Successful singer-songwriters have spanned across the decades, but no era saw them flourish like the 1970s. James Taylor, Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan, Dan Fogelberg, Carly Simon, Jackson Browne and Neil Young (to name a few) were tearing up the airwaves. Their simple, thought-provoking melodies struck a chord with a Vietnam War-torn America and left an indelible mark on the modern music biz. Well, tune your radios and adjust your mp3 players, folks. The 70s singer-songwriter sound is back - with a whole new batch of artists.
Jackson Browne live (1978):
Carrying the Torch
There have been a few artists who've carried the singer-songwriter torch all along. You may remember the Lilith Fair tours of 1997-1999. The festival united and showcased female singer-songwriters; with Lilith, we got the likes of Sarah McLachlan, Sheryl Crow, The Indigo Girls, and Emmylou Harris all performing on one stage. They were women who had been the classic "singer-songwriter" even when it wasn't the most popular. Take Sheryl Crowe. When her first album, Tuesday Night Music Club, hit the scene in 1994, she represented something different on the music scene. She had that whole "just a girl and her guitar" thing - a rarity in the age of grunge.
Sheryl Crowe live at Lilith Fair (1997):
One thing about those 70's singer-songwriters is they tended to have a lot of output. And for a prolific modern singer-songwriter, Ryan Adams is your man. When we say this guy's prolific, we're talking frequent multiple-albums-per-year-prolific. Although he may have just scored one of his biggest chart climbers this summer with his album Easy Tiger, he's actually been around for over a decade, producing a large and meaningful body of work that some artists spend a lifetime trying to create. Like many a 70's singer-songwriter, his voice has a natural country bend, and he knows how to work emotion into every pluck of his guitar strings. The 70's sound was infused with hints of folk and country, and, in this sense, Ryan Adams hits the classic singer-songwriter nail on the head.
Ryan Adams live:
Back in 2001 a little known singer-songwriter from Fairfield, Connecticut, released his first studio recording, Room For Squares. Now John Mayer is practically a household name. In a way, he worked a little "bait and switch" with his dual "soft rock" and "singer-songwriter" appeal (two genres that are known to overlap frequently). The trick is - Mayer's music works well on car radios and piped in over the intercom at your local dentist's office. But he's also got the skills that true-blue music fans love to hear - oftentimes playing improv jam sessions for 8 or 9 minutes on end in concert. By wooing the "Soft Rock" crowd and the artsy singer-songwriter fan base, Mayer has won over a sizeable audience. Like 70's counterparts Eric Clapton and Don Henley, John Mayer is a memorable singer-songwriter now performing to packed arenas.
Storytelling was another big element to the works of 70's singer-songwriters. Artists like John Denver told musical fables with guitars perched on their knees. Well, if you want to hear modern knock-your-socks off good storytelling (mixed with fun and lush compositions), look no further than any album by The Decemberists. Frontman Colin Meloy even holds a degree in creative writing. The band's work often includes old school singer-songwriter storytelling techniques - mixed with some topical subject matter (for example, in one of their more recent hit songs, "O! Valencia," the narrator's true love is killed in an act of gang violence).
The Decemberists on Letterman:
Folk for a New Generation
Beautiful and down-to-earth melodies, imaginative lyrics, and gentle voiced singers make The Weepies a throwback to 70's musical greats. And despite their classic singer-songwriter vibe, their work feels totally creative and relevant. Playful lyrics (as in: "What can I compare you to, a favorite pair of shoes?/Maybe my bright red boots if they had wings") combined with poignant messages make their music both one-of-a-kind and accessible.
"Gotta Have You" by The Weepies:
The Total Singer-Songwriter Package
Although she hasn't reached uber-fame among the masses, music aficionados probably know a thing or two about Patty Griffin. Her sound is timeless - but very well could have been plucked out of 1978 and dropped into this decade. With a mockingbird-like voice and acoustic guitar, Griffin is the real deal. Film director and music fanatic Cameron Crowe (whose 2001 film "Almost Famous" gave us a nostalgic peek at the 70's music scene) is such a big fan that he pointedly gave her a spot on the soundtrack to his 2005 film "Elizabethtown."
Patty Griffin live:
Musical Movie Moments
And if you want to see further evidence that singer-songwriters are here with a bang, you need only pop by your local movie theater. The "Juno" soundtrack, for instance, is chock-full of indie folk rock that tunes that sound something akin to folk-rock circa 1976. A high-note of the entire film "Juno" consists of two characters singing The Moldy Peaches' "Anyone Else But You." Now the soundtrack has even hit gold. Interestingly, the role music plays in "Juno," and the specific role that singer-songwriter Kimya Dawson holds in the film's soundtrack, could be easily compared to the role Cat Stevens' music played in the 1971 cult classic "Harold and Maude."
There will always be traditionalists who think that no modern artist could ever touch the classic 1970's singer-songwriter sound (and they may be right - but, as Dylan would say, "The times they are a-changin,'" and music will continue to draw some of its uniqueness from the time period in which it was made). Of course, the 80s and 90s had their own singer-songwriters (the Bruce Springsteens and Alanis Morissettes). But what makes modern singer-songwriters especially interesting is how they're building on this backdrop of older music stylings and adding their own artistic twists as they go. What musical playing field will they take us to next?