Storytelling Through Song

8.15.19, published by

A musical exploration to ignite inspiration and fuel creative writing

Every year over the third weekend of July I make a pilgrimage to the Newport Folk Festival to immerse myself in music. It is hands down my favorite weekend of the summer. With picturesque water views and three stages of amazing performers, it’s my version of heaven on Earth.

Photos copyright WhatsUpRI & photographer Rick Farrell

This past July marked my sixth trip. While the festival has expanded its definition of folk, evolving to incorporate more rock, blues, country and jazz over the years, strong lyrical storytelling remains a definitive constant. Not to mention you can always guarantee amazing collaborations and surprise guests, making it well worth the blind ticket purchase before the lineup is even announced. This year, festival executive producer Jay Sweet managed to outdo himself yet again (with notable help from Brandi Carlyle). Energizing themes of unity and women empowerment prevailed.

So what eardrum enlightening discoveries did Folk Fest have in store?

Here’s a rundown of my favorite…

Photo courtesy of Pixabay

First Listens: New-to-Me Artists

1. The Highwomen: Brandi Carlyle has assembled an all-female country supergroup. You may have heard their cover of ‘The Chain’ in the trailer for The Kitchen. They are a force. Forever trust in Brandi.

“Highwomen” by The Highwomen

2. Devon Gilfillian: His silky voice and psychedelic rock vibes will have you groovin’. A natural entertainer, he’s got swagger and soul to spare and I cannot wait to see his rise.

“Get Out & Get It” by Devon Gilfillian

3. The Nude Party: These guys are just fun. This song is great for those days when you begin questioning your career choices.

“Chevrolet Van” by The Nude Party

4. Cedric Burnside: Born into the hill country blues, his life experience unfolds in deeply personal lyrics that keep this rich tradition alive, while simultaneously infusing his own fresh modern-day take. This song serves as a helpful meditation on those days when I find myself needing to take 5.

“Hard to Stay Cool” by Cedric Burnside

5. Susto: My curiosity was piqued when I found out the band’s name loosely translates to “ongoing spiritual panic attack” in Spanish. While lyrics often tap into this sense of existential questioning, their dreamy laid-back melodies leave you feeling safe to explore these deeper themes.

“If I Was” by Susto

6. Yola: That voice! She needs no further introduction. Just listen.

“Faraway Look” by Yola

6. J.S. Ondara: While we are on the topic of voices, Ondara’s has a unique haunting beauty. A Kenyan immigrant, he’s an inspirational reminder of the American Dream realized.

“Torch Song” by J.S. Ondara

7. Lukas Nelson & Promise of the Real: When you’re Willie Nelson’s son, you’ve got big shoes to fill, but Lukas Nelson has managed to find his own rockin’ sound infused with soul, country and R&B. That said, my tree-hugging hippie heart loves the acoustic version of this track where his dad’s influence certainly shines through.

“Turn off the News (Build A Garden)” by Lukas Nelson & Promise of the Real

8. E.B. The Younger: Working under his alias, Eric Brandon Paulido reflects on life to relaxed melodies that impart chilled out vibes while simultaneously taking you on a cerebral journey.

“Out of the Woods” by E.B. The Younger

Psssst: Keep your ears out for “Used to Be”; it’s a shoo-in for a nostalgic montage in the next tear-jerking tv drama.

10. Adia Victoria: She runneth over with a badass attitude and an arresting voice that makes you think twice about ever double crossing her.

“Different Kind of Love” by Adia Victoria

P.S.: Investigation Discovery team, hit me up when you wanna license the perfect dark, unsettling pop track for a campaign 😉 

Photo courtesy of Pixabay

Familiar Faces: Both Current and Classic

1. Lake Street Dive: Lead singer Rachel has pipes! I’ve seen this group multiple times now and they are a guaranteed great time.

“Good Kisser” by Lake Street Dive

2. Jade Bird: I saw her open for Hozier this past winter and was blown away. She channels anger and life experience in a manner reminiscent of Alanis Morisette’s Jagged Little Pill.

“Uh huh” by Jade Bird

3. Hozier: Speaking of Hozier, the crazy tall Irishman was back at the fort. I love his voice and promise his latest album Wasteland Baby! doesn’t disappoint. Check out this Folk Fest worthy homage to musical activists that paved the way, featuring the one and only Mavis Staples.

“Nina Cried Power” by Hozier (feat. Mavis Staples)

4. Gregory Alan Isakov: I was literally brought to tears the first time I saw him perform. Need I say more?

“San Luis” by Gregory Alan Isakov

5. Maggie Rogers: While Rogers’ music definitely falls into the pop category, I have to give a shout out to this Eastern Shore girl! She catapulted to fame after capturing the attention of Pharrell. She masterfully fuses folk with pop and electronic dance music…and the best part is she’s just getting started.

“On + Off” by Maggie Rogers

6. The Milk Carton Kids: This folk duo has evolved over the course of their albums, while staying true to the beautiful harmonies that define their sound.

“Younger Years” by The Milk Carton Kids

7. Mountain Man: This female trio is about as authentic folk as you can get. Their harmonies are unsurpassed. I love this perfect ode to the joys of summer.

“Rang Tang Toon: by Mountain Man

Honorable Mention: Also worth a listen is singer Amelia Meath’s electropop group, Sylvan Esso, which infuses her folk background with dance beats to create a truly distinct sound: “Could I Be” by Sylvan Esso

8. Phosphorescent: Matthew Houck, a.k.a. Phosphorescent, is one of those musicians that would pop up on Pandora and make me stop what I was doing. I imagine myself living in a music video every time I hear this song.

“Song for Zula” by Phosphorescent

9. Dolly Parton: She needs no introduction. She’s a feminist, trailblazer and amazing storyteller both lyrically and up on stage. But that doesn’t mean she doesn’t get jealous from time to time…

“Jolene” by Dolly Parton

For a full line-up or to read more, visit

This post was written by Erica Kern

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