The term ‘New Weird America’ first appeared on the cover of the August 2003 issue of the british music magazine The Wire. The cover featured the band Sunburned Hand of the Man and the article, by David Keenan, covered the Brattleboro Free Folk Festival, a 2 day event in upstate Vermont. The festival line-up featured an eclectic selection of bands and artists, from folkies Dredd Foole, Jack Rose and Joshua Burkett to experimental acts like The Tower Recordings, the MV & EE Medicine Show and No-Neck Blues Band.
‘New Weird America’ is, in fact, a reference to music author Greil Marcus’ term ‘Old Weird America’, used to describe the rural american folk artists of the early 20th century who influenced the wave of 60s singer-songwriters (Dylan et al.). These songs have been famously recorded by ethnomusicologist like Alan Lomax and released on various dedicated labels, like Smithsonian Folkways.
As a label, ‘New Weird America’ has been applied to a plethora of different artists since Keenan’s article, its main spokEsperson to the mainstream eye being Devendra Banhart. Banhart’s eccentric folk, however, seems to have little to do with The Sunburned Hand of the Man’s jarring improvisations. Their connections run deeper than their musical aesthetics.
Other terms have been used to describe this scene, such as experimental folk, nu-folk and avant-folk, which never really took. The ‘New Weird America’ acts are also sometimes categorised under the ‘freak-folk’ and ‘free-folk’ labels, based mainly on their overall sound.
The term ‘Free-folk’ has been used before to describe an largely acoustic style of folk, improvisatory in nature, sometimes heavily blending in traditional influences. One of the earliest and arguably most important artist is Tim Buckley, whose albums Lorca (1970) and Starsailor (1970) are considered landmarks to the genre. In recent times, free-folk has used to describe the music of the North Eastern branch of ‘New Weird America’, whose sonic experimentations follow in Buckley, and tend to push even further.
The term ‘Freak-folk’ however, tends to describe the more song-oriented artists of the ‘New Weird America’ spectrum, better represented by californian artists like Devendra Banhart and Joanna Newsom. These artists tend to experiment in less jarring ways, focusing on psychedelic-tinged ballads and soft-rock jams, in the vein of the californian hippie communities from the 60s. Both under-currents of ‘New Weird America’ take heavily from hippie culture as a matter fact, notably in their open attitude and relationship with nature. When asked about which terms he prefers, Banhart explains that they haven’t really settled on a name, they simply refer to themselves as The Family.
As such ‘New Weird America’ might be considered more of ‘sub-genre’ to the freak and free folk genres although David Keenan argues that ‘New Weird America’ described the geographical scene rather than a certain musical sound, the scene having reached its peak momentum in northern Vermont in the early 2000s.