There’s a reason folk music has remained one of America’s most enduringly popular genres.
You can find fragments of it in almost every strain of popular music: from the singer/songwriters who utilize its personal, narrative style, to the country singers who take its image-driven lyricism and give it a Southern twang.
Rock music, at first the domain of simple songs of love and lust, was forever altered when Bob Dylan dropped his acoustic guitar and plugged in, injecting a lyrical sophistication into the genre that hadn’t previously existed.
Like any genre, though, folk and its close cousin, country music, have splintered over the decades into innumerable sub-genres. Many of the more adventurous, unclassifiable artists within the quagmire of these sub-genres often get the umbrella of “alt-country” or “alt-folk.”
Here, we present 15 of the best artists within these genres, some of the most artistically progressive six-string artists in the world today. Actually, in standard GuitarWorld.com fashion, we've included a bonus band. Enjoy these 16—and feel free to recommend more good listens in the comments below!
Since his brilliant, unlikely 1994 hit single, “Loser,” Beck has delighted in being one of the most unpredictable voices in music. Always with a singer-songwriter’s heart, Beck has toyed with hip-hop on 1994’s Mellow Gold, sound collages on 1996’s Odelay, R&B on 1999’s Midnite Vultures, and most recently, club-ready dance-pop on his newest single, “Wow.” Where many alt-folk artists have blurred genre lines, Beck has destroyed them.
Originally rising from the ashes of alt-country legends Uncle Tupelo, Wilco never seemed destined for greatness at first. Though tuneful, their first album, 1995’s A.M., missed the mark. That’s partly what made their astonishing artistic evolution, from 1996’s assured double album, Being There, to 2002’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, a zeitgeist-defining, near-perfect rock record that still stands as one of the best of the millennium, so amazing to watch.
Some bands undergo spectacular rises and equally spectacular falls, dazzling us for a year or two before making us cringe on the way down. Some bands though, just keep stubbornly chuggin’ along, cranking out consistently solid records and never failing to put on a professional, but entertaining performance. If there’s ever been an example of the latter, it’s Texas’ Old 97’s. For 20 years, this former bar band has stood tall through just about anything and everything the music industry could throw at a band. They even have a rare stamp of approval from Bob Dylan, who let the band borrow the melody from his “Desolation Row” for “Champaign, Illinois,” one of the band’s classic tunes.
Southern rock, despite its endearing popularity, was never known for its artistic elasticity. And yet, Patterson Hood, Mike Cooley and their always-revolving, always-tight supporting cast of players have been creating fascinating tales examining “the duality of the Southern thing” for close to 20 years now. Raw, honest and provocative, their songs incorporate the vivid characters of folk, the beautifully desolate Southern landscapes of country and the attitude of a veteran bar band that’s seen it all.
Originally brought to the world’s attention by Taylor Swift, Ed Sheeran has become a global superstar in his own right, effortlessly making the transition from a confessional singer/songwriter, to a confident pop showman. Indeed, few other 25 year-olds can claim to have made enough of a mark to design a Martin Signature guitar.
While we’re on the subject of Drive-By Truckers! Though Jason Isbell was only a member of the DBT’s for six years, he more than made his mark, writing some of the band’s most endearing songs (“Decoration Day” and “Outfit,” from 2003’s Decoration Day, specifically come to mind.) Unsparing in his examinations of himself, his circumstances and the characters around him, Isbell channels the same genres as his former band, while giving his songwriting a more personal touch.
Like Wilco, Ryan Adams got his start cranking out punk-influenced country-rock in the mid-1990’s. But, when Adams’ band, Whiskeytown, called it quits, Adams decided to go solo, and immediately made his mark. His solo debut, 2000’s Heartbreaker, effortlessly merged melancholy folk ballads, country instrumentation and an outsider spirit. In the years since, Adams has maintained a prolific, versatile output. His most recent release, a full-length, song-for-song cover of Taylor Swift’s 1989, (no your eyes aren’t going bad, you read that right,) is just one demonstration of Adams’ restless artistic spirit.
While other bands may have gone further with, and found far more commercial success in the alt-country genre, it’s hard to imagine it existing in the first place without the Jayhawks. The band’s uncompromising style blazed the trail down which every alt-country band that sprung up in their wake followed.
Though often unfairly pegged as a one-hit wonder due to her ubiquitous 2007 smash, “1234,” one listen to The Reminder, the album that spawned “1234,” would show just how deep the Canadian singer/songwriter’s chops are. “I Feel It All” crackles with pop energy, while “The Limit To Your Love” can stop time.
Mumford & Sons
Since Mumford & Sons first conquered the world with their spirited, anthemic take on folk, there has been a gluttony of bands banging bass drums, slapping stand-up basses, digging the banjos out of their grandpa’s garage and looking to the Nineties (the 1890s) for outfit inspiration. And though this trend grew old fairly quickly (even on the band themselves, who “went electric” for their 2015 album, Wilder Mind,) the band’s first two, acoustic albums show precisely why the group became such trend-setters. Smash hits like “Babel,” “Little Lion Man” and “The Cave” explode with an endearingly nerdy commitment to conveying the energy and hooks of arena rock through acoustic instrument.
The Tallest Man On Earth
Kristian Matsson’s sneer has inevitably brought him endless comparisons to folk’s most enduring icon, Bob Dylan. But Matsson, a native of Sweden, writes songs with a bright lyricism far less cynical than Dylan’s, and imbues it with the serene beauty of his native country. He offers an unexpected, but fascinating twist on a genre that too often gets associated solely with Americans.
The Milk Carton Kids
It can be easy to look at a well-dressed, academic-looking duo with a love of folk music and falsetto harmonies and assume that you’re in for a Simon & Garfunkel knock-off. On a 1951 Gibson J-45 and a 1954 Martin 0-15, Kenneth Pattengale and Joey Ryan evoke landscapes and images of time gone by, while utilizing their impeccable fingerpicking skills and harmonies to bring a fresh taste to an old style.
The Head and the Heart
Hailing from Seattle and Sub Pop Records (though they’re now signed to Warner Brothers,) The Head and the Heart always seemed well-positioned to become an indie-folk mainstay. And indeed their luscious, breezy songs have made them a favorite of those looking for the brighter side of a sometimes dark genre.
Justin Vernon, recording under the name Bon Iver, burst into the limelight in 2007 with his debut, For Emma, Forever Ago. Recorded almost entirely alone in a remote cabin in the Wisconsin woods, it was the rare album whose contents matched its origin story. Brimming with unforgettable melodies, spare instrumentation and Vernon’s haunting falsetto, it immediately marked Vernon as a rare talent. 2011’s Bon Iver cemented this, vastly expanding the project’s sound to remarkable heights while losing none of the intimacy of Vernon’s songwriting.
Iron & Wine
From the humid, muted landscapes of 2002’s The Creek Drank the Cradle, to the dazzling full-band workouts of 2007’s The Shepherd’s Dog, to the unexpected jazzy inflections of 2013’s Ghost on Ghost, the evolution of Sam Beam has been remarkable to watch. With Bon Iver, Beam’s Iron & Wine project has taken the indie/alt-folk genre to avenues both unexplored and entirely unexpected.
These Portlandians play Nineties Americana rock that sounds a lot like like pre-Yankee Hotel Foxtrot Wilco. Yet the quintet's Eric Earley performs the amazing feat of making alt-country seem fresh—time after time. The band's latest album, 2015's All Across This Land, has been called "a sepia-toned ode to the past that manages to feel very much of the now."