Ann Powers

Five Musicians Who Make Borrowing Sound Original

Valerie June's first album, Pushin' Against A Stone, will be out in August. i i

Valerie June's first album, Pushin' Against A Stone, will be out in August. Courtesy of the artist hide caption

itoggle caption Courtesy of the artist
Valerie June's first album, Pushin' Against A Stone, will be out in August.

Valerie June's first album, Pushin' Against A Stone, will be out in August.

Courtesy of the artist

Last Friday, on Bob Dylan's birthday, I spent the morning checking out old interviews with the supreme trickster on YouTube. I came across this one, from the 1980s, in which an Australian journalist asks Dylan how he'd like to be remembered.

"Oh, as someone who tried to love somebody," the singer answers, a grin sneaking across his face. The interviewer accepts that answer and moves on, but Dylan interrupts him. "You ever heard that expression before? he asks, chuckling nervously. "Yeah, yeah," the journalist says, but he clearly hasn't. The slightest look of frustration passes over Dylan's face before the chat continues.

This moment perfectly encapsulates a fundamental tension within popular music, between the urge to be innovative and the need to acknowledge one's debts. Asked a deeply personal question, Dylan offers someone else's answer: Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said it first, in a sermon delivered not long before his assassination. Dylan clearly expects to be called out for this obvious appropriation. But when the moment passes, he grudgingly accepts it — as proof perhaps, of the fact his songs demonstrate over and over, which is that originality is really just a matter accessing old streams in unexpected ways.

Dylan is a borrower the way Elvis was a borrower and Bessie Smith and Louis Armstrong and David Bowie and Kool Herc were all borrowers: these paradigm-shifting artists talked back to the legacies they encountered with so much grace and authority that their music seemed to come out of nowhere. But nothing comes out of nowhere, and every artist struggles to find a voice that can rise above the din tradition makes. What these musicians, along with Dylan, seem to find easy is enriching their own strong visions by tapping into legacies rather than simply imitating them.

In the 21st century it's harder than ever for young artists to both honor tradition and distinguish themselves from their sources. The availability of seemingly every song ever made, all at once, paradoxically makes old ways more immediate while erasing the traces of how they developed over time. In the excellent documentary It Might Get Loud, from 2000, prime Dylan inheritor Jack White plays a Son House song on a scratchy record player and admits that he came up with the ultra-stylized White Stripes image in part to get away from being just another new kid imitating old masters. But the confession itself is a Dylanesque trick: White says the song was "it, for me." But as the blogger Jacob Bender has pointed out, that Son House recording is itself an imitation. Son House made it not on the Dockery plantation in the 1930s, but in 1960s New York, reworking his own legacy to appeal to young rockers of the White variety. "Jack White seems hell-bent on demonstrating that just because an identity is assumed, doesn't mean it's not real," Bender writes. That's one way to confront a past (or the idea of a past, really) that seems at once inaccessible and overwhelming.

This year, plenty of musicians are finding success without taking such a complicated stance. The Etsy-ish craftspeople of the post-Mumford and Sons neo-folk scene are peppering the Top 40 with simple singalong choruses — unironically playing the banjo as they jet from festival to festival. I'm hoping that these campfire folkies are leading young listeners back to some foundational stuff, the same way Billy Bragg led me back to Woody Guthrie and The Gun Club got me interested in the blues. Yet I'm more drawn to newer music that, however subtly, addresses both how difficult it can be to find oneself as part of a lineage, and what a serious — though always also playful — matter it is to participate in that task. Here are five, all working in different areas, whose music would likely bring a sly grin to Bob Dylan's face.

Tapping Into Legacies: Five Musicians Who Make Borrowing Sound Original

  • Sam Amidon

    YouTube

    Sam Amidon has been recording for a decade, and as the son of a professional folk arts family, was making music for twenty years before that. (And he's only 31.) Every account of his career notes that he grew up surrounded by shape note singing, but few have mentioned the most striking thing about that old way of worship, which deeply informs Amidon's work: shape note singing can really be a shocking experience. The singers face each other in a square and bellow at the top of their lungs, both to help along the newer harmonizers in their midst and to provide an experience that feels body-altering. Amidon doesn't always sing so noisily, but he's retained that commitment to making music that almost chemically unsettles both performer and listener.

    The sound Amidon has developed, working with the keyboardist and arranger Thomas "Doveman" Bartlett, is plain on the surface but always slightly off, with elements of dissonance and odd shifts in time and timbre that undermine any sense of these well-worn songs as comfortable. Alongside folk favorites and obscurities, Amidon includes pop hits by the likes of Mariah Carey in his repertoire — another distancing effect that challenges listeners' preconceptions about what "folk" can be. But on his new album Bright Sunny South, the old stories stand out, made both stranger and more intimate by Amidon's unpredictable storytelling techniques.

  • Valerie June

    YouTube

    Valerie June, whose first major release Pushin' Against a Stone will be available in the U.S. later this summer, has a voice that's as arresting as Amidon's and a freer, more popwise sensibility. June grew up in Tennessee and worked in Memphis for a decade before relocating to Brooklyn, and her music reckons with Southern customs and stereotypes while remaining wholly her own. Her singing style is full of wild spirit (there's a lot of Erykah Badu in her) but precise; her songs are emotionally forthright while challenging the stereotypical ways women — especially African-American women — are "supposed" to emote. Partly because she's so versatile, and able to fully immerse herself in a country vibe or a girl group sound or a hard blues rhythm, June is able to play traditional music without ever sounding trapped. And like Amidon, she makes it all strikingly personal.

  • Marques Toliver

    YouTube

    Mining several legacies at once, Marques Tolliver shows how an awareness of history can point toward a different future for a music genre. The classically trained violinist has created what is essentially a soul album, with earnest vocals about love and sex. But by framing it through observations inspired by the slave narrative of abolitionist Frederick Douglass, Tolliver's song suite encourages contemplation of the relationship between soul's seductions and the human requirement of self-ownership. Haunting and inspirational, this is current music that contains the past, in the best way.

  • Nora Jane Struthers and the Party Line

    YouTube

    Nora Jane Struthers makes bluegrass music that reminds us of how contemporary that strain of country music was when it emerged in the mid-twentieth century. The Nashville-based Struthers and her band, The Party Line, display an easy camaraderie that leaves room for virtuoso turns without ever letting their songs be consumed by showoff picking. What really makes Struthers special, however, is her songwriting. On her third album Carnival, released in March, Struthers — who grew up in New Jersey and has a teaching degree from NYU — employs the high lonesome bluegrass sound to tell stories of adventure with a subtle feminist twist. Along with Sara Watkins, Aoife O'Donovan and Abigail Washburn, Struthers is an upstart spiritual daughter of Alison Krauss, creating a space within the competitive fraternity of bluegrass for women's stories and women's virtuosity.

  • J.C. Brooks and the Uptown Sound

    YouTube

    If bluegrass is a legacy that can carry tight formal restrictions, soul is one particularly prone to clichés. The Chicago-based band J.C. Brooks and the Uptown Sound has always had fun playing around with corny soul stylings, resisting nostalgia by highlighting punky guitar noise and the flamboyant wit of singer Brooks, who is also an actor. Brooks' brand new album, Howl, goes farther in rejecting the strictures of vintage by-the-booksism by exploring the ways other revivals — especially the New Wave soul of the 1980s — have responded to the genre. At once a confessional break-up album and a critique of the whole concept of telegraphed heartache, Howl is soul with its jacket off. The freedom in its sound is something all of these maverick traditionalists share.

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