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The Civil Wars: Folk and Country at the Same Time?

February 15, 2012

The+Civil+Wars.jpgby Kim Ruehl, folkalley.com

In case you've been under a rock or off the grid for some reason, you probably know by now - the Grammy Awards took place this past weekend, honoring a slew of popular musicians in a number of categories for the 54th time in the history of the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences.

As much as I don't love admitting it, I kind of love the Grammy Awards. Because I'm so embroiled in the folk and Americana worlds, the Grammys give me an excuse and opportunity to bone up on mainstream music. I know the artists I love the most will probably never appear on the telecast.

Of course it troubles me that folk, metal, classical, jazz, and technical awards have been deemed by some higher power as "disinteresting" and "unimportant" to the average television watcher; thus those awards are presented in private, non-televised ceremonies. As if those styles don't have fans and communities holding their breath and cheering for them...

But, this year, I kept getting caught up on one very small and simple confusion: The Civil Wars were nominated for Best Folk Album for Barton Hollow and Best Country Vocal Performance by a Duo or Group for the title track of that same album. Granted, the American Roots category is separate from the Country category, so perhaps those two committees weren't working in congress and both thought the Civil Wars were relevant to them.

Nonetheless, I shouldn't have to state this, but I do. Country music and folk music are different things. They share some common lineage, but lumping one band into both categories is kind of like saying "part man, part monkey." That's not even a thing.

Did the Civil Wars deserve attention, recognition, kudos, sales? Yes, absolutely. They're a terrifically talented couple of people. But, if we're going to get into the messy business of categorizing music, of all things (a thing which I personally believe defies definition, or should), we should be clear about those categories and stick to them.

One thing is not another. A bowl is not a fork. A chair is not a roller skate. A country singer is not a folksinger.

What do you think? Are the Civil Wars a band for whom it makes sense to consider them both Nashville darlings and children of Woody? Or are they a pop group influenced by the narrative structure of traditional music, but inclined to fashion it into something palatable on Music Row? Does it matter? Should the Grammy committees pay better attention to what, exactly, constitutes the categories of music they designate?

Or is it enough for us folk music enthusiasts to just see some people who sort of look like maybe folksingers being granted 60 seconds to sing on television?

Posted by Kim Ruehl at February 15, 2012 11:03 AM


Comments

I think you might have missed this by a country mile. (pardon the pun) As for performers, Emmylou Harris is already in the country hall of fame and if there ever is a folk hall of fame she will certainly be inducted. Then there is Leonard Cohen, Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger who are already in the Rock and Roll hall of fame. And as for a song being in two genre you have Metallica and The dubliners both recording Whiskey in The Jar and Johnny Cash and Nine Inch Nail both doing Hurt. I do agree that trying to categorize music or performers is a waste of time.
I had never heard of The Civil Wars until they were nominated for a grammy but after listening to them I think any genre would be proud to claim them. I can see where their music would fit easily into Folk, Country, Rock or Pop. They do an excellent cover of Micheal Jackson's Billy Jean.

Posted by: Ken Miller at February 19, 2012 12:18 AM

I agree that country music and folk music are indeed not the same beast, despite the obvious common lineages...but in the world of the Grammy's, who cares about such trivialities? I mean those guys play...what are those things called again? oh yes a guitar...they play something called a guitar...

Posted by: Joshua Sanders at February 19, 2012 5:51 PM

Given that the qualifiers for such categories are totally subjective, I do not think it matters which category they are nominated for. Country, folk, Americana, roots, world, classical, eclectic, progressive, new age, rock, pop, metal, blues, funk: many of the artists featured on folkalley.com commonly span several of these categories. Good music is good music regardless of the subjective category it is placed in, and it seems a little misguided to wish to box up the talent of these artists in
this way.

Posted by: KD Fleming at March 5, 2012 3:29 PM

Okay, they've got a foot in both camps, like Hugh Moffat, Nanci Griffith, David Olney, many others. They're not glossy like Steel Magnolia or like Faith Hill and Tim McGraw. Being what they are, they look more like writers than performers, which is to say they physically resemble folk acts. They are cerebral and lyric-driven, and folk audiences respond to music like this. What's more country than folklike about them is that they concentrate on relationship songs. I haven't heard their whole catalog, but what I've heard reflects their name: They explore man/woman dynamics far more than they explore other big ideas.

I'm familiar with New England Folk, Northwest Folk, Great Lakes Folk, and Southwest Folk. But when I think of Southern Folk I think of English ballads collected from isolated Kentucky hollers. When I think of alt.country I mostly think of acts from Texas, but maybe these hipster Nashville songwriters are a decent example of something that might soon be known as Southern Folk. Only, you know, commercially successful.

Posted by: Joan Kennedy at April 11, 2012 11:25 AM

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