Remember how you felt about grunge right around the time your mom and dad started dropping Nirvana and Pearl Jam into conversations? That's pretty much the place where bearded indie-folk guys reside right now. Your parents may not be able to sing a Bon Iver song, but they're probably aware that there's a bunch of hairy dudes making music these days that sounds a lot like the singer-songwriter stuff that blasted out of car radios in 1972.
You've heard all about the Fleet Foxes and Crosby, Stills & Nash comparisons. But did you know that Iron & Wine's latest album sounds an awful lot like pre-Footloose Kenny Loggins? Or that there's a whole fleet of foxy singer-songwriters who've spent countless hours with Bread's catalog? It's true. At least it sounds like it's true.
There are too many of these mountain-man rockers to list. But over the past year, many of them have showed up in the mainstream's hallowed (and lucrative) triumvirate of TV shows, commercials, and movie trailers. Suddenly you're not the only one listening to Band of Horses, Deer Tick, and My Morning Jacket, and feeling way superior to everyone else because you know who Middle Brother are.
If you take it back a decade or so, most of these indie-folk artists would have been called alt-country, and they had more in common with Gram Parsons than David Gates. There was a definite twang to their music that's not so easy to pick out with this current crop. In a way, it's a reaction against their bearded brethren from the previous generation. Similarly, there's a reaction by some of the more old-school ones to break out from the pack, like Iron & Wine getting relatively funky on Kiss Each Other Clean and Ray LaMontagne plugging in with a solid rock band on his latest album, God Willin' & the Creek Don't Rise.
But to hear LaMontagne tell it, his stacking up while everyone else is stripping down wasn't so much a conscious decision as one made necessary by his new work environment. It's the first time he's ever played in a truly collaborative setting with a band, and it's the first time he's produced himself. "Everything felt really good with this band on the road, and I had high hopes it would carry over to the studio," he says. "It was just sorta time to make a change. Recording can be such a tedious process. It felt really natural to do it like this."
It paid off. God Willin' & the Creek Don't Rise debuted at No. 3 last August and won a Grammy earlier this year for Best Contemporary Folk Album. "Beg Steal or Borrow" was all over AAA radio. And now LaMontagne is taking the four-piece Pariah Dogs (which includes topnotch studio musicians Eric Heywood and Greg Leisz) on the road for a summer tour.
Not too long ago LaMontagne had a lot in common with all these bearded bards, strapping on his acoustic guitar and plaintively singing songs about love and life and other weighty subjects. In fact, he was one of the first of the new breed on the scene. His debut album, Trouble, came out in 2004 and eventually sold more than 500,000 copies. Till the Sun Turns Black, from 2006, and Gossip in the Grain (2008) were kinda big too, getting a jump on the whole indie-folk scene.
When he started out, the field wasn't nearly as crowded. "In the beginning, I didn't know if I was going to have a career," he says. "I stand a little taller now. I feel more comfortable doing this. But a lot of that just comes with time. You bust your ass and try to earn it and hope people listen. It feels like it's my life now."
So where does this leave LaMontagne, not to mention a cabin full of razor-averse folkies, in the coming years? Probably in the same place the Band, America, and Crosby, Stills & Nash ended up: broken up, busted down, and playing nostalgia shows for fans unwilling or unable to move on. Or maybe not. "I feel comfortable I'll be making music for a while," he says. "I don't dance. I don't paint. I just write songs."