Generation R: How Roots Music Calls and Cultivates Young Artists
The first time artist manager Denise Stiff encountered a 15-year-old Alison Krauss singing at a bluegrass event, she knew she was witnessing something special. “I was floored,” Stiff recalls. Krauss’ talent was immense, even back then; but there was something else about her — a wisdom, poise, and maturity that does not seem as prevalent in young artists of other music genres, but is fairly common in the world of roots music. Just over the past decade, Mark Cunningham was “instantly hooked” by his first listen to Brandi Carlile, Jason Owen was “enamored” upon his introduction to Kacey Musgraves, and pretty much everyone was “captivated” by early experiences of Ashley Monroe, John Fullbright, the Westbound Rangers, Alynda Lee Segarra, and Robert Ellis.
Even though all of those artists are at — or over — the 25-year mark now, there are plenty more where they came from. On the charts and critics’ lists, we have Hunter Hayes (22), Jake Bugg (20), First Aid Kit’s Johanna (23) and Klara (21) Söderberg, Ed Sheeran (23), Laura Marling (24), and, of course, Taylor Swift (24). Then there’s Tim McGraw’s pet project, 20-year-old country songwriter Dakota Bradley, as well as Stevie Ray Vaughn’s heir apparent, 23-year-old blues guitarist Tyler Bryant. And that’s just the beginning. Dig not very much deeper to find Sarah Jarosz (23), Parker Millsap (21), Jonah Tolchin (22), Anthony da Costa (23), Lily Mae (18), and Mipso, whose members are Jacob Sharp and Joseph Terrell (both 24) and Wood Robinson and Libby Rodenbough (both 23).
What is it about the big tent of roots music that calls and cultivates such poised young artists? Is it nature or nurture, nativism or empiricism at work here? Old souls or tabula rasas, grounded goals or collaborative community? Whatever the source of the influence, it’s thoroughly unlikely that Sarah Jarosz would ever twerk on TV or Parker Millsap would ever have a Bieber-level breakdown. But fill albums with thoughtfully composed songs or perform gracefully in front of thousands of fans? Been there, done that, often before they even have their first (legal) sip of whiskey.
Nature and Nurture
One listen to country hit-ster Hunter Hayes’ song “Invisible” and it’s obvious that he is cut from a very different cloth than his pop-star counterpart Justin Bieber. Hayes did, in fact, wait until his 21st birthday before imbibing alcohol. Bieber, on the other hand, hasn’t yet passed that legal designation but has been well documented under various influences. Is that his genetic determinism or the influence of his environment? Probably a bit of both.
Songwriter and Belmont University professor Bonnie Baker has kept company with several young roots artists over the past two decades including, most recently and famously, the 22-year-old Hayes, with whom she co-wrote “Invisible.” Baker met Hayes when he was 15 and was immediately struck by what he brought to the writing table. “One of the things I always gravitate to is somebody who’s just so musical, when they have a knowledge of music,” she recounts. “And, then, conceptually, walking in and talking to people who are 15 or 16, and they’re not just writing their life. Because, at 15, you haven’t done anything. Hunter had all of those elements. He had a wisdom way beyond his years. There’s an old soul in certain people and you connect with that. And the work ethic — we would write all day and wouldn’t stop until we had the demo done. There aren’t many people who are that driven.”
It would be easy enough to tag these young upstarts with the “old soul” moniker and call it a day. The Urban Dictionary’s definition certainly seems to fit: “A spiritual person who is wise beyond their years; a person of strong emotional stability. Basically, someone who has more understanding of the world around them.” But, by and large, the artists in question shrug off that notion.
Millsap flat-out rejects the descriptor: “Yeah, I don’t get it. I’m 21 years old.” Singer/songwriter Jonah Tolchin also fails to connect the dots, though his words betray him in the process: “I definitely had the old soul and the maturity comments before, and it’s funny, because I’ve never really paid attention to it. There was no identification with that. I always have just been the way that I am and that’s it.” Finding at least a partial basis for the argument, Jarosz adds, “People tend to use that phrase. I just attribute it to I’m lucky to have parents who were really supportive of me being into music from an early age. They would always opt out of the babysitter and take me with them to see live music for as long as I can remember. So I was always around older people, from a very young age.”
Still, there’s something that we recognize in these young artists and not in many of their mainstream contemporaries — an inherent maturity, a natural poise — that makes it wrongheaded to dismiss out of hand the “born this way” argument for nature. Brandi Carlile’s first record dropped when she was 24 and it stands as one of the finest debuts of the past decade, chock full of stunning performances and substantive craftsmanship. As a tried-and-failed musician and Carlile’s long-time manager, Mark Cunningham has both first- and second-hand knowledge of what it takes to be a songwriter with that sort of depth and consequence. “I tried writing songs for my college band and the result was exactly what you’d expect from someone who was very immature and unsure of himself at the time,” he observes. “It takes some maturity and perspective to put pen to paper and come up with something meaningful and heartfelt. The roots audience thrives on music that comes from a very raw place and conveys relatable personal experiences. It’s a very ‘common man’ community. So, as an artist, your message isn’t going to connect with the community until you’ve matured enough to say something that resonates with people.” Carlile hit that stride in her early 20s, while her peers were trying to get to their Art History and Psych 101 classes on time.
That kind of greatness doesn’t come from nowhere, though. Even old souls have to work at it. Despite and, perhaps, because of her natural abilities, Carlile put in the years of effort it takes to cultivate a talent — busking on the streets of Seattle, studying the techniques of her favorite singers, writing and writing and writing song after song after song. Likewise, singer/songwriter Anthony da Costa attests, “I think that what I believe about folk music being ‘organic music’ is proven in the way that all of us young artists are coming out these days. It used to be (and sometimes still is) that kids were getting picked up at age 12, 13, 15, 17, and being made into megastars before they have any idea of what love is or, at least, what their voice is. I’m 23 and feeling like I’m starting to come into my own voice. It’s taken me 10 years of writing, playing, touring, and recording to find that, and that’s okay. Because my voice is my voice and offers a unique perspective someone else doesn’t have. And I feel like the way has been paved by such fantastic talent that it’s only natural for people in their late teens and early 20s to be coming up and writing good songs. And those songs will only get better.”
That’s not to say that nurture doesn’t also play a part. It takes both wings to fly. After guiding Alison Krauss’ career for 23 years, Denise Stiff parted ways with her in 2009, making room on her management roster for a new client. Enter Sarah Jarosz, who was 18 at the time. Stiff notes, “There’s a lot to be said for starting with a special gift. You can go pretty far with some talent and serious practice, but there are some artists who are simply gifted.” After summing up the nature side, Stiff adds, “I also think there’s something to be said for family influence. Both Alison and Sarah have parents who encouraged creativity and exposed them to all sorts of cultural activities, not just music. Both had families who listened to a variety of music at home. Both were supported in their quest when they developed a single-minded passion for music.” So, it’s nature and nurture, not nature versus nurture? For Jarosz, at least, “Totally.”
And she’s not alone in her assertion. As evidenced in the spiritual tug-of-war that fills many of his songs, Parker Millsap grew up in Oklahoma attending a Pentecostal church twice a week. Between family and church, there was a deep well of love and, perhaps, tough love that he now draws from as an artist. “I was surrounded by loving and supportive people. I think the church was good for me. It gave me direction and a set of standards to aim for, but, like any kid in church, there was also a fair amount of guilt involved,” Millsap muses. “However, my family and their unrelenting love and support have given me a pretty positive outlook.”
For Kacey Musgraves, too, it all goes back to family. Jason Owen, who has managed Musgraves since 2011, gives them the lion’s share of the credit: “She came from an amazingly loving and supportive family. Her mom, dad, and sister are all very creative, intelligent people who have always encouraged her to follow her dreams and to stand up for what she believes is right for her and her career. She also has an incredible grandmother who keeps us all in check.” And, because careers and lives do not happen in a vacuum, the type of nurturing a family can provide has to extend from the artist’s team as well. Everyone around an artist needs to be protective rather than exploitative, if he or she is going to truly succeed and flourish as an artist and a person. Owen agrees: “Kacey’s entire team here at Sandbox Management feels responsible for protecting her vision and allowing her to be the artist she wants to be.”
As Baker sees it, the vision may start with the artist, but it certainly does not stop there. Fairly or not, Hayes continues to be compared and contrasted with Bieber, but the two couldn’t be more opposite, and neither could their handlers. “That’s a big difference I see in management styles, in publicity styles,” Baker observes. “With Justin Bieber, I’m actually feeling sorry for him because he will not have a career in five years. And he is so young, and he does have talent, but it has not been managed the way I would manage it. Because just that blowing up, just being on every news channel at the same time, and the bad behavior … the pressure is unreal. A grownup couldn’t handle that, let alone a child. So I think management is different from a Nashville perspective versus an L.A., New York, London perspective for the pop/urban world. They have way more leniency than a country artist. So, I find that our artists are more careful with their publicity. They’re more careful about the image they put out.”
Stepping outside the inner circle of family — and professional “family” — the wider roots music community also plays a huge part in the development and sustaining of its talent. Whether they came of age attending weekly jams or annual festivals, young roots artists are deeply affected by the fans and musicians they encounter. Growing up outside of Austin, Texas, Jarosz started hitting a weekly bluegrass jam when she was just starting to play mandolin at the ripe young age of 10. That made all the difference in the world to her, she says, “especially being a young girl getting into the music scene, the whole communal aspect that surrounded all that music — going to a bluegrass jam every Friday night, going to a festival and getting to sit in with people or jamming backstage at a festival. I think that was all very appealing.” Denise Stiff, too, has high praise for the nurturing, communal aspect of jams and festivals. “Bluegrass music, where both Alison and Sarah started, has a long history of engaging aspiring young musicians,” she says. “There are lots of opportunities for kids to play, not only with other kids, but also with seasoned veterans; there are music camps and workshops that are led by some of their heroes and where they develop lifelong friendships. Bluegrass and acoustic musicians nurture the next generation. Countless times, I watched Alison really take time with a young musician, giving them pointers, writing down lists of what they should listen to, and encouraging them. Now, I watch Sarah do the same thing. The encouragement and acceptance by other players naturally leads to confidence, poise, and fearlessness.” In the roots music world, it’s a pay-it-forward scenario — get a little, give a little.
Like Jarosz, Lily Mae, an 18-year-old folk singer from Philadelphia, also grew up going to a weekly jam where, she says, “I would sit in my mom’s guitar case while she made all kinds of folk and bluegrass music with her friends, so I guess it makes sense that I feel happiest in the folk genre. But, above all else, folk music is visceral and colorful to me because it is authentic, and I really try to surround myself with people and things that feel real and genuine.”
Mipso’s Joseph Terrell, 24, attributes the roots community’s cooperative spirit to, well, its roots: “One thing that makes this bluegrass/Americana/folk world seem like a community is that all of us, even the young groups, are aware of the origins of the music — Bill Monroe, Jimmie Rodgers, Doc Watson, and lots more.” Having a sense of tradition and sharing a sense of history: according to Terrell, those are the kinds of ties that bind. For him, music is community and community is music, and the symbiosis keeps all things roots in bloom. “Whether or not you can explicitly hear these folks quoted or referenced in our contemporary music, it’s an understanding among us that we’ve learned about them and grappled with their influence and done our best to understand how the music has changed in the decades since then,” he explains. “This is part of the reason, I think, that the bluegrass/Americana world feels like a community to me. It feels like we see music as a means of making a community more than a vehicle for competition. We love old songs. We love melodies, simple melodies that move people. Even the guys and gals doing really wild, out there stuff, you can tell when they’re rooted in an appreciation for the tradition.”
Inspirations and Aspirations
If Stiff had to describe roots music and its surrounding community in a single word, it would be “honesty,” she says. “The music connects with people because it’s honest. The people who are drawn to sing or play it are drawn to that honesty.” And that honesty can be traced back to the pillars and anchors of the wide-armed genre folks like Bill Monroe, Doc Watson, Mississippi John Hurt, the Carter Family, Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan, Pete Seeger, Joni Mitchell, Loretta Lynn, Willie Nelson, and so many others. Jonah Tolchin points out a common denominator among his heroes: “They had to be playing music because it was coming through them. They had no other choice. Maybe they didn’t even want to be doing it sometimes, but it just had to happen.” And the world is all the better for it, as are their successors.
The hardscrabble elements of humility and honesty continue to ring out in the voices of every generation that has carried on the roots music lineage. The same can’t be said, necessarily, for pop artists. As manager Mark Cunningham says of Brandi Carlile, “If she had been listening to Michael Jackson instead of Loretta Lynn, her musical dreams might have been entirely different.”
Like so many good folkies before her, Lily Mae claims, “Joni Mitchell has always been a musical hero of mine. There is something cohesive and magical about the way her words, melodies, and performances always meld together. Different variations of ‘It needs to be more purple’ is something I say often in the studio, and I think Joni Mitchell is who led me to see and hear the visual side of music, which has been incredibly important to my approach on music.” Similarly, Anthony da Costa turns to the standard-bearers of his tradition: “As a songwriter, I have always looked up to Bob Dylan and Neil Young. It was hard to pay such close attention to those guys and not look even further back to Woody Guthrie, who essentially invented the position of ‘singer/songwriter.’”
Although these cited icons are well known, their paths to fame were long and winding, and their works were often controversial. They didn’t sing, “Oh, baby baby.” They sang, “A change is gonna come.” They sang, “This land is made for you and me.” And some of them, too, started singing those songs when they were 19 years old because that’s just how this web weaves, with a traceable thread from Guthrie to Dylan to da Costa.
To create his wonderfully ragged brand of Americana, Parker Millsap pulls from a variety of influences — not all of them musical — depending on his needs. He loves “Bruce Springsteen and Tom Waits because they paint pictures that make me feel less alone; Howlin’ Wolf and Ella Fitzgerald because their vocal cords were made of magic goo; and John Steinbeck because he showed me that the small things are not so small and the big things are not so big.” It would be hard to imagine a more raw and honest set of inspirations than that.
For the members of Mipso, the range of role models is both wide and deep, from Doc Watson to Ryan Adams, from the Carter Family to the Avett Brothers. “Basically I think of our musical influences in the bluegrass and Americana world as layered in decades,” Terrell explains. “Broadly speaking, there are the 1940s, then the 1970s, then contemporary groups. Most of the newgrass guys from the ’70s, heroes of ours, were steeped in traditional bluegrass. A lot of young folks like us, on the other hand, found these influences reverse chronologically. Now, Jacob Sharp is a huge Stanley Brothers fan, but he found his way back to them through more recent groups. The first band I loved was New Grass Revival, and then Sam Bush taught me who Bill Monroe was.”
But these kids grew up admiring Pete Seeger, not Keith Richards; Joni Mitchell, not Madonna. Their baseline is quality over quantity, function over form, jams over drugs. If they end up in jail, it will be because they exercised their rights to protest not their rites of privilege. With all they have going for them — raw talent, family support, work ethic, noble heroes — these young artists likely have long, fruitful careers ahead of them. Talk about a role model: Seeger was still at it when he passed away earlier this year at the age of 94. That’s not a hare’s race to the top; that’s a tortoise’s measured, thoughtful pacing.
And it’s exactly what Baker prescribes: “I’ve always said that the rate at which you rise is the rate at which you’ll fall. So, if you go up quick, you’re going to come down quick. But, if you grow a nice, steady, stable career, then you get a long, slow fade. And I think that’s a healthier way to grow a career.” To her delight, she sees Hayes doing exactly that. “I was out with Hunter not long ago and we had some late-night conversations. And one of the things he really stressed to me was that we’re not in this to be flash-in-the-pan and quick. We’re in this to grow something slow and deliberate, so that we all have a long career.”
Success by way of a deliberate, thoughtful pacing means different things to different people, though. For Hayes, it’s a long career; for Jonah Tolchin, it’s a single moment. “When (people) ask what I believe success is, I usually respond that success is this moment. Success is right now. Because, if you’re always striving for the next thing, you’re never really paying attention to what’s happening right in front of you. And I really try to stay in the present moment,” Tolchin muses. “Just being able to play music as a living has been a really powerful, beautiful thing for me. I’d be doing this if I didn’t have a label. I’d be doing this if I was just playing with my friends in the basement. It’s just something that I have to do. To be honest, I really don’t have goals. I think that everything that happens is meant to happen and whatever’s going to happen is going to happen. I’m not trying to force anything. I’m just having fun.”
For his part, Anthony da Costa aims a little higher, though still within reach. ”I’d like for my music to be heard and witnessed by as many people as possible. But, more importantly, I’d love for my music to be felt. I think that we, as songwriters, aren’t doing our jobs unless we’re truly reaching people. I want my music to mean something to someone — hopefully multiple someones,” he says. “I pretty much know that I will never be an arena star, nor have I ever wanted that. I think that the whole new ‘folk revival’ has allowed all sorts of more organic music to come to the forefront of culture and media. When people like Jason Isbell and the Milk Carton Kids are getting big press and playing the big stages, you know that something is really happening in terms of what’s hip now. I mean, those dudes may never be posters on a teeny-bopper’s wall, but bands like that are hitting it big and it’s awesome because they’re actually writing songs.”
“More of a Serious Type of Thing”
And, really, when it comes down to it, the songs are what it’s all about; but not just any songs will do. In his Biograph, Bob Dylan described the difference between genres like this: “The thing about rock and roll is that, for me anyway, it wasn’t enough … There were great catch-phrases and driving pulse rhythms … but the songs weren’t serious or didn’t reflect life in a realistic way. I knew that, when I got into folk music, it was more of a serious type of thing. The songs are filled with more despair, more sadness, more triumph, more faith in the supernatural, much deeper feelings.” Twenty years later, artist manager Jason Owen echoes Dylan’s sentiment, “I think it is the storytelling, the imagery, and the connection. We are constantly surrounded by loud, fun, anthemic music from pop and country, and I think traditional country/Americana slows us down to a pace we all want to be.”
Brandi Carlile’s manager, Mark Cunningham, thirds that motion: “The roots tent covers people who focus on the song first. Is there a more perfect example of this than ‘Redemption Song’ by Bob Marley? The recording could not be more raw and honest, but it also is extremely powerful because Bob’s soul and pain pour out in that song and there is nothing in the music to disguise it. If he was looking for that song to become popular, that is probably the last way he would have recorded it as he could have easily turned it into more of a pop song and made the chorus something that was big and anthemic. But, instead, that entire song became an anthem because he let the song lead the way rather than pop ambitions, which are usually fueled by fame and fortune.”
The songs that grow out of roots music do, indeed, lead the way even as they reflect “more of a serious type of thing.” Whether it’s the sentimental melancholy of the blues or the political shibboleth of folk, roots music demands more of its artists and its audience than most other genres do. It stands to reason, then, that anyone who heeds the call must, necessarily, be “more of a serious type” of person. Even more demandingly, unlike pop songs, there’s no formula to be found in the various roots genres, other than three chords and the truth — and that’s just a suggestion, but one that most artists do actually take to heart when they turn to the creative and emotional outlet that is songwriting.
It’s a solid starting point, the truth, especially when you are young. Sometimes, in fact, all you have is your truth. “That whole period of becoming an adult, I guess you could say, it’s sometimes a difficult age, hormonally and mentally,” Tolchin says. “I sort of fell into a little bit of a depression with all that stuff that was going on, and all the stuff that was going on around me. I was seeing things I didn’t believe in. I was seeing people going to school for no reason other than to go through the motions of what it means to be a part of society. And I just wasn’t able to fit into that. So songwriting and playing the guitar, at first, became my way of teaching myself about what it means to be human. And one thing sort of leads to another. It’s all one big narrative. Songwriting is one of my main outlets so that I’m able to express myself and sometimes get a point across that’s potentially more politically or socially or environmentally oriented — a message that I feel I need to express.”
Beyond that need for expression, though, there’s a marked discipline involved with writing, rehearsing, recording, and performing — all the elements that go into this thing called music. Baker has seen her fair share of less-focused colleagues: “If you’re more worried about what you look like than you are what you sound like, then you’re not an artist. So it’s finding those people who have that core value of ‘music first.’ It’s not who I date; it’s not who I know. And Hunter [Hayes] is absolutely that way. It’s always about music and how do we make it better. You’ve got to be trying to find your voice. Now, not every 15-year-old has their voice yet or knows what their core is, but they know they need to find it. People who feel like they’ve arrived, they’re not going to be an artist that finds a rhythm and is able to have a long career. If you stop learning, you stagnate.”
As this current crop of young roots artists — Hunter Hayes, Sarah Jarosz, Parker Millsap, Jonah Tolchin, et al. — strives to find their individual values and voices, they seem to have their priorities straight. Ask Jarosz what first drew her into the roots world, and the answer is as simple as it is true: ”It was always about the music, and not about anything else, which a lot of other ‘music’ kind of is. That was what was cool about it. And is cool about it.”
So, what is it about the big tent of roots music that calls and cultivates such poised young artists? The music, stupid.
Photo credits: Parker Millsap by Grant Lee Phillips, Sarah Jarosz by Ann Arbor’s 107one, Anthony da Costa by Terry Georgia, Jonah Tolchin by Ryan Mastro.