Whenever you turn on the radio these days, chances are that the music that’s playing is “industry approved.” In other words, most of the songs on the Billboard charts have very similar, streamlined styles. There’s no denying that leaps in recording technology have allowed for some creative artists to make their mark, but most have used it to create the same kind of musical product over and over again, to the point where this week’s hot single isn’t all that different from what dominated the airwaves five years ago. It’s because of this homogenizing process that political theory and constitutional democracy sophomore Thomas Bunting believes that folk bands, like his own Wildfong and Friends, are regaining mainstream popularity for the first time since the 1960s. “The attraction of folk music lies in its simplicity,” Bunting said. “It is nice to listen to music that relies on old sounds, hard circumstances and legitimately good lyrics.”[tom]
Popularized in the late 1950s to mid-1960s, American folk music emerged with stylistic influences from several other genres, including country, rock and jazz. After a long period of time outside the mainstream charts, today’s major folk artists have come back with an even larger musical palette. Fleet Foxes, whose self-titled debut earned several record of the year honors in 2008, incorporated baroque pop and elegant harmonies into the mix. The success of this album helped them achieve national exposure as the musical guest on a recent episode of Saturday Night Live, and even a new record deal with major label Virgin Records. Fleet Foxes, however, elected to stay with their current label, Sub Pop, and proclaimed to their contingent of Myspace fans that all major labels were “anti-music.”
Whether this is true or not, interdisciplinary studies and social sciences sophomore Garrett Karp said that this indie state of mind is actually bringing folk artists back into the mainstream. “Like it or not, the music industry is being forced to redefine itself right now,” Karp said. “Artists are beginning to appeal to people who are tired of streamlined music, which I think is a step in the right direction.”
Wildfong and Friends have been taking this approach since they formed at MSU. Bunting, along with Joey Costanzo of Alma, MI, and Arts and Humanities sophomores Annie Wildfong and Laurel Sutherland, have been creating a playful, sometimes sorrowful sound that depends on soulful vocals combined with the sounds of guitar, violin, banjo and mandolin. This kind of versatility has been present in American folk music ever since it crept onto the scene in the 1960s with a man named Robert Allen Zimmerman. Of course, he’s better known as Bob Dylan.
[wildfong3]Named the second greatest artist of all time by Rolling Stone in 2004, Dylan is constantly listed as the primary influence by folk bands, Wildfong and Friends included. Dylan has remained relevant through the years for many reasons, but Karp said he thinks it’s because of Dylan’s dedication to creating his own sound. “Bob Dylan was one of the most successful mainstream artists who didn’t aim at manufacturing their music,” Karp said. “His music has been kept authentic and from his own mind for 50 years. He was a hipster before the term ‘hipster’ was even invented.”
[wildfong2]If it weren’t for artists like Dylan and Neil Young, folk music would have been absent on the mainstream airwaves since the early 1970s. So, why is folk music reemerging as a popular genre now? Contemporary folk legend Conor Oberst, front man of the band Bright Eyes, has captured the hearts and minds of college students across the country. Named the Best Songwriter of 2008 by Rolling Stone magazine, Oberst has been releasing albums since 1998, and has often been compared to Dylan. On the surface, this would seem to imply that Oberst’s music sounds a lot like the old folk music from over 40 years ago. Bunting said, however, that today’s folk music has in fact deviated from its lineage. “Bright Eyes is a far cry from Bob Dylan,” Bunting said. “The recording process has evolved beyond comprehension, and maybe something has been lost [from early folk]. Regardless, I think that the genre is coming back because lyrics and music that deal with life’s most important questions will prove to be more lasting than ephemeral pop music about someone’s nice ass or sexy ‘bod.’” [karp2]
Despite the growing popularity of folk music, it is difficult for folk artists to keep up with the raw sales of top 40 artists like Soulja Boy, Miley Cyrus and the Jonas Brothers. However, Bunting said that the stories and meaningful lyrics found in folk music will allow it to be revered for years to come. He said that he would love to have commercial success, but staying true to his music was clearly more crucial to him.“I think that our music is very likable, but if it doesn’t go over [with listeners], we can’t change it to make it more listenable,” Bunting said. “We love what we love, so we make what we make. I would love it everyone loved our music and we could be extremely popular, but there is nothing we can do about that. We can only hope that people like what we do.”
During a recent performance at a Lansing house party, it was clear that students were beginning to warm up to Wildfong and Friends. The quartet won the crowd over with a solid combination of original music like “Old 27” and “When You’re Saying Goodbye,” along with rousing covers of “The Weight” by The Band and “Oh! Susanna.” Among the audience members was advertising sophomore Jeff Hicks, who had never listened to folk music in-depth, much less seen a folk band perform. Despite Hicks’ lack of experience with the genre, Wildfong and Friends managed to strike a chord with him. “They were very lively, entertaining, and I thought that they really meshed as a group,” Hicks said. “I would definitely recommend them to my friends because they are a completely different experience from a lot of other bands around campus.”
Wildfong and Friends doesn’t win over listeners like Hicks by conforming to industry standards, or by changing what they are to be seen as an acceptable mainstream band. Rather, they play for people who are tired of hearing the same thing every day and are starved for honest, original bands that don’t flinch in the face of the almighty dollar. Also, as Bunting pointed out, they are easygoing and truly enjoy playing for their fans. “I think MSU students should listen to Wildfong and Friends because we are a very fun band,” Bunting said. “We like to play and have a fun, collective experience.”
Videos of Wildfong and Friends performing “Old 27,” “When You’re Saying Goodbye,” and “Whiskey Lullaby” can be found on Youtube. For information on the band and their music, visit their Myspace page at href=”http://www.myspace.com/wildfongandfriends”> www.myspace.com/wildfongandfriends.

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