In 2016, the borders between musical genres are disappearing like lines of coke on HBO’s Vinyl. And the cross-pollination isn’t only happening in hip-hop or EDM, in vintage styles with hybrid roots. Take Nashville, country music’s presumably hidebound headquarters. The liner notes towards the all-star concept album Southern Family – helmed by tradition-minded A-list producer Dave Cobb – call its heritage-themed songs “folk art,” which sounds right if the definition includes Otis Redding-style R&B (Anderson East’s “Learning”), Southern goth strings (Civil Wars vet John Paul White’s “Simple Song”) and foot-stomping gospel (Black Crowes brother Rich Robinson’s “The Way Home”). The most surprising cut can be a bluesy cover of “You Are My Sunshine,” by Morgane Stapleton and her husband, Chris Stapleton; essentially the most theologically pointed, Jason Isbell’s “God Is a Working Man”; and “Sweet By and By” is rebel country queen Miranda Lambert at her rootsiest. Nearly every track here shows a golden era of Southern music dawning.
Before going all Achtung Baby, Mumford & Sons made pop while fronting as folkies. The Lumineers keep that campfire burning on Cleopatra. There’s nothing as catchy for their New York City-dreaming hit “Ho Hey,” however it is long on tuneful sing-along invites driven by acoustic guitars, barroom piano, foot stomps and smoke-ring rhymes. See “Ophelia,” which often can make much more of its vaguely Shakespearean heroine; “Gun Song,” which dodges any Second Amendment stands; along with the title track, on what a lovelorn actress-turned-cabbie narrator is revealed being either dying, or crazy, or both. She deserves better.
After a folk outing regarding his mom as well as a session with blues harpist Charlie Musselwhite, Ben Harper extends the folk tradition to feature hair metal on his latest LP, making Hollywood and Vine be understood as Robert Johnson’s crossroads on “When Sex Was Dirty,” with plenty guitar sleaze. But Harper continues the protest folk tradition about the title track, not scared of using your message “murder” to go over Michael Brown and Trayvon Martin, or of suggesting there exists plenty of old-fashioned American guilt for everyone.