Singer-songwriter music is irrelevant. Or so the pop charts would have you believe. It’s a funny term, because we generally use it to refer to acoustic or folk music, but it often encompasses more than that. Genre is more nebulous now than ever, but just to give a small picture of how confusing the singer-songwriter label is: 4 of the iTunes Singer-Songwriter Top 10 for this week are Ed Sheeran songs, and #10 is a Tracy Chapman song from 1988. Those two artists couldn’t be further from each other in tone, subject matter, and generation. Singer-songwriter barely even means anything anymore.
Let me tell you what I mean when I say “singer-songwriter”. Singer-songwriter music is music written by the person who performs it. I know, it’s complicated- sorry. It’s not a term I use a lot; I usually use “folk” or “country” or just the all-around “pop” designation. But there were a glut of great albums released this past month that qualify as singer-songwriter, and it feels like the only accurate way to describe them as a whole.
Regardless of what you call it, singer-songwriter music barely has a place in the current marketplace of music. The songs we consume as a culture are manufactured in songwriting factories, molded by committee rather than by a singular artist. There’s nothing wrong with that; Beyoncé’s self-titled album from 2013 is one of the five best pop albums of the decade, and it’s a got a multitude of songwriting credits for every song. But overall, when art has to pass through multiple levels of quality control, it becomes watered down and lacks personal vision. Great songs can be birthed by committee, but choruses carry more weight when they’re written by one voice rather than a chorus of them.
One of the archetypes of the singer-songwriter mold is the troubadour, the lone wolf with his guitar prophesying from his soapbox on the street, which is a fair description of Austin musician David Ramirez. The most famous example of this version is obviously Bob Dylan, though I’m hesitant to compare anyone to Dylan. And Ramirez, for all his bare-bones similarities to the Bard, writes very direct lyrics with none of the dream-like stream-of-consciousness qualities so present in Dylan’s words. But, like Dylan, many of his songs are definitely written in protest. On past albums and EPs, Ramirez has never been afraid of making his unique voice heard, calling out industry fakery and political correctness. Ramirez’s new album, Fables, is his most personal yet, and, from front to back, has the most to say about love and commitment. But, true to the troubadour sensibility, even while Ramirez is pouring his heart out, he never fails to save some conviction for his listeners.
While David Ramirez fills the fool-with-a-fancy-guitar slot for singer-songwriters, another type is the piano man. Ben Rector had slaved away in the American South and Southwest before landing on national tours both opening for the likes of NEEDTOBREATHE and headlining his own. At his concerts, Rector sits at his piano, the purveyor of a kind of breathless indie pop that feels old-school in its simplicity. Based on this description, you might think of Billy Joel or Elton John, and you wouldn’t be wrong. But listening to his new album, Brand New, which depends more heavily on storytelling than past albums, I thought of James Taylor. Sure, Taylor wasn’t a piano man, but Brand New is chock full of the kinds of diary details that have been Taylor’s bread and butter on his best songs. It’s this brand new commitment to personal authenticity that makes Brand New Rector’s best album since 2008’s Songs That Duke Wrote.
The third kind of singer-songwriter goes overlooked: the outlaw country act. The fact that this so often appears to be an act is probably why these artists get left out of the singer-songwriter conversation, since singer-songwriter is a designation founded in honesty. But outlaw country is about saying things that the culture at large isn’t willing to say. That doesn’t make them untrue. The likes of Merle Haggard and Loretta Lynn may not have always been as gruff as their songs, but they certainly were when they sang them. The White Buffalo’s new album, Love and the Death of Damnation, is the very best of modern outlaw country, managing to combine the extremes of irreverence and vulnerability while challenging modern conventions. Jake Smith, the man behind The White Buffalo, is every bit as open about who he is as Ramirez or Rector, only his art has more of a snarl.
The other thing these artists have in common beyond their authenticity? This might be the only place you hear about them. Such is life in the new world of music. Even acts this good go uncovered by the best of the Internet’s music content, and a folk song from 1988 is one of the ten most popular singer-songwriter songs in 2015. But musicians like Ramirez, Rector, and Smith don’t measure their success by radioplay or charts or good reviews. It would be foolish to say that all they care about is making their music; they obviously need to make money. But each of their careers and output so far is a testament to the idea that authentic musicians can remain so and still get by.