By: Tyler Evans
The revival of folk music in today's mainstream may have unintentionally spurred its own demise. It started a few years ago, with bands like Mumford and Sons and The Lumineers. Those types of bands didn't commit any heinous crimes per se, but they did succeed in distorting the vision of Americana for all the local wannabes following in their footsteps.
On a recent sojourn into downtown Fullerton, I dragged myself into The Slidebar, to see one of these new folk-bands, called Me and the City. They alone cannot be blamed for the folkpocalypse, but they served as a sturdy example for the major problems I have with the OC/LA folk scene.
Southern California's attempt at roots music is made with hands unfamiliar to callous. It's crafted by bourgeois minds, approximating rural notions. They're pretending to empathize with the plight of the downtrodden from the comfort of wealth.
What I witnessed as a Southerner, born and raised in the heartland, exploring the dives and late-night bars for music pure in heart, offended me somewhere deep in my soul. Call me old fashioned, but heartland music feels more genuine when the lyrics and performance actually bleeds real-world experience.
The band I saw at Slidebar strutted around the small stage like they were The Who at Leeds. They were adorned with outfits meticulously planned. Visions of tiny black suspenders and shirts that dared to snap their top buttons without adding a tie, with perfectly groomed beards made to look like a five o'clock accident.
The singer moved with calculated sway, flashing a sick smirk at the small crowd that was mostly friends and family. Disingenuous clichés fell out of his mouth with a forceful whimper. He sang lyrics about rebellion, rambling on like a half-drunk Desi Arnaz, with all of the swagger but none of the brilliance. They tapped into the subculture of the sentimental bro, wearing their hearts on their tattooed sleeves.
Folk, which at its heart is an evolution of the blues, used to mean something. It was art, life, a voice of poverty and the rural American struggle. It came from people who knew only a life of desperation, fear and hopelessness. Woody Guthrie used his talent to call out fascists. What was in front of me at the bar was a contrived, acoustic ploy to trick young pussy.
I suppose, that is the core issue with the Southern California folk scene as a whole–the soul seems to be replaced with musically political posturing, watered down free love slogans and choruses that morph into infantile group chants. It isn't impossible to play folk music if you come from the 'burbs; the trick is making it work in a genuine way. Gram Parsons did it. Jackson Browne did it. Tim Buckley did it.
Even worse was the crowd, eating it up like hillbilly heroin. The bastards even demanded an encore. They raved, stomped, cheered, and moved as if guided by a callow spirit. They were mutually masturbating to the infinite void.
In the midst of this Southern California darkness, I am reminded of a bright light for the folk scene back in my original home, the South. Tennessee artist Justin Townes Earle, who triumphed over poverty and drug addiction, not to mention a tumultuous past with a barely-there rock star father, is creating some of the best contemporary folk in decades. Even when he moved to Brooklyn, he was able to retain the warmth and virtuosity of his songwriting soul.
Me and the City, meanwhile, were busy preaching "Live, Laugh, Love," an ambiguous statement that could have just as easily been pilfered from mass-produced greeting card.
I hope the modern folk movement in Southern California is an attempt to bridge the culture gap between the west coast and the southeast. More likely, it's a new way to look cool that will fade away when the next trend surfaces.
Until then, how do you get inspired to write a proper eulogy for our folk scene that still claims to have a heartbeat? With whiskey, I suppose.