The open road. Prison walls. Riding the rails. Love. War. Unfiltered cigarettes. Grit. Whiskey. Hope.
Apart from Jazz, no genre of music is more uniquely American than our folk music. It is the music of our land and the people who work it. It is the stories of struggle and men who live by their own code of ethics.
For generations, American folk musicians have represented the disenfranchised.
Folk music is more than just a genre of music. It is a pure and unique art form. It calls to mind imagery from a Steinbeck or Kerouac novel. These artist tell the stories of real people with callused hands, their daily life, and their extraordinary experiences. Haunting ballads of riding on top of the train cars and looking out over the landscape that is our beautiful country. Angry and painful stories of hurt and loss. Finding hope in darkness.
These voices hardened by whiskey, cigarettes and pain keep the stories of Americans alive for generations. And as our generations change, new artists arise to be the new folk voice of their time.
Here are 4 voices that need to be heard….
Woodie Guthrie is no doubt the godfather of the American Folk scene. No conversation about folk can exists without Guthrie. That is like discussing American Literature and failing to mention Mark Twain. He is one of the “holy trinity” of the most influential American artists, along with Robert Johnson and Muddy Waters.
Guthrie has inspired generations of artist with his melodic strumming and hopefully sound. He sang of his own experience growing up in the dust bowl of Oklahoma and the lives of the thousands of American men that rode the rails in look of work or personal liberation. He sang about the hardships and inequalities of all races in this country when no other artist would dare to. He sang of the beautify of America, both in its landscape and in its ideals.
Cash began his musical career with honestly next to no talent. He attempted to fit into the Gospel scene that was so popular, but his lack of musicianship did not allow him to thrive in the genre. So instead he did what all great folk artists have done. He picked up a guitar and poured out all of his demons.
We are all very familiar with the career of The Man in Black. From “I Walk the Line” to “Ring of Fire” we know his songs by heart. 3 months after Cash died in 2003 the anthology Unearthed was released with previously unheard tracks. Unearthed is full of decades of inner turmoil and abuse and addiction. They are full of mending broken relationships with his loved ones and God. The album is like a final prayer, especially the songs “Hung My Head” “Hurt” and “When the Man Comes Around”. But the spirit of Folk did not die with The Man in Black…
The son of a golfer and a gospel singer, Ragan hit the music scene as the front man of Gainsville, Florida’s punk band Hot Water Music, but the band disbanded in 2005 (and subsequently reunited in 2007) and Ragan went solo. With his brand of folk that blends hints of country with his signature gravel voice, Ragan’s music hits a touch heavier than the other three men on this list. He sings of life on the road (“Nomad By Fate”), memories of his grandfather (“Wash My Feet in the Waves”), and missing a certain someone back home (“Rotterdam”). He often incorporates harmonicas, banjos, violins, and upright basses, and his songs are without frills – he follows the simple patterns of song structure laid out before him by the godfathers of folk music.
Where Ragan separates himself from those before him is in the sheer emotional weight of his songs (yes, some of that is due to his talent as a vocalist, much like Soundgarden sounding a touch heavier simply because of the demigod that is Chris Cornell). Ragan’s music aims at the emotional side of things, singing of love and life lost, people missed and searching for meaning on the open road when you’re most alone. He forgoes the cries of political and cultural change of Guthrie and Cash and instead hits notes that ring more personally in the listener.
But he continues on the path of those two by singing of things that were true back then and are still true today. He pulls no emotional punches, and leaves his pains out there for all to hear and feel. He still sings of life that is hard and struggles that are real, but his brand of folk implores you to feel those pains and live in those struggles. It is almost like old John Cougar Mellencamp, but less about life on the farm and more about life in the rest of the world (that’s a good thing. Old Johnny Cougar was awesome). If anything, he draws you in with the voice of a whiskey soaked, gravel throated angel that’s been through it all, and sometimes, that’s all you need.
Tim Barry is an honest Virginia working man hardened by years of internal conflict and chain smoking. As the Beard once put it “He is the perfect combination of folk, piss and vinegar.”
Tim Barry’s music career took off in the 90’s as the front man for Richmond base hardcore outfit, Avail. His love and appreciation of folk music lead him to record Laurel Street Demo (2005). He carried on the American tradition of singer songwriters like Woody Guthrie with all the true grit of Johnny Cash.(He even rode on top of some coal cars like the folk artists of yesteryear.) He is the next generation of great American story tellers.
Unlike most artist of our generation, Barry does not present vague themes in convoluted lyrics. He speaks a harsh honest truth that sounds like a Hemingway novel set to an acoustic guitar. His words are bold, thundering and direct. His lyrics come at you like a goddamn freight train.
While driving a truck and getting stuck in a motel in New Jersey he penned one of the best songs I have ever listened to…Avoiding Catatonic Surrender. Maybe it’s the fact that I am a New Jersey native and I love whenever people sing about my home. Or maybe its the fact that its brutally direct lyrics are some of the best I have ever heard.
His most recent album Raising Hell & Living Cheap: Live in Richmond is quite possibly my favorite album I have heard in the last 5 years. It is everything you need. It is full of hurt, inspiration, loss, positive energy, overcoming hardship, and making fun of hipsters.
Tim Barry encourages you to live each day as hard as you can. He encourages to say I love you as much as possible, because you never know when the last time will be. One of the most beautiful aspects of Barry’s music is that it does not dwell on the past. He doesn’t take the time to feel sorry for himself. He takes pride in picking up the pieces, moving forward and living each day harder than ever. In his introduction to “This November” he offers the audience some sage advice full of tough honest language. “I know that you can physically, mentally and emotionally turn your shit around. And the bad times are vanished and the good times are that much more fucking beautiful. I always say ‘Life…you can beat the shit out of me, but I’m gonna fuckin’ beat you back.. I’m gonna flip it an make it a good fuckin’ day.”
Folk Music is a part of our collective cultural identity. It is the raw American spirit that connects generations. Keep our American Folk traditions alive…
-CF O’Rourke and The Beard