From MerleFest to McBryde: A Handful Of Folky Developments Renew Modern Country
"Somebody said that folk music is just songs about folks," says Lori McKenna. "It's just story songs. It's people's lives."
Country music in 2023 means the stadium-filling sound of Luke Combs, the lonesome midtempos of Morgan Wallen and the vulnerable twang of Lainey Wilson.
But country also means stories. When non-country acts, such as Lionel Richie or John Legend, reference the genre on TV’s music competitions, they frequently cite the life narratives that are prominent in country as the primary element that separates it from other formats. That foundational storytelling thread is a direct result of country’s overlapping folk roots, still evident in the sound of at least two current singles: Jordan Davis‘ “Next Thing You Know,” at No. 15 on Country Airplay, and Ashley McBryde‘s “Light on in the Kitchen,” No. 37.
“They’re so reflective,” says singer-songwriter Lori McKenna. “They give you space to find yourself in them.”
McKenna, whose composition “Humble and Kind” likewise belongs to both folk and country, is one of the talents performing at the 35th annual MerleFest, a three-day event set for April 28-30 in Wilkesboro, N.C., with historic overtones. March 3 marked 100 years since the birth of the festival’s co-founder, singer-guitarist Doc Watson, who was one of the key figures in the folk boom of the 1960s.
The interplay between folk and country is a subtle part of both MerleFest — which features Maren Morris and Tanya Tucker among its multigenre participants -— and a tribute album, I Am a Pilgrim: Doc Watson at 100, arriving April 28 on FLi Records/Budde Music. Pilgrim enlists Dolly Parton, Rosanne Cash and Steve Earle, artists who have all mixed folk and country in some manner during their careers.
“They’re sisters of one another, or family members,” McKenna says of the genres. “It’s like Maren’s song ‘Good Friends,’ and Kelsea Ballerini has a new song now, ‘If You Go Down (I’m Going Down Too).’ Those sound like John Prine songs to me, just great songs that anybody can sing along to and anybody can [appreciate] the normalness, the ordinariness, in this well-crafted song.”
Watson, who resisted attempts to lure him into mainstream country, is likely unknown to most country fans, though his core talents and persona are a good road map for the elements of folk that have historically informed the genre. He played guitar with a fluid simplicity, sang with a natural — almost spoken — tone and viewed his public personality with extraordinary humility. He was also not a traditionalist.
Watson defined his repertoire as “Appalachian-plus,” a phrase that pinpointed its origins but left it room to grow.
“His music was mountain music, Appalachian Mountain region from Deep Gap, North Carolina,” says B Townes, the now retired co-founder of MerleFest, named after Watson’s son when it was established as a fundraiser for the Wilkes Community College Foundation. “The primary influences there, of course, were the fiddle, square dances and that type of thing.”
But the “plus” was quite expansive. It meant “anything I want to add to it,” Townes recalls Watson saying.
The 2023 MerleFest lineup reflects that wide-ranging ideal, boasting Americana acts Jim Lauderdale and Nickel Creek, bluegrass figures Jerry Douglas and Sam Bush, guitar virtuoso Tommy Emmanuel, banjoists Alison Brown and Don Flemons, and country artists Morris and Tucker.
Country is equally wide-ranging, though there’s almost always one or more songs or artists keeping the folk flame lit. Songwriter Bob McDill, named alongside Tucker on April 3 as a 2023 Country Music Hall of Fame inductee, originally moved to Nashville to become a folk artist. That interest influenced the sound of country in the 1980s as he contributed such folk-tinged stories as Don Williams‘ “Good Ole Boys Like Me” and Alabama‘s “Song of the South.”
Miranda Lambert‘s “The House That Built Me” and Kathy Mattea‘s “Eighteen Wheels and a Dozen Roses” followed in the same tradition, while folk played a heavy role in shaping the music of Emmylou Harris, John Denver, The Carter Family, Mary Chapin Carpenter, The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Suzy Bogguss, Bobby Bare and Tom T. Hall, whose elaborate tales earned him the nickname “The Storyteller.”
Davis’ “Next Thing You Know,” in fact, unfolds much like one of Hall’s compositions.
“There’s definitely some Tom T. Hall in there,” Davis allows. “Not that I’m anywhere near Tom T. Hall, but I can see the comparison.”
One of the features common to both Davis’ and Hall’s work is a focus on blue-collar people. “Next Thing You Know” recounts a successful relationship with working-class familiarity. Hall invariably wrote about the same kinds of individuals: bartenders, dry cleaners, parents, soldiers and Sunday school teachers.
“Somebody said that folk music is just songs about folks,” McKenna notes. “It’s just story songs. It’s people’s lives. And that’s what I love most about songs is just these ordinary lives that we get to write about.”
Folk music doesn’t require its artists to become social activists, but that embrace of the middle and lower class makes the music and politics compatible. Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan, Earle, Prine and Joan Baez are all examples of folky acts who used their music to take a stance on specific issues or defend embattled populations.
That spirit was evident when two Tennessee state legislators -— Justin Jones and Justin Pearson, ousted from the statehouse floor for protesting inaction on guns — were reinstated April 11 in Downtown Nashville. Outside the capitol, Harris, Bush and Margo Price led a contingent of singers in a cover of Dylan’s “I Shall Be Released.” Subsequently, Old Crow Medicine Show issued a song, “Louder Than Guns,” on April 27 that echoes the fight for public safety.
The artists were all doing what folk singers have done historically: stand up for the underdog. Country singers have done that, too, be it Johnny Cash supporting anti-war demonstrators in “What Is Truth” or Brad Paisley flying to Ukraine to sing for an embattled nation.
“It’s about the people and their problems,” says John Lomax III, a music entrepreneur-manager-journalist who, deep in his career, has begun performing historic, rough-edged folk songs. “Pete Seeger, he made his whole career out of that sort of thing. And I guess, to a lesser extent, Woody and Dylan, they kind of blazed a trail, so to speak, that others follow.”
One of folk’s original missions was to pass music and information from generation to generation, and the Lomax family embodies that character. Lomax is a third-generation descendent of a prominent folk family. His father, John Lomax Jr., managed Lightnin’ Hopkins and founded the Houston Folklore Society, which provided a forum for the likes of Townes Van Zandt, Guy Clark and Lucinda Williams, all of whom would see some of their folk/Americana works covered as country hits.
Lomax III’s grandfather, John A. Lomax, and uncle, Alan Lomax, discovered Black folk/blues singer Lead Belly and worked with the Library of Congress. The senior Lomax collected Western songs, publishing his first book of folk lyrics, Cowboy Songs and Other Frontier Ballads, in 1910.
“It originated with him as he lay in bed at night and heard the cowboys singing to soothe the cattle,” Lomax III notes. “When he was about 8 or 9 years old — 1875 or 1876, somewhere along in there — he started writing the words down because the Chisholm Trail practically ran through the back yard.”
The trail from those early folk songs continues to modern folk and country, even if the roots are a little less obvious. That idea of heritage is key to both Davis’ “Next Thing You Know” and McBryde’s “Light on in the Kitchen,” as each of them embraces the passing of a torch to the next generation.
“I thought of my daughter,” “Kitchen” co-writer Jessi Alexander says. “If you could give your daughter an instruction manual of any kind, what would you want to say in a song?”
Even now that country is a stadium-level attraction, folk developments in the genre are increasingly essential, if for no other reason than to remind the artists and decision-makers of its primary base.
“This is what country music is supposed to be about,” Lomax III says. “Telling about the lives of normal people.”