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With the likes of grunge and alternative rock dominating the charts, it became harder and harder for thoughtful acoustic folk balladeers and traditional bands to find an audience during the early nineties. But the music scene was about to see a new wave of folk artists take to the stage.
With hints of country and touches of rock and jazz, contemporary folk music managed to keep it’s foothold as a relevant genre.
Let’s take a look today at some of the names springing up during the new decade, and the effect they had on the genre…
Essential Track: ‘Sweet Butterfly’ (1995)
“Summertime I hear spring sing~you’re so beautiful when you’re happy // Pattern your way, land with your wings~upright delicate like two lovers balancing.”
This list kicks off with an absolute must-hear in the form of ‘Sweet Butterfly’ from UK female folk duo Pooka. This is not just your straightforward folk, oh no, this is an absolutely off the wall performance from an intriguing duo that have since ceased to record together.
I’ve chosen ‘Sweet Butterfly’ for a few reasons: the manic vocal performance from Sharon Lewis and Natasha Jones, the jazz-tinged style, the sheer whimsical novelty of the track. But honestly, I could have chosen any track from this unusual folk band and still have waxed lyrical about it!
The epitome of a hidden nineties folk gem, ‘Sweet Butterfly’ has something instantly appealing to it, and yet it’s unlikely you’ve ever heard anything like it.
Mainstream and accessible, no. Inventive and unique, yes! If you’re looking for something a little out of the ordinary, look no further than Pooka’s ‘Sweet Butterfly’. And, for a real treat, check out their eponymously titled debut album!
Essential Track: ‘Solstice Carole’ (1993)
“We’ll dance ‘neath the stars // And toast the past year // For the spirit of solstice // Is still living here.”
‘Solstice Carole’ is an absolutely stunning choral piece by Canadian folk group, Wyrd Sisters. Featured on the band’s debut album, ‘Leave a Little Light’, this glorious piece of pure vocal harmony is traditional folk at its best.
The Wyrd Sister’s trademark ethereal vocals are perfectly showcased on this elegant track, and it’s a huge shame this independently released debut album is so difficult to get hold of. But it’s definitely worth the effort; as hidden gems go, this one is an absolute diamond.
Soaring harmonies build to a beautiful crescendo in this traditional piece of music, and it really is no surprise the Wyrd Sisters have impressed critics over the years. I absolutely love the images this gorgeous track conjures up, so let’s show this incredibly talented folk group some love today, and get ‘Solstice Carole’ on your playlist today.
Essential Track: ‘I Painted My Name’ (1992)
“Sunday I hope you might come by // On a big white boat with the sails up high // Sunday I hope that you’ll be true // To all it is I see in you.”
I love this track from US folk band Over the Rhine’s second independently released album ‘Patience’, in fact it’s one of my favourites by the band. ‘I Painted My Name’ has a gorgeous jangly acoustic intro leading into a surprisingly upbeat verse, and suddenly, you’re swept away by the immense vocal talent of Karen Bergquist.
Over the Rhine is one of those bands that have created a style all their own, yet stayed surprisingly below the radar in spite of releasing over a dozen albums over the course of their career. It’s always a shock when a band as good as this stays just shy mainstream success, but it’s clearly not for want of talent.
The entire ‘Patience’ album is bursting with good, poetic, folky tracks with a touch of jazz and pop, but ‘I Painted My Name’ is the outstanding track for me. Definitely worthy of a place on your nineties folk playlist!
Essential Track: ‘Dandelion’ (1991)
The only version I could find of this sweet, harmony-laden song from Catie Curtis was a live one, and whilst it showcases Catie’s earthy, urban style, it is a huge shame that more of this lady’s early work isn’t more widely available for our listening pleasure.
Another artist that should be rated far more highly than she is, Catie released her debut album ‘Dandelion’ in 1991 with very little fanfare. I do love the title track; the melody is haunting, the lyrics hold a simple yet poetically sweet message, and Catie’s conversational, almost countrified tone is just lovely.
There’s something Joni Mitchell-esque about Catie, and also a little Sheryl Crow, both in her songwriting style and vocal delivery. But don’t take my word for it, check out this phenomenal folk artist and get some Catie Curtis on your playlist!
Essential Track: ‘Insomniac’ (1994)
“I tried everything short of Aristotle to Dramamine // And the whiskey bottle // Pray for the day when my ship comes in // I can sleep the sleep of the just again.”
US folk duo Billy Pilgrim had the makings of what might have been a decent career back in the early nineties, with the release of a couple of rock tinged folk tracks giving the Georgia boys a taste of the spotlight.
‘Insomnia’ is a fantastic song, blending acoustic guitars with Hammond organ and some fine vocal harmonies from Andrew Hyra and Kristian Bush to produce a country/folk hybrid with a touch of southern rock. This is one of my favourites from Billy Pilgrim, but it’s just one of many outstanding tracks from a band that never quite hit the big time.
It’s a crime that Billy Pilgrim’s career was so short-lived, as they had something intriguing, and remain a perfect example of where folk music was heading during the nineties. A fantastic track from a couple of overlooked heroes of the genre, ‘Insomniac’ is just ideal for your summer folk playlist.
Essential Track: ‘The Game’ (1991)
“I don’t believe in heaven // I don’t believe in hell // I don’t believe what I’m seeing // This is no game, can’t you tell…”
I’m rounding off today with a track from a band that took roots and traditional folk music and blended it with punk and alternative styles to create an updated version of electric folk: UK band, The Levellers.
My track of choice today is ‘The Game’, from the band’s second album ‘Levelling the Land’. From the manic fiddle intro to the anthemic chorus, ‘The Game’ is a fantastic traditional/alternative hybrid from a band that kept the folk vibe alive and well as the blueprint for their own unique style.
I do love this track, and its jig-style rhythm is guaranteed to get people on their feet. If you’ve never experienced a Levellers gig, then this song is sure to give you a decent idea of what to expect! An irreverent, stellar vocal performance from Mark Chadwick is the finishing touch to this electrifying folk track – check it out!
By the nineties, folk music had evolved into something almost unrecognisable in comparison to its sixties counterpart, but the blueprints that had been laid down by artists such as Buffy St. Marie, Woody Guthrie and Steeleye Span were solid foundations for contemporary artists to build upon.
It still had a rootsy, acoustic backbone, it still had poetic lyrics and sweeping melodies, and many of the traditional instruments were effortlessly entwined with modern technology. In short, folk evolved the only way it could, and that is why it remains one of my favourite genres.
I’ve shared what I think is some of the best folk music the early nineties had to offer, but what do you think?
Get commenting and let us know!
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