If you’ve heard Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska, then you’ve heard the beginning of what I call the Second Folk Revival. Keep this under your hat, now, lest the adults find out: folk music isn’t just a style, it’s a method. It’s an honest-to-God philosophy. And that’s what Lester Bangs meant when he said, “It’s all folk music.” Springsteen and Nebraska and that wintry day in 1982 didn’t invent, but did transform, the folk philosophy, raising from its ashes—burned the day Dylan plugged in, according to some—the folk revival. (As with most things halfway original, the folk revival needed fewer adjectives and no capitalization.)
Strangely enough, this resurrection had a lot to do with a machine: the handy little Teac Portastudio 144. Proper nouns with numeric modifiers don’t normally conjure folkie images, but the oddball collection that is the body of American folk music has always been transmitted by way of recording devices. You can’t ignore it. No other means could build a one-way bridge from the rural folk who lived those songs to the city folk who decided to live in, or through, those songs. Roll ahead to the late ‘70s and you’ve got the Teac, a compact four-track recorder that gave the musician immediacy and decent quality in a box small enough to tuck under the arm, plop on the bed, hitch to a mic, and unleash demons.
Bruce Springsteen’s Telarc 144, on display at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame
The power of recording was put into the musician’s hands, and this is why I draw the line at January 3, 1982, the day Springsteen recorded most of what would become Nebraska. In his New Jersey home, the Boss had Mike Batlin, his guitar tech, set up the Portastudio in a spare room (pun intended) and proceeded to lay down what he believed to be demos, tunes so bare and forlorn that Hank Williams would have been proud. Two tracks for the live recording of guitar and vocals, two more tracks for overdubs—a glockenspiel here, a siren’s harmonica there.
Of course, Bruce Springsteen was a world-famous, corporate-backed rock and roll star when he recorded Nebraska. (This, in fact, is largely why he recorded Nebraska—that conflict of market forces and artistic intimacy would foreshadow further developments, too, which I’ll get to.) Also un-folkie: part of Nebraska’s singular sound is due to an Echoplex, which gives the songs that reverbed, long-ago feel—a very conscious, crafted recreation of a sound. And though, to this day, critics trip over themselves to compare the songs to Alan Lomax field recordings, or the collection of tunes Harry Smith put together on the Anthology of American Folk Music, anyone with an ear can tell that the Nebraska songs are indebted, and perhaps spiritually dedicated, to Jimmy Rogers, Hank Williams, Woody Guthrie, and the ghosts of rockabilly legends gone to rest in their dreary hometowns, skulking about like adolescents on the empty streets that trap them once again.
If these things are true, why the hell does the Second Folk Revival begin here?
The method. That little machine. The apparently simple act of sitting down and firing up the Recorder of Dreams. Intimacy without any guile (because it’s harder to fool yourself when no one’s listening), and immediacy without the evanescence of a live stage show.
And the fact that every tired punk rocker and his sister heard Nebraska, and copied the approach for themselves, took it into their own hands. The method further refined the style, with the added bonus of not having to wait for some folklorist to come poking around your barn.
Since then, the Second Folk Revival has bounced along pretty quietly, never entirely going away, and never really finding a place in the spotlight. Sure, we had a spate of unplugged authenticity tests, the height of which may have been Nirvana covering Leadbelly in sonic shackles that only exposed the core of Kurt Cobain’s beautifully tortured howl, but let’s face it, the minimalist fashion of the confessional singer-songwriter left us with spotty results. It never connected to history in the way Springsteen had on Nebraska, and for every outlier like Michelle Shocked’s The Texas Campfire Tapes or PJ Harvey’s Four-Track Demos, there was a centrist piece of fluff like Jewel’s “Who Will Save Your Soul?” and Poison’s appearance on Unplugged.
The folk process, though, became an integral part of the music industry, feeding the underground and challenging corporate structures. The rawness of a college band’s sloppy, noisy, poorly-mixed record was a hell of a relief from the polished glitz of FM radio, and that was possible only because recording became cheaper. So did producing, especially if you did it yourself. And so did reproduction. It’s maybe the word of our age—socially, politically, artistically—but here I mean a simple thing: you could get your tapes, then your CDs, reproduced for pretty cheap. College stations would stack your record next to the Pixies, and you would have the admittedly somewhat illusory belief that you belonged to this community of music. I mean, for God’s sake, look! A CD with your name on it! That was real.
In the spring of 1993, I was singing in my small liberal arts college’s choir, because…well, I’ve never really been sure why. At one rehearsal, a scrawny guy shuffled into the rehearsal studio with his drummer, who was also his band’s recording engineer. They played a song we’d learned the parts for the previous day, a song called “Pave,” the final track on what would become Ugly Stick’s first CD, Absinthe. The scrawny one—David Holm—went over the parts, while the drummer, a stocky guy named Bill Heingartner, worked up a portable reel-to-reel 8-track, and within an hour we’d recorded a choral, Beach Boys-esque backing track consisting of the words “I really wanna get to know ya.”
Sixteen years later, around Columbus, Ohio, Absinthe is something of a legend, for reasons far greater than “Pave” and especially the Bass II line that I sang. But that afternoon, no one was thinking of that. At least I wasn’t. What I was thinking was the real lesson of the folk philosophy: Even I—a bumbling son of a bitch if there ever was one—even I can do this.