Styles & Forms | Neo-Traditional Folk

In 1996, the Californian singer Gillian Welch released her debut album, Revival. Her unassuming, folksy songs and plaintive, old-time singing could have come straight out of the Appalachians at any time in the last hundred years. With guitarist David Rawlings, Welch came to pinpoint and define a new style of folk music: the neo-traditional performer.

Welch personified a modern embodiment of the old-fashioned values of mountain folk, rural country and bluegrass music. This reached fruition in a startling manner with the massive sales of the T-Bone Burnett-produced O Brother, Where Art Thou? movie soundtrack in 2000, featuring the music of Welch and Rawlings alongside kindred spirits Norman Black, Emmylou Harris, Alison Krauss, Dan Tyminski and bluegrass legend and banjo hero Ralph Stanley.

Others soon followed the neo-traditional path. A whole new genre – marketed as Americana – has subsequently emerged to encompass those who attempt to reflect the roots of American music. Those who might be assimilated under the umbrella are not necessarily new, young artists such as Welch, Krauss and Tyminski, either. Nanci Griffith might be called something of a veteran, though she has always drawn on the finest American traditions of gospel, blues and country as well as folk music. Emmylou Harris emerged from the influential late-1960s country rock. However, her later outputs put her firmly in the neo fold. Her Daniel Lanois-produced album, Wrecking Ball, set new standards, and she followed it in 2000 with Red Dirt Girl, revealing a natural instinct for the soul of traditional music.

The Neo-Traditional Folk Star Arrives

Plenty of others might fit reasonably into the neo-traditional mould. New Lost City Ramblers successfully revived the old-time string-band music of the 1920s and 1930s associated with Gid Tanner & His Skillet Lickers, Fruit Jar Drinkers and The Kessinger Brothers. Later, The Holy Modal Rounders reinvented old-timey music with an eccentric modern edge that appealed to young audiences. For many years, Townes Van Zandt lived a relatively humble existence in the mountains, experiencing the simple lifestyle and experiences that shaped the music of his forefathers. And it showed, too, in the late singer-songwriter’s own earthy, rootsy style. His great friend Steve Earle has similar values. There are plenty of others, too, who sporadically flit into the neo-folk realms: Lucinda Williams, Shawn Colvin, Dwight Yoakam, Kathy Mattea and – one of the earliest – the late Kate Wolf.

Neo-folk continues to gather ground, as proven by the unexpected success of the Vancouver girl band, The Be Good Tanyas. The Tanyas – who named themselves after an Obo Martin song – sang together for their own entertainment when they made their first album, Blue Horse. They pressed up 500 copies and never anticipated success; instead, it launched them on a successful international career.

‘I feel drawn to a lot of old music, I love the purity and simplicity.’
Gillian Welch

Leading Exponents

Gillian Welch
Emmylou Harris
The Be Good Tanyas
The Holy Modal Rounders

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Source: The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Music, general editor Paul Du Noyer


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