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by Justin Farrar

April 27, 2012

Cheat Sheet: The New Classic Rock

by Justin Farrar  |  April 27, 2012

New Classic Rock is the phrase I use when talking about the growing number of artists and groups who nowadays filter vintage rock, blues and soul through the earthen tones of alt country, the garage rock scene's retro fetishism and the no-frills scrappiness long associated with indie. The result is music that attempts to be relevant with a subtly modern sensibility while also embracing what made rock so essential during its Golden Era (say 1956 to '73).

The movement's holy trinity should surprise no one: Jack White, Jeff Tweedy and Dan Auerbach. The parallels between these musicians are striking. In addition to making vital contributions to New Classic Rock with their own groups (The White Stripes, Wilco and The Black Keys, respectively), all three have engaged in collaborations to help expose younger generations to the work of canonical musicians. White worked with country icon Loretta Lynn, as well as first-generation rockabilly badass Wanda Jackson. In 2010, Tweedy teamed up with Southern gospel legend Mavis Staples. And most recently, Auerbach collaborated with the great Dr. John, whose new album, Locked Down, is a fountain of New Orleans groovery youth. Auerbach has also produced several modern artists who can be tagged New Classic Rock, including a trio of fellow gritty Ohioans: Heartless Bastards, Buffalo Killers and Patrick Sweany.

Though the New Classic Rock has come into its own over the last decade, its roots reach back to the '90s. Of course, that's when Wilco got their start. With its arsenal of dad-rockisms (dig those [Exile]-like horns), the group's 1996 double album Being There is in many respects the movement's birth. That same year saw the release of Mississippi hill country bluesman R.L. Burnside's A Ass Pocket of Whiskey; produced by the Blues Explosion's Jon Spencer, the album is truly "proto" in the way it set a precedent for the cool indie dude twiddling knobs to bring the music of the older musical great to younger ears. 

The decade also saw the first releases from Mark Lanegan (the Jim-Morrison-meets-Gordon-Lightfoot of grunge) and modern Southern rockers The Drive-By Truckers. In addition to worshipping at the twin altars of Lynyrd Skynyrd and Neil Young, the Truckers would go on to perform their own cross-generation reclamation work by recording an album with soul icon Bettye LaVette.

Jumping back to our current century, another key player in the New Classic Rock is Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings. Featuring a criminally overlooked singer now in her 50s backed by sharply dressed whippersnappers who worship the old-school funk and soul she grew up on, the group heads up a potent revival that has influenced everybody from the late Amy Winehouse to Alabama Shakes, an exciting new group from the South (Jack White totally digs them). Also from below the Mason-Dixon Line are the fabulous North Mississippi Allstars, who boast familial links to the soulfully eccentric sounds that emerged from Memphis and Muscle Shoals in the late '60s and '70s. They rule.

And now, on to the New Classic Rock.

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