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by Linda Ryan

September 13, 2012

Cheat Sheet: Alt Folk

by Linda Ryan  |  September 13, 2012

Some folks call it "alt country." Some, "progressive bluegrass." To others, "indie" or "alt folk" feels like a better fit. However you name the genre, what you're listening to are fresh, energized tunes that cut across genres and age demographics with gleeful abandon.

In 2001, ears were challenged when Old Crow Medicine Show released their breakout album, Eutaw, a blazing bluegrass opus lit by the same spark that set punk ablaze decades earlier. On the opposite end of the spectrum, The Avett Brothers' debut, 2002's Country Was, enticed us with its gentle warmth and harmony-laden charm. Too twangy for the indie set and too rocking for traditional country or bluegrass types, these artists would've raised purists' eyebrows at such mega-festivals as Glastonbury and Coachella, or hallowed venues like the Grand Ol' Opry, if they'd shown up there a decade ago.

But today, no one bats an eyelash, and both bands are enjoying unprecedented success. The Avetts' new album, The Carpenter, augments their charming, earthy sound with plucky banjos and tinkling mandolins. And Old Crow Medicine Show's July release, Carry Me Back, took the top spot on Billboard's Bluegrass chart and displays all the joyous exuberance of their older stuff.

Then, of course, there's Mumford & Sons, whose surprise hit "Little Lion Man" proved that bands with banjos could truly rock things out, and The Lumineers, whose "Ho Hey" was part of VH-1's You Oughta Know campaign. Both bands appeal to young indie rock fans as much as progressive bluegrass freaks. Over the past decade, this crazy and hard-to-define sound has orbited around many musical moons, each one adding a bit of momentum to the movement, culminating in an unprecedented number of fine releases in the past two or three years. Here are just a few.

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