Acoustic sincerity did brisk business in 2012. The popular reign of the fervent young folk-rockers — Mumford & Sons chief among them — was one of the big stories in music. And Marcus Mumford's habit of drawing on his evangelical roots to craft anthems of uplift was no fluke among the unplugged crowd. The Scene unpacked a wider-ranging trend of established acts crossing over from contemporary Christian music to Americana and a new generation going the roots route from the get-go in an email dialogue with Pitchfork, Salon.com, eMusic and American Songwriter contributor Stephen Deusner.
You're a savvy observer of Americana, and since you, like me, put in some church youth group time in your younger days, my hunch is you also have a working knowledge of the mechanics of contemporary Christian music. So I'm dying to hear your thoughts on migratory patterns between the genres that have caught my eye of late. Allow me to explain.
For years, I've been aware of a few gifted CCM expats who settled into the roots world — like Buddy and Julie Miller and Phil Madeira — but I wouldn't have called it a trend. Then Mike Farris came along with a gospel-soul album that got little CCM traction but stirred considerable Americana buzz.
But only this year did I notice a mapped-out path beneath these movements. Before they recently went on hiatus, The Civil Wars pulled off artful aesthetic positioning, putting distance between Joy Williams and her sunlit Christian-pop past and arriving at a shadowed Southern gothic vibe. No less significant was the fact that Charlie Peacock — the most sophisticated, thoughtful pop mind to shape the previous three decades of CCM — produced their album, followed it this year with his own take on a rootsy song cycle, and produced an upcoming Holly Williams album. Then there was Madeira's multi-artist project Mercyland, which showcased left-of-traditional spiritual expression in an Americana context.
Performers drifting away from devotionally demarcated categories is only part of the story here. Then you've got the ascendant folk-rock revival.
Rarely does anybody write about Marcus Mumford without mentioning his parents' prominence in U.K. evangelicalism as proof that he was raised to be an upstanding citizen of a rock star. But to leave it at that is to miss an important point. Ann Powers has argued that at the core of Mumford & Sons' music — along with that of their stomping, strumming peers The Avett Brothers, The Head and the Heart, and The Lumineers — is the urge to sweep up their twentysomething fans in acoustic anthems of sincerity, spiritual uplift and striving to live out a connection to something bigger than themselves.
It strikes me that unlike earlier crops of church-bred musicians — white ones, specifically — Mumford & Co. circumvented CCM without ever really considering it as a potential career path and headed straight for a folk-friendly "secular" audience.
Are you seeing what I'm seeing? If so, or if not, what do you make of it? What's really going on here? Thanks for diving in.
First of all, you make a very persuasive case. This seems like a very keen mapping of "migratory patterns," as you call them, between these two categories. The implications of this trend are fascinating and certainly open up a lot of areas for debate, so I'm definitely looking forward to discussing them with you. Where to begin?
Perhaps with a slightly less rhetorical question: What do you think is motivating this change? Is this development driven more by musical concerns or spiritual needs? Are artists feeling constrained by the CCM label, to the extent that a younger generation sees it merely as a commercial dead-end rather than a supportive community? Or is it the inevitable byproduct of nontraditional worship, where church services are presented with all the flash and showmanship of rock concerts?
Speaking of Powers: I've been looking forward to discussing her essay with you, and I think it will allow us to address both the medium and the message. Her article definitely convinced me that Marcus Mumford isn't pandering to his audience, which is no easy feat, because full disclaimer: I wrote the Pitchfork review she calls "vicious." I still get angry emails from readers asking if I want to rescind my criticisms now that Mumford & Sons have brought banjos into the Billboard Top 10. I don't. I stand by my words; that band is the musical equivalent of a Nicholas Sparks novel or a Thomas Kinkade painting.
However, Powers shows how their music enacts some aspect of their faith, which seems to ride against one prevalent criticism against CCM. Or at least it was prevalent when I first became aware of the genre. Detractors have claimed that the message takes priority over the music, which means the music will always fail to be interesting or innovative. This has always struck me as a fairly easy generalization, but it does raise the question of how these artists rank music against message. Does the message even remain intact once an artist has crossed over? I have some thoughts on the matter, but I'd be much more interested in hearing yours.
Thanks for really sinking your teeth into the topic.
You asked whether I think the motivating factors are artistic, spiritual or commercial. I say all of the above. CCM was first promoted as an evangelistic tool, until it became clear that it was mostly preaching to the choir. After that, Christian pop and rock was positioned as an upstanding alternative to whatever the unchurched kids were listening to, based on the idea that Christians needed to steer clear of secular culture.
I'm wondering if that narrative too has outlived its relevance, particularly to a younger generation of musicians who are used to displaying all areas of their lives on social media. Maybe they don't have as much use for a genre that places parameters on lyric content yet stylistically emulates the pop music mainstream. Sound plausible to you?
I think you're on to something where modern worship music's concerned. According to a friend who wrote his Ph.D. dissertation on the topic, over the past decade-and-a-half, the momentum in CCM has decidedly shifted toward worship music modeled on U2's dynamics; i.e., rock anthems that build to a soaring climax.
My friend said he hasn't seen people flee CCM on account of the modern worship push, but it seems likely to me that young music-makers who don't see themselves doing worship may not see room for themselves in that industry. Plus, the flashiness of some modern worship production is just as likely as the glossy surface of Auto-Tuned pop to prompt the sort of search for authenticity that leads to stripped-down acoustic instrumentation.
It's worth considering too that CCM hasn't been so welcoming to rootsy aesthetics over the years. They don't call it contemporary for nothing. The genre's early players may have felt it important to differentiate between their youth-aimed fare and the countrified Southern gospel quartets that predated it.
To me, it says something that an artist-producer of Peacock's stature has found it creatively liberating to work in an Americana context. Americana is, after all, home to singer-songwriters like Iris DeMent. That audience tends to take it well when she sings about her fraught relationship to the religious tradition she was raised in, and doesn't automatically interpret Gillian Welch, Patty Griffin or Elizabeth Cook's gospel recordings as straightforward professions of faith.
I haven't spent nearly the amount of time wrestling with Mumford's music that you have, which I fear makes me ill-qualified to respond to your hard-won critique. I hope that doesn't sound too much like a cop-out. After hearing and not being particularly moved by "Little Lion Man," I concluded I wasn't their primary demographic. I've been more interested in the impulses driving their music and the powerful response it's elicited from listeners than the music itself.
What do you think this migration means for performers articulating religious identities? Do you have any other motivating factors in mind? What role do you think the pursuit of authenticity — however it's defined — plays in all this?
Thanks again for going here with me.
First of all, I think you're absolutely right to take the long view of CCM as a means of grounding this development historically. The genre's relationship with the secular mainstream has always been fraught, and as you point out, there's been an almost constant debate about whether music should be an evangelical tool or an alternative to non-Christian music. But CCM has always flirted with the mainstream in weird ways. Or maybe it's the mainstream that has flirted with CCM.
But why Americana? Of all the styles currently popular, what makes that such a popular style in relationship to CCM? You're definitely onto something when you suggest that for many young musicians the emphasis on rural tradition, acoustic instrumentation and modest presentation makes Americana an attractive alternative to modern worship music. It certainly does appear to be a reaction to some of the dominant trends in that world, which makes me wonder if modern worship music provokes the same kind of suspicions that modern secular pop does.
I hate to bring them up again as there are certainly more worthwhile groups to discuss, but I think the most interesting thing about Mumford & Sons is that they inhabit both of these worlds. They play modern worship music on traditional instruments. That may be an oversimplification, but the sense of uplift they convey — the fervor of those rousing crescendos — is certainly similar to that of a modern worship service and, I think, similarly programmatic. In that sense, they're definitely the most contemporary-minded of all the current Americana bands, but I think understanding them in this particular context makes them much more interesting, if not entirely sympathetic.
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