Scratch that niche

“Contemporary folk” it’s called. But try to define the burgeoning genre’s sound, and no easy tags reveal themselves.

“[It’s] not quite folk music, eh?” queries Sloan Wainwright from her New York City home, referring to her own latest recording, From Where You Are (Waterbug Records, 1998). Her lilting singing style is reminiscent of Joni Mitchell’s pop hits, but exudes a more traditional folk edge. Wainwright calls it “emotional-based poetic song-speak,” which is as good a description as any.

Like Caroline Aiken and Eric Garrison — who’ll share the stage with Wainwright in Asheville at an upcoming Swannanoa Gathering concert — she considers herself something of a folk hybrid. And while she doesn’t deliberately distance herself from famous folkies like Peter, Paul and Mary (nor her brother, Loudon Wainwright III, for that matter), Wainwright notes, “The size of the envelope has increased. When I think of all the types of music that are included in contemporary folk music, it’s a pretty long list.”

And most every style from that list will be in evidence at the Swannanoa Gathering’s Contemporary Folk Week, which runs July 25-30 at Warren Wilson College and features classes taught by such respected musicians as Tom Paxton and Cosy Sheridan — culminating in the July 31 concert. Wainwright, in her third year at the Gathering, teaches voice; the popular Aiken leads classes on songwriting and performance techniques; and Garrison instructs on recording, songwriting and performance skills.

Aiken — a 30-year veteran of the live music circuit — describes herself as “a rock ‘n’ roll girl from way back. I cut my teeth on Traffic, early Who and John Lennon.” On her latest CD, Live Bait (Glutton for Punishment Music, 1995), covers of Elton John, Don Henley and Gregg Allman tunes fit seamlessly with her own original gems (one of them sung by her then 8-year-old daughter, Sarah Page). Aiken’s rock heritage is evident in the way she belts out her songs in an impassioned manner reminiscent of the Indigo Girls’ big sister. Her strong, steady voice carries greater authority than many of her contemporaries, and less of the bitterness. Her reputation for high-energy shows have led her to open for acts such as Bonnie Raitt and, yes, her friends and soul sisters the Indigo Girls. “[But] I’m not an opening act anymore,” she says with a laugh. “It’s a little like getting my wings.” The Atlanta-based rocker is new to folk festivals, however. At the recent Falcon Ridge Festival in New York City she played songs in the round with folk favorites Greg Brown and Martin Sexton, calling the performance “one of the finest experiences of my life.”

Garrison — who hails from Connecticut and is the founder and coordinator of the Swannanoa Gathering’s Contemporary Folk Week — played rock, jazz and Latin sounds before settling into his current acoustic style on the 1998 CD Looking for Egypt (China Moon Productions). His understated vocals possess the sureness and modesty to carry off his modern-day stories of love, responsibility and growth. Storytelling and acoustics are the two elements that tie contemporary folk together, Garrison asserts — while joking that anyone who pins down a definition of the genre is “going to be a pretty well-known guy.” He calls his songwriting process “very unromantic and unmysterious. … I might think of a couple of lines that begin to tell a story. I play with melodies while experimenting with words. I’ve heard it referred to as ‘groove writing.'”

You could call Aiken’s method of penning tunes “dream writing.” She teaches a course at the Swannanoa Gathering called “Songwriting in Your Sleep,” explaining that she finds many of the best ideas for songs coming by way of dreams, or just before or after sleep. “It’s a way to enjoy your [sleep] transitions instead of fearing them or fighting them,” Aiken says of the technique. “What you want is effortlessness. You can begin to enjoy that transition and utilize it. … Maybe you’re getting in touch with things that make you anxious.”

Aiken, Garrison and Wainwright all base songs on both real and imagined events, but it’s clear that personal experience is always just below the surface. Sometimes, as Wainwright admits, real-life happenings are intense enough to completely take over the songwriting process.

“My mom died right in the middle of [my] working on the record,” she explains of From Where You Are. The disc started out with lots of rollicking, lighthearted fare, but soon a few heartbreakers emerged — including the title track: “Doubled over with this disbelief/Without a mooring, cut adrift, alone to grieve,” she describes herself in the haunting tune.

Aiken, Garrison and Wainwright stand as prime examples of why more and more crossover folk artists — like Ani DiFranco, Shawn Mullins and Suzanne Vega — have gained fame. The tales they tell and their roots-based styles simply ring true, providing welcome alternatives to pop musicians who’re content to simply skim the emotional surface.

To the dismay of contemporary folk fans, though, most music stores still categorize releases in such a way that listeners may need to visit the “Folk,” “Pop,” “Blues” and “Country” sections before locating a favorite artist. “I would love to challenge all of the marketers to consider an “Acoustic” section,” Aiken declares.

This trio of Wainwright, Aiken and Garrison have never shared a stage before, though they’re friends who know each other’s music well. Garrison admits they haven’t discussed the format for the upcoming Be Here Now show yet. “But [we’ll] have lots of time to talk during [Contemporary Music Week],” he notes. And who knows? Maybe some enterprising audience member will be inspired to define contemporary folk once and for all. Or not.


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