In 2016, the borders between musical genres are disappearing like lines of coke on HBO's Vinyl. And the cross-pollination isn't just happening in hip-hop or EDM, but in vintage styles with hybrid roots. Take Nashville, country music's presumably hidebound headquarters. The liner notes to the all-star concept album Southern Family – helmed by tradition-minded A-list producer Dave Cobb – call its heritage-themed songs "folk art," which sounds right if your definition includes Otis Redding-style R&B (Anderson East's "Learning"), Southern goth strings (Civil Wars vet John Paul White's "Simple Song") and foot-stomping gospel (Black Crowes brother Rich Robinson's "The Way Home"). The most surprising cut is a bluesy cover of "You Are My Sunshine," by Morgane Stapleton and her husband, Chris Stapleton; the most theologically pointed, Jason Isbell's "God Is a Working Man"; and "Sweet By and By" is rebel country queen Miranda Lambert at her rootsiest. Nearly every track here shows a golden era of Southern music dawning.
Before going all Achtung Baby, Mumford & Sons made pop while fronting as folkies. The Lumineers keep that campfire burning on Cleopatra. There's nothing as catchy as their New York City-dreaming hit "Ho Hey," but it's long on tuneful sing-along invites driven by acoustic guitars, barroom piano, foot stomps and smoke-ring rhymes. See "Ophelia," which could make more of its vaguely Shakespearean heroine; "Gun Song," which dodges any Second Amendment stands; and the title track, on which a lovelorn actress-turned-cabbie narrator is revealed to be either dying, or crazy, or both. She deserves better.
After a folk outing with his mom and a session with blues harpist Charlie Musselwhite, Ben Harper extends the folk tradition to include hair metal on his latest LP, making Hollywood and Vine sound like Robert Johnson's crossroads on "When Sex Was Dirty," with plenty of guitar sleaze. But Harper continues the protest folk tradition on the title track, not afraid of using the word "murder" to discuss Michael Brown and Trayvon Martin, or of suggesting there is plenty of old-fashioned American guilt to go around.