There’s a new-old movement quietly gathering steam among youthful Americana acts. Singer-songwriters in their early 20s — like Robert Ellis, Dylan LeBlanc and Andrew Combs — are finding an appealing model in the literate, folk-leaning, countercultural storytellers who carved out a place in country music from the late ‘60s through the ‘70s.
When these gifted young guys start rattling off a list of their influences, they name songwriters closer in age to their grandparents: Kris Kristofferson, Willie Nelson, Tom T. Hall, Townes Van Zandt, Mickey Newbury, Guy Clark and John Prine. And like those legends, Combs, LeBlanc and Ellis are serious both about writing songs and writing them from the vantage point of a contemplative outsider.
Their inspiration couldn’t be farther from the stomp-and-strum sing-along anthems of uplift from so many of their folk-rock revivalist peers. They’re conscious, too, of their contrast with modern mainstream country and the rough-hewn alternative country that appeared in the ‘90s.
Combs didn’t find it that much of a leap from the louder, left-of-mainstream fare he once identified with to the nonconformist folk-country poets under whose spell he fell.
“I remember one of my buddies in high school kinda changed my view on music when he played me Guy Clark’s [1975 album] Old No. 1,” he says. “That changed everything for me. I was into — I wouldn’t say punk music — but like post-rock stuff in high school. Then when I was a junior or senior, he played me that, and I got into it. Guy Clark’s like my god now. Townes Van Zandt and John Prine, too.”
Combs was drawn to Nashville from his native Texas by romantic stories of his songwriting heroes making the very same pilgrimage decades earlier. He wanted to go where they’d found kindred spirits and, thanks to publishing deals, considerable freedom in pursuing their muses.
Combs landed a publishing deal of his own with Razor & Tie earlier this year. Before that, he recorded Worried Man, his new album on Coin Records, which works the tortured territory of a mind driven to hell and back by love gone bad. The songs are the fruit of a period Combs spent living the starving, itinerate artist lifestyle, which is certainly part of the image attached to freewheeling figures like Van Zandt.
“I don’t want to call it a breakup record,” Combs says, “but that’s basically what it was. I was living with someone, and then that ended. I was living nowhere for eight months, just trying to finance this record, you know, writing songs and recording them two at a time per month, just kind of surfing around on people’s couches. I spent a little time in Austin. It was a weird, ‘finding myself’ sort of time. That probably came out in the lyrics and the whole vibe of the record, I guess.”
Ellis is another native Texan, and he announced his move to Nashville during his showcase at the Americana festival. On the heels of his 2011 New West Records debut, Photographs, he was up for the emerging artist title at this year’s Americana Music Honors and Awards. In giving his album the feel of a two-sided LP, he mapped out the musical territory that interests him. Folk-leaning side A is stocked with wry ruminations, finger-picked guitar figures and featherweight singing, while country band-backed side B toys with offbeat honky-tonk piano balladry and spiky, rollicking Bakersfield-ish numbers.
Almost everyone who’s written about the album has pointed out the name-dropping Ellis does in his song “Comin’ Home”: “I got Lefty, Willie, Hank and Townes to keep me company.” It’s no coincidence that all four of the archetypal songwriter-performers he names — Frizzell, Nelson, Williams and Van Zandt — are most associated with music made by the end of the ‘70s. In an interview for the Austin American-Statesman, Ellis noted, “I think maybe in the ’70s, country might’ve been an appropriate title for some of my stuff, but [now] I feel like that word is so far removed from what I’m doing.”
Observers frequently pick up on the difference between Ellis’ music, other guitar-wielding singer-songwriters of his generation and acts that currently top the country charts. Reviewing his album for The New York Times last year, Andy Langer wrote, “Although both cycles reveal songs remarkably complex for Mr. Ellis’s age, more striking is that neither sounds much like what’s going on in the indie folk scene (Bon Iver, Iron and Wine) or anything currently on country radio, from either Texas or Nashville.”
Muscle Shoals, Ala., musician LeBlanc is the son of James LeBlanc, who’s supplied material to mainstream hit-makers like Thompson Square, Sara Evans and Rascal Flatts as well as done his share of sideman work.
Because music hit so close to home through his father’s career, the younger LeBlanc couldn’t help but be influenced.
“I grew up listening to a lot of country,” he says. “I hated it when I was young. I was in a punk rock band for, like, two years, trying to get away from all that. Then every time I would sit down to write a song, it would end up sounding slightly country. … But then I just came to accept it for what it was. Because I don’t think I could’ve helped it if I wanted to.”
LeBlanc inked a publishing deal at 18 with the same company to which his dad was signed. He’s now in his early 20s with a recently released second album on UK-based Rough Trade. His 2010 album, Pauper’s Field, established him as a melancholy writer comfortable working with classic folk tropes, like outlaws condemned to hang and songs named after pined-for women. The emotions conveyed on his latest, Cast the Same Old Shadow, are no less dark, but his expression has taken a melodramatic turn, the melodies bruised and sweeping and the string-swathed production as grand in scale as the countrypolitan studio work of Chet Atkins, Owen Bradley or Billy Sherrill.
Ultimately, LeBlanc’s approach to country-rooted music sounds and feels not at all like his dad’s, and that’s no accident. It’s only natural that the son’s generation would experience the youthful urge to do things differently from their immediate predecessors.
Explains LeBlanc, “Also, growing up I listened to a ton of folk music, you know? I leaned more on the John Prine and the Neil Young as much as I did George Jones. I always loved classic country. But I hated the commercial music scene. I hated it. … I didn’t think [my dad] was happy doing it. And I think it drained him, you know, being a 9-to-5 kind of writer. … And I didn’t want any part of it. So that part of it made me want to differentiate. That was a conscious thing in my mind.”