May 6, 2021

Remembering the Mid to Late 80s Alt-Folk Scene


The beginning of the 1980s was a time when pop and rock music experienced an explosion of diversity. Drawing from the four roots of rock, new wave/punk, disco, and hip hop/rap, the early and mid-80s music lover saw so many new genres and styles of music, that it was tough to keep up with the choices. By the later half of the 1980s, situation had changed considerably as we entered into a bit of a lull in new music. Yes, the bands of the late 70s and early 80s were still making music – U2 put out one of its most popular albums The Joshua Tree in 1987 as did REM with Document and Green in 1987 and 1988 – but there were fewer new bands emerging at that time and many previously popular bands had run out of steam or disbanded.

As is the case in ecosystems, the loss of musical diversity meant that niches were open for emerging acts. Many of these acts were part of the alt folk scene that emerged in the mid to late 1980s and became powerful influences on the 1990s. What was interesting about these artists is that many became popular through low-fi albums that had no right to become the cult favorites that they later became.

Alt folk bands often emerged as cult favorites on college or alternative radio stations. Artists gained a reputation through under-promoted albums that caught the eye of young adults, instead of teens, and provided the motion necessary to break into the big time. Some stuck around but most have moved back into cult status or faded away entirely.

Here are some of the better examples from that period of time:

Secrets of the I-Ching (1983), The Wishing Chair (1985), 10,000 Maniacs – One of the earliest of the alt folk bands, 10,000 had been a presence in the Buffalo, NY bar scene for a number of years. Secrets of the I-Ching was recorded at SUNY Fredonia and was as low-fi as any album could be. Productions values were poor but the music innovative. It paved the way for their first major label album, 1985’s The Wishing Chair. This album helped to create the environment and sound that led to their breakthrough album, In My Tribe, in 1987. I have the good fortune to own Secrets of the I-Ching along with most of the early 10,000 Maniacs albums and to have seen them play in bars and small venues. Most recently, I saw 10,000 Maniacs at The Great Blue Heron festival in 2019 and they were still great.

Strange Fire (1987), Indigo Girls (1989), Indigo Girls – coming on the heals of the success of 10,000 Maniacs, the Indigo Girls’ first album set the pattern of folk harmonies and sparse production that would make their eponymous follow up a Grammy winner. The success of Indigo Girls also made them a staple on the Lilith Fair circuit well into the 90s. I was lucky to have seen them in 1989 opening for Neil Young.

Suzanne Vega (1985), Suzanne Vega – Suzanne Vega emerged form the NYC neo-folk scene in the mid 1980s. Her first album, Suzanne Vega, took time to achieve popularity but was helped by airplay on NYC new music radio station such as WLIR. Her second album, Solitude Standing (1987) was a surprise blockbuster, propelled forward by the hits “Luka” and “Tom’s Diner”. My previous blog on Julien Baker’s latest album includes reminiscences of my earliest encounter with Suzanne Vega.

The Trinity Session (1988), Cowboy Junkies – recorded in a church in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, The Trinity Session is sparse, almost laconic, folk music with a bit more country flavor than was typical of the alt folk scene of the time. The album became a hit on the strength of their rendition of Lou Reed’s “Sweet Jane”. The Cowboy Junkies never reached the heights of 10,000 Maniacs or even Suzanne Vega but they continue to this day to produce interesting music. The follow up, The Caution Horses (1990), did not have the same impact as The Trinity Session but Black Eyed Man (1992) did well on the college and alternative radio of the early 90s. If you only buy one Cowboy Junkies album, then Black Eyed Man is the best choice. Second choice would be The Trinity Session.

The Texas Campfire Tapes (1986), Short Sharp Shocked (1988), Michelle Shocked – it may not be fair to lump Michelle Shocked in with the alt folk movement. Much of her music was raw, confessional, songs more akin to alternative signer songwriters such as PJ Harvey or Tori Amos. Still, there is that low-fi blues and country folk influence that was prominent in her early music and she was considered part of alt folk at the time. Shocked’s first album consisted of a number of acoustic songs that were recorded on a cassette recorder literally around campfires. Her second album, produced on a major label, featured the song “Anchorage” which was a modest hit on the alternative and college radio stations of the time. Unfortunately, in 2013 Shocked made what was best described as homophobic rants. She did try to explain, after the fact, that they weren’t but her explanation comes across a bit convoluted and evasive. So, I don’t recommend you go out and buy her albums, since I won’t support politics like hers economically. She was, however, an important figure in the early alt folk scene and, hence, bears mentioning.

The effects of these early alt folk singers is obvious in the indie folk world of today. Artists like Birdy, Phoebe Bridgers, and Julien Baker produce similar, low-fi, confessional folk music that draws a direct line back to the 1980s. These artists might not even exist without these early alt folk pioneers. So, if you like the indie folk of today, take a step back to the beginnings of alt folk. The raw, simple folk of these artists speaks to the human condition in much the same way as the new indie folk does today.