Defining folk 

An Erica Wheeler primer

Well, here’s how not to start off an interview with folk singer Erica Wheeler: Ask her if she agrees that one of the biggest problems facing folk music is the impoverished lexicon for writing about it. (Top three worn-out adjectives: “poignant,” “rootsy,” “evocative.” Number one worn-out verb: “weave.” Seriously, at this point isn’t every folk singer weaving rootsy songs with poignant, evocative lyrics?). Objection, your honor.

“Okay, wait a second,” says Wheeler, “so are you trying to say that there are more ways to describe rock music? I wouldn’t say so. It’s hard to describe music, no matter what kind of music it is. I don’t think that’s true at all.”

Objection sustained. But I really was going somewhere with my line of questioning: What do terms like “Americana,” “contemporary folk” and “alt-country” really mean—not to the reviewers, but to the artist whose music is being reviewed? So I presented Wheeler, over the telephone, with a list of words and phrases that have appeared frequently (or at least once) in articles about her, and the Massachusetts native provided her definitions, annotations and general impressions.

Contemporary folk: “I think of contemporary folk as being a descriptive narrative of one’s life—the people you meet, the people you love, the places they live. It’s also a way to distinguish it from folk music that came out of the ‘50s and ‘60s, which was more mountain music and ballads. Contemporary folk is more like Dylan or Joni Mitchell, talking about things that are going on today. And there were different issues in the ‘70s than there are now—I think a lot of people ended up writing about relationships and how to do them better. As for running out of adjectives to describe folk music, I think what I do that sets me apart from a lot of other songwriters is incorporate a strong sense of place into my music. Place is almost like a character. There’s a Grammy category for contemporary folk now, you know, but mostly I think we’re way below the radar.”

Folkies who matter: “That’s so funny—I know what review that’s from! I’ve been touring for 10 years, and when I started out it was very difficult to make a CD. It was very expensive. In the last five years or so, it’s gotten cheaper, and I think a lot of people have a couple of songs, so they make a CD, and they might not be ready to make a CD yet, you know what I mean? So there’s a real glut of packaged product that people have to sift through, including reviewers like yourself. I think it’s great that you can empower yourself by doing your own art without having to rely on a big corporation, but there’s also something to be said for honing your craft and waiting until the fruit is ripe, that kind of thing. So I think that when that reviewer wrote ‘folkies that matter,’ he was flattering me by saying that I was sort of like the cream rising to the top. I don’t want to toot my own horn that way, but that’s what that reviewer was trying to say.”

Alt-country: “There’s just a couple of corporations that own almost all the radio in America right now, and they define what music is, and that’s pretty awful. So there’s this slick country with certain values to it, and alt country is people like Lyle Lovett, Nancy Griffith, Steve Earle. Anybody who has a little bit of grit or uniqueness or maybe even an opinion [laughs] that might ruffle some feathers is alternative country. When I’m driving in the car and I don’t have any CDs, I land on country and I stay there because it’s easy on the ears, but then the lyrics get to me and I have to find something else. I think if the Dixie Chicks or Shawn Colvin never had a band, they’d be considered folk. It’s that acoustic sound versus that full-band sound. If I had a band behind me, it wouldn’t be folk anymore. It would be country or pop or something else.”

Successful folksinger: “When I think of that term, I think of somebody like Greg Brown. He tours around, he sells out rooms, and just knowing him and having opened for him a bunch, I think he’s really just who he is. He’s very authentic and true to himself. He’s just living the life of the troubadour-poet, singing about his life and what matters to him and making a decent living at it. At least, it seems like that to me. I try to find that balance between fun and work, and it’s really a lifestyle. I love to travel and go places, and a lot of my fan base is in the West because I really like to travel here. But it can take a toll to feel like you’re a drifter all the time. My fantasy life would be a 10-day tour a month, and then working the other two weekends locally. That’s why I live in New England. It’s hard to make a living playing music in the West. In New England, you have a coffeehouse every 40 miles, so it’s possible to come home every night but still be working.”

Coffeehouse circuit: “The whole coffee explosion that’s happened in the last 10 years has been great for folk music! It’s not a bar—people aren’t being naughty, they’re sitting down and listening! But again, it comes back to the glut thing. Performers play for tips in a coffeehouse, so people get used to hearing, um, not-great-caliber folk musicians. Because there’s a lot of people who will play for tips. But you’ve gotta start somewhere, right? I did that for a long time.”

Missoula (Wheeler herself came up with this category): “The reason why I love Missoula, and I’ve played there twice before, is that there’s such a strong environmental interest in a lot of people who live there. I’d like readers who haven’t heard my music to know that about me—that I come from an environmental background and that my music has that sense of place. When I go to Missoula, I always meet so many people that I’d like to get to know, so I want them to know that about my music.”

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