piece in the summer of 2014 called “20 Great Folk Albums to Add to Your Indie-Rock Collection.” The idea was, in acknowledging Paste’s readership, to offer some of my favorite traditional and progressive folk music albums that might help lead some indie kids off the beaten path, much as I had my musical world expanded when I fell deep into folk via Pandora in the mid-2000s.
Of course, that original list was only scratching the surface of my favorite folk albums. After recently receiving a tweet from a reader asking if I was ever going to write another similar piece, I got to work. Here are 10 more folk albums, mostly recent, that you should seek out and add to your collection.
Sam Bush is one of the most dependably outstanding mandolin players in the history of bluegrass music, and is considered a pioneer of newgrass/progressive bluegrass, which he helped found with Bela Fleck as a member of the band New Grass Revival in the ‘70s. A beloved figure, he’s known as the “King of Telluride” for his yearly performances at the Colorado bluegrass festival. Since the late ‘90s he’s consistently been delivering solo albums every few years, but my favorite is the mix of traditional and genre-bending tracks on 2006’s Laps in Seven. The album wanders between barn-burning, up-tempo foot stompers (“Bringing in the Georgia Mail”), political commentary (“Ballad for a Soldier”) and unexpected covers, such as the 1969 psychedelic rock song “White Bird” by the band It’s a Beautiful Day. You never quite know where Bush is going to go next, but you’re fairly certain there’s going to be some virtuoso mandolin picking.
Standout track: Bush seems to be close with some of the other luminaries of this genre that I’ve written about previously—Tim O’Brien, Darrell Scott, etc. On Laps in Seven he takes on a beautiful Darrell Scott composition called “River Take Me” about a tragic flood and transforms it in his own unusual, bluegrass fusion style. Where Scott’s original version is a stripped-down, emotional folk song that sounds appropriate for a coffee shop, Bush ups the tempo, fuses acoustic and electric instrumentation in virtuoso solos and creates a dramatic, thunderous conclusion.
I previously wrote about Alela Diane’s To Be Still, (and interviewed her recently) which remains one of my favorite folk albums of all time, but its follow-up, Wild Divine, marked an interesting and ultimately very successful departure. At the time of its release, I confess I was disappointed in this album when I first heard it—the expansion of Diane’s sound to a full band, complete with drum kit and steel guitars, felt too much like an abandonment of the folk aesthetic she had so sumptuously demonstrated with minimal (but spectacular) string arrangements on To Be Still. In time, though, my opinion changed, and I’ve grown to love the way that her haunting voice plays over the sounds of classic country/Americana. Almost every song is instantly memorable, from the warbling, yodel-like refrain of “Elijah” to the jazzy swing of “Heartless Highway” to the vocal showcase of “The Wind,” one of the album’s few songs that bridges the gap between it and To Be Still. It’s ultimately Diane’s most approachable album, and might well be the one I’d now use to introduce someone new to her special voice.
Standout track: If I’m picking one track to really capture the feel and aesthetic of Alela Diane & Wild Divine, then it would be “Long Way Down,” which perfectly blends the twang of steel guitar with the strong but wistful vocals of Diane. It’s an undeniably bigger and more fleshed-out sound that anything in To Be Still and does push Diane herself slightly further out of the center spotlight, but the more I listen to it, the more I appreciate both the musicianship of her band and the fact that it’s impossible to shade the light of stardom that Alela Diane emits. As I wrote when I interviewed her, she’s a singer who deserves a much larger audience owing to her vocal gifts alone.
Lunasa are, if not the greatest, then indisputably one of the greatest Irish folk music acts performing today. Acoustically structured and primarily instrumental, they represent the best possible fusion of traditional instrumentation and cutting edge modern arrangements of fiddles, pipes and flutes. Their 2001 album The Merry Sisters of Fate is perhaps the best instrumental album of Irish folk music in the last 20 years; a collection of one scintillating set of jigs, reels and airs after another. Tunes like “Morning Nightcap” and the title track weave seamlessly in and out of recognizable, traditional tunes and compositions by the group’s members, inspiring every emotion from joy to lamentation. If you want to know what mastery of one’s craft sounds like—complete and utter mastery—it sounds like every recording on this album. There isn’t a single misstep. Nor is anything treated as camp, as you’ll so often see in folk music today that doesn’t have the guts to be “serious.” Their prodigious musicianship demands to be taken seriously.
Standout track: “Aoibhneas” is a Gaelic word meaning “bliss” or “delight,” and that is a perfectly accurate term to use in describing this set of tunes that kicks off the album in rousing fashion. It sets off at a galloping, jovial pace, driven by flute and pipes as most Lunasa songs are, before transitioning into a final, triumphant tune called “Not Safe With a Razor” featuring more driving rhythm guitars. Above it all, though, the flutist rises to a spectacular crescendo that still gives me goosebumps when I hear it.
I’ve written about Barton Carroll before; a world-weary troubadour who has produced a handful of great singer-songwriter folk albums since the mid-2000s. His most recent, Avery County, I’m Bound to You, is as personal as the title suggests, with meditations on his upbringing in North Carolina and of course plenty of love songs of varying degrees of bitterness. Carroll’s literate, wordy lyricism is equal parts intricate and profound—I love turns of phrase like “given a language of cinder and slag, thought I could steal something to say.” Other songs such as “It Had to Be a Train” envision quirky stories, such as a narrator lambasting his fleeing girlfriend for choosing the most “cinematic” and cliche possible manner of leaving him, by train. Or as Barton sings, “You’re from Boone, not old Russia / Your name is Jen, not Anna Karenina.”
Standout track: Carroll spins another uniquely weird little story on “What a Picture Is,” a song about a brokenhearted man waiting in the bushes outside his ex’s house so he can snap a photo of her when she appears. Creepy? Extremely. And yet, Carroll somehow makes it sound amusingly sentimental—a guy who completely took his relationship for granted, salvaging one last memory. And of course there’s his wonderfully evocative lyrics: “But I took for granted every pretty chance I had, every photo-millisecond of time / Now I’ve been reduced to a crouching paparazzo with a beer bottle full of wine.”
The best tracks from Michigan folk duo Red Tail Ring are the sort of arresting, yearning, sentimental love songs that would sound incredibly hokey and lame coming from most people. The difference is that Laurel Premo and Michael Beauchamp aren’t two college students with a passing interest in old-school American roots music, playing in a cafe to pass the time between sociology courses. They’re musicians who have invested everything into a style of music with little to no crossover popular appeal or marketability, who have been driving around this country for the last 5 years playing gorgeous waltzes to small audiences in performing arts centers, libraries and house parties. More than almost any other folk musicians I’ve ever heard, they’ve managed to fuse their own writing and compositions (which are beautiful) in with 100-year-old pieces, and I honestly can’t tell which are which until I look up the songwriting credits. What they have on an album such as The Heart’s Swift Foot (which is all originals), is something truly timeless. Tracks like “Ohio Turnpike” radiate an easy, gentle “good-naturedness” that makes you wish you lived in an apartment next to the band, if only so you could hear a constant soundtrack of rehearsals drifting in through the walls.
Standout track: “A Clearing in the Wild” is a pastoral track, as the name would likely suggest, but delivered with haunting beauty via Premo’s angelic voice. In a live version of the track, she introduces it as “a lullaby for a loved one … not necessarily a baby.” Perhaps that’s why it makes me feel so at ease, or at least “at ease” in a “I may cry because this is so pretty” kind of way. Premo’s songs feature wonderfully poetic turns of phrase and metaphor: “Let yourself go, sigh like the rapids, breath down your body, let the dam overflow / and release the day like a thunder of sparrows, and lie in the stillness when everything’s gone.”
Just hearing about the existence of Scruj MacDuhk and their one studio album together, The Road to Canso, was for me equivalent to a classic rock fan finding out that the members of The Beatles and The Rolling Stones had once put out an album as a young garage band supergroup. It was a piece of information I discovered just as I was getting into folk music around 2006/2007, and I was blown away to learn that members of two of my favorite folk groups—The Duhks and The Wailin’ Jennys—had once all been in a traditional folk band together. Actually hearing this album, though, was something I didn’t get a chance to do for years, because it’s never been available digitally. Very few copies of the original CD exist, and used copies are going for $30 on Amazon. It will cost you $80 for a new copy, something I wasn’t about to pay, even for an album that might have been a holy grail. I finally was able to hear it after a folk music conversation on YouTube bloomed into an acquaintance in Portland who physically mailed me a burned copy. And it was worthwhile—it’s a stupendous album of Irish-influenced traditional folk, featuring blistering sets of jigs and reels and ethereal love songs by Ruth Moody, who would go on to do the same in The Wailin’ Jennys.
Standout track: “Craigie Hills,” like most traditional Irish folk songs, has a debated origin, but it’s an absolutely lovely ballad about a narrator who’s eavesdropping on a conversation between two young lovers: A man who’s bound to sail away for “Americae” and the young woman who’s pleading with him not to go. He is of course going away to America to make his fortune, and assures her that they’ll meet again and be together forever: “We’ll be happy as Queen Victorae, all in her greatest glory / We’ll be drinking wine and porter, all in Americae.” I love these old “goodbye” songs that remind us of a world where parting meant you might not see each other again for years, or forever.
April Verch is a sprightly, perpetually youthful fiddler and step-dancer from Ontario who I discovered, like so many other folk artists, by building a ton of folk stations on Pandora while in college. She’s a serious double threat and former Canadian champion fiddler, who can also dance up a storm while playing—meaning that you can’t help but compare her to fellow (and somewhat better known) Canadian fiddler/dancer Natalie MacMaster. Where MacMaster is more of a showman, though, Verch is a straight-up virtuoso who performs with smaller bands and more traditional backing group—no electric guitars here. Verchuosity is an album that essentially just features the musician showing off her immaculate chops on sets of tunes that range from sweet (“William Gagnon”) to commanding (“Fire When Ready”) to jazzy and swinging (“Sneaky”). In her more recent recordings, Verch has shown more interest in singing, but I’m much more interested in these earlier albums where her violin mastery shines through all the more clearly.
Standout track: “Fire When Ready” starts out with a slower, waltz-like tune in minor key before accelerating into a rousing, toe-tapping number with supporting strings and what sounds like a bodhran keeping the beat. You’d be forgiven for not even noticing that the other instruments are there, though, what with Verch’s violin dipping and swinging in and out, repeating and then augmenting the song’s central theme. This is exactly the kind of tune that made me fall in love with this particular style of music.
Harpeth Rising is a modern progressive bluegrass trio, and they take the “progressive” part of that label significantly more seriously than most. The three women who make this group are all classically trained, the sort of music conservatory students who had to make a conscious decision between spending a lifetime as orchestra members or going their own route. They chose the latter and created a truly unique musical group. The instrumentation on Shifted, their latest album, is thoroughly traditional, but their melodies and presentation are anything but. If anything, you might call this “avant garde” or experimental bluegrass, with influences that obviously invoke their classical knowledge but also remind one of say, the gypsy jazz of Django Reinhardt and the Hot Club of France or the “dawg music” of David Grisman, albeit with a smaller band. In a genre where there’s never any shortage of people to play Bill Monroe or Doc Watson adaptations, I’m more interested in the likes of these ladies, who forge ahead and continue to expand the boundaries of what one might call bluegrass with songs such as “I am Eve” or “Providence.”
Standout track: The title track, “Shifted,” is a beautifully dramatic tone poem about personal identity, featuring the best performance that singer Jordana Greenberg has ever given. She has an unusual voice, which is only fitting, given that everything about the structures of the trio’s songs tends to be non-standard. Her strong vibrato seems tinged with a trepidation or intense emotion when she sings “I was made from steel, or that’s how it felt / When you set me afire, did you know I would melt?” The song builds slowly, to a triumphant, rapturous conclusion that is perfectly captured in the below video. The fact that this video has only 5,000 views, by the way, is an absolute crime.
The Greencards have been progressive bluegrass standard-bearers since 2003 and are still soldiering on today, having even snagged a Grammy nomination along the way and shedding some of the persistent comparisons to Nickel Creek. My favorite album of theirs remains 2005’s Weather and Water, though, perhaps because it’s just so well-balanced. The Greencards are a band that exist at a nexus between genres, and they’re all present on Weather and Water—old-school country, pop sensibilities, classic American bluegrass, Irish-influenced instrumental numbers and more. I especially love the classic “Little Sadie”-esque murder ballad, “The Ballad of Kitty Brown,” about—what else—a young man gunned down after getting mixed up with a beguiling woman. It’s to The Greencards’ credit that they can take such a familiar convention and make another classic entry in the genre.
Standout track: “Almost Home” is one of my favorite bluegrass instrumentals, a wholesome-sounding, major key composition featuring some flawless guitar, deft banjo plucking and an especially brilliant lead violin. There’s not much else one can even say—all the members get their moments to shine in a flawless 4-minute piece with a memorable melody. If I was picking a track to convince someone they should listen to some more instrumental newgrass music, this would be a fine selection.
Stan Rogers is a national Canadian hero, but sadly his discography is largely unknown in the U.S. except among people who dig maritime folk music—and I know there are so many of us walking around. Sadly, Rogers passed away at only 33 years of age in a tragic airplane accident, but before he left he made a massive impression on folk music history with five albums, and five more posthumous collections since 1984. It’s hard to choose any one album, but Between the Breaks … Live! features the definitive performances of some of his best known songs, like his signature sea shanty “Barrett’s Privateers” and the heraldic fantasy of “The Witch of the Westmoreland.” Rogers’ voice is the thing you’ll immediately note, given that it’s one of the most iconic baritones in folk music history. When he sings, it sounds like the voice must be coming from a man 10 feet tall, and it’s fitting for a guy who also had another signature tune called “Giant.” Oddly enough, console gamers may actually be familiar with a few of his tunes, such as “Leave Her Johnny,” as the pirate-themed Assassin’s Creed: Black Flag features a few of the same songs that Stan helped popularize.
Standout track: “The Mary Ellen Carter” is one of Rogers’ most enduring, charming, and dare-I-say inspirational songs, about the crew of a downed ship who refuse to give up on their former home and conspire to raise the ship from the depths. It’s a story of triumphing over great odds and not allowing the world to beat you down and steal your strength of convictions. Or as Stan said: “And you, to whom adversity has dealt the final blow, with smiling bastards lying to you everywhere you go / turn to, and put out all your strength of arm and heart and brain, and like the Mary Ellen Carter, rise again.”
Jim Vorel is Paste’s news editor, and his car is full of burned CDs of string band music. You can follow him on Twitter.