Even as the Americana scene has grown to encompass acts whose audiences and record sales are approaching those of mainstream pop performers, it’s continued to matter to roots fans that their artists stake claims to authenticity. This could take any number of forms: the revival of a much older musical style, the attitude that self-expression trumps commercial considerations, a songwriter’s posture of honesty toward her audience or some other angle entirely. For a cardinal musical quality, authenticity can be a pretty malleable concept, and that’s a good thing.
Take these five rising roots acts. They prioritize being true to themselves, to diverse results. Los Angeles-based Rod Melancon sets the lion’s share of his story songs in his native southern Louisiana. A spirit of protest powers Lee Bains III’s Deep South narratives. The Alabaman makes it his mission to challenge the monolithic stereotypes of his region. Flatt Lonesome, a polished, coed string band, is guided by its young members’ visions of modern bluegrass.
Meanwhile, the atmospheric blues duo Dwayne Shivers is singer-songwriter Micah Dalton’s effort to reign in his solo ramblings and get back to his roots, in partnership with sympathetic guitarist Rick Lollar. Kyshona Armstrong, on the other hand, draws confidence from her long, slow build toward spotlighting her voice. All of these performers concluded last year with momentum that’s bound to carry over into 2015.
It wasn’t until Melancon chased his big-screen acting dreams to Hollywood that he felt the urge to pick up a guitar and sift the grit of his bayou birthplace into songs. The appreciation came only with the geographical distance. Last year’s Parish Lines, produced by Dwight Yoakam guitarist Brian Whelan, was Melancon’s second and most hopped-up roots-rock album to date. He wears his Springsteen influence proudly, dramatizing the rambunctious restlessness of small-town, blue-collar kids and even inserting a “Born to Run” reference, but he’d also have kindred spirits in Chris Knight and Adam Hood, with their abilities to render the texture of down-home settings vivid and visceral. Melancon’s on his way down that path.
Bains III clearly also appreciates the evocative qualities of the place he comes from. But the Birmingham-bred bandleader of the Glory Fires uses his writing to try to reconcile wrongheaded impressions of backward Southerners with the region’s very real, very volatile history of racial and economic oppression, as well as the self-aware South he identifies with. That may sound like quite an intellectual load for a 10-song garage rock album to bear. But Dereconstructed, which Sub Pop saw fit to release last year, is a pretty astounding album: righteously angry, powerfully particular and historically knowledgeable, yet also loud, sweaty and hooky enough for a rock dive — all that and impossible to reduce to caricature.
Already, Flatt Lonesome have received pats on the back from the two biggest organizations in bluegrass — the tradition-championing Society for the Preservation of Bluegrass Music of America and the more mainstream International Bluegrass Music Association. Veterans in the field couldn’t have been happier to see a young sextet come along playing straight bluegrass, as opposed to one of its shaggier or spikier offshoots and doing it with precision. The best part is that this coed, family group (three Robertson siblings, one of their spouses and two friends) has found room to maneuver within the form. Their sophomore album, Too, is hard-driving, 6/8 waltzing and occasionally gospel-themed, as well as western-swinging, honky-tonk-shuffling and Miranda Lambert-covering, and they bring contemporary brightness and precision to their three-part harmonies.
For years, Dalton has worked in soul-tinged folk-pop territory under his own name. But he gave his output a new frame last year when he launched Dwayne Shivers with his jazzy instrumental foil Lollar. Dalton’s described the move as a musical homecoming of sorts. You could also think of it as creative rebranding. Without one guy’s name out front, their debut EP turned out to be not so much a work of confessional songwriting as a batch of new-generation spirituals and fleecy, exquisite blues, embroidered by the insouciant interplay between Lollar’s guitar and Dalton’s voice. It’ll be worth watching how the collaboration unfolds.
Armstrong’s musical journey hasn’t played out as publicly as Dalton’s. She worked as a music therapist for a time, singing to salve the institutionalized and incarcerated and inviting their participation, before dedicating herself to the coffeehouse, club and college circuit as a performing singer-songwriter. Go, the crowd-funded album she released independently last year, has deeply felt originals and an athletic, articulate, authoritative roots-soul vocal attack. Put it this way. What Armstrong’s doing wouldn’t be out of place alongside Jill Scott’s or Ruthie Foster’s catalogs.