As another Newport Folk Festival looms this weekend, the three-day lineup leaves many attendees thrilled and excited, but always a handful scratching their heads. What exactly constitutes “folk music” and how do some artists qualify and others don’t? Ever since Dylan went electric at the festival 50 years ago in 1965, heated debates over what fits in have seemed to never reach a conclusion. Is it only considered folk if it’s just an intimate performance of artist and guitar? Or can there be a backing band? Can the band employ synth or beats? Endless questions arise each year, and disagreements ensue, which is why Glide is having a little fun and weighing in on a handful of some of the folksier artists versus some of the less traditional folk artists that will grace the Fort’s stages next weekend.
More than any other festival, Newport Folk is proof that defying genres yields unforgettable results. This topic feels especially poignant as this year marks the 50th anniversary of Dylan’s legendary, game-changing set that left folk music lovers at odds. And with the presence of numerous country artists from Jason Isbell to Traveller, Joe Pug, Sturgill Simpson, Nikki Lane and Langhorne Slim, not to mention a slew of rockers, including Heartless Bastards and Friday headliner Roger Waters, the lines have never been blurrier. But this is why we go to festivals – to be surprised, to hear something new along with something we already know we love, and to open our minds and tastes to artists we may have written off.
Sunday’s ’65 Revisited set remains a bit of a mystery, but along with another Sunday presentation and celebration of the notorious 1965 fest, led by Elijah Wald and a few special guests, it’s clear that the festival organizers are wholeheartedly embracing the genre confusion and the festival’s rich history.
We subjectively chose ten artists below, and described the reasoning behind each choice. In 2015, musical genres are perhaps the most mixed they’ve ever been, which serves as a reminder that we’ll always get something unexpected at almost every music festival. Which acts do you think most or least fit the folk bill? Share your thoughts in the comments section below!
*NOTE: By no means are we not also looking forward to many of the “least folksy” artists.
Angel Olsen: This haunting singer-songwriter has had a helluva year. Her most recent record Burn Your Fire for No Witness was on countless best lists at the end of 2013, and she’s toured non-stop. And while Witness proved Olsen is not afraid to rock out (see: “Hi-Five”), she nails the quiet, brooding intimacy we all look for in our favorite folk music. Olsen is known to get lost in her own songs, staring off into space as her breathtaking voice seems to take on a life of its own.
John Moreland: This Oklahoma native is one of the most talented songwriters around, and his 2015 record High on Tulsa Heat is one of the year’s best. His heart-breaking and intimate diaristic lyrics are totally raw, authentic and never fanciful. And his acoustic guitar arrangements are layered and deep. Moreland is proof that songwriting is a powerful art form that, when mastered, is stirring and life-changing. His stripped down performance style will leave listeners entranced.
Hiss Golden Messenger: Hailing from North Carolina, Hiss Golden Messenger (lead by the stellar M.C. Taylor) is one of the best artists to emerge in the last few years. His 2014 record Lateness of Dancers was one of the year’s indisputable best, and his live shows are astoundingly good. Though his band can surely rock out, Taylor is a true folk artist to the bone. Inspired by the works of a number of late greats in Southern literature, his storytelling is profound and dark. His timeless sound is not forgotten once it’s experienced.
Sufjan Stevens: Plagued by the death of his mother, Stevens released one of the folksiest records of his career this year with Carrie & Lowell. Childhood memories and coming to terms with forgiveness are just a few of the dark (and often disturbing) themes on this tour de force album. Stevens weaves complicated, but quiet threads that cut deep and linger. He’s a folk artist at the top of his game, and the serene surroundings of Fort Adams will no doubt make for an ideal setting for his craft to shine.
Christopher Paul Stelling: A true troubadour in every sense of the word, Christopher Paul Stelling brings a Brooklyn grit to his old-soul, acoustic guitar-led songs. Stelling is an artist who’s been touring incessantly for the last few years, and Newport Folk Festival feels much deserved and long overdue for him. His sound is pure, old-fashioned roots and folk storytelling, and the festival will be his perfect fit.
Hozier: Admittedly, Hozier feels like a forced fit for Newport Folk. His marketing team seems to want him to have folk cross-over potential, but his 2014 hit “Take Me to Church” dominated pop radio to the point of exhaustion, and his appearance on stage at the Victoria’s Secret Fashion was (fittingly) paired with artists including Taylor Swift and Ariana Grande. It will be interesting to see what he brings to the fort, but let’s just be clear: a floppy leather hat and acoustic guitar does not a folk artist make.
The Suffers: A soul outfit through and through, the Suffers are truly fantastic. They’ll no doubt make waves at this year’s fest with their bombastic, ass-shaking songs that will breathe some life into the early part of Saturday. While their sound is more retro R&B throwback, it’s smooth as hell and positively addicting. There’s nothing folksy about the Suffers, but they’ll bring Mavis Staples-worthy attitude to the Fort.
Strand of Oaks: When Strand of Oaks first came on the scene, his songs definitely had a quieter, guy-with-a-guitar vibe (see the stunning and understated “Two Kids” from 2009’s Leave Ruin). But with the release of Heal in 2014, Timothy Showalter has moved into a more arena-ready rock sound that seriously suits him. While the songs from Heal may seem big and electric for Newport, Showalter does tend to bust out a few of his older, more simplified stuff now and again. Here’s hoping.
Heartless Bastards: One of the most anticipated acts at this year’s fest, Heartless Bastards are fresh off the release of their new record Restless Ones. Erika Wennerstrom’s wonderfully androgynous vocals are larger than life and gut wrenching, but she and her band rock out hard. Though that folksy storytelling is often there in their songs, there’s nothing stripped down about their energetic performances. And thank goodness for that.
Leon Bridges: Ah, the young starlet of 2015, so hyped beyond belief before his debut record even hit the shelves. Leon Bridges has that old school Sam Cooke vibe, and he’s smoother than a gulp of fine whiskey. There’s no doubt he’ll attract a huge crowd with his soulful tunes, but his sound is more R&B than folk. When he opened for Sharon Van Etten this past year, his music spoke for itself (without all the commercial promotion that seemed to follow overnight). And Newport Folk will likely be no exception.