Friday, May 8, 2009

Deer Tick and the Providence Folk-Rock Scene, or Whatever You'd Like to Call It

By the time Deer Tick took to the stage, the crowd had become restless. The room was filled nearly to capacity as people stood on amps and tables just to get a better view of the band. From the first song onward it was obvious that the band played much harder live than on their album, which is both quieter and folksier. The band, along with many males in the crowd, had ripped off their shirts by the time the second song began. Everyone was dancing—everyone—and most people were singing along to every word. If I could describe the whole event in one word it would be ‘passionate.’”

Can you imagine a mixture of Townes Van Zandt and Nirvana? Because that's who John McCauley, lead singer and founder of the band Deer Tick, cited as his two biggest influences in an interview in 2007. And, miraculously, that seems to be almost exactly what I heard each time I saw them play over the past few months.

Deer Tick at Brown University's Spring Weekend.
Note the flannel and the American flag.

Deer Tick are one of the few bands in Providence's rising folk scene to have gained national acclaim, having toured the country, played at SXSW, and received attention from The Rolling Stone and popular music blog the Brooklyn Vegan. Despite becoming somewhat of a national act, though, Deer Tick are still very much involved in what I will call the Providence folk scene, which is why I chose to focus on them in order to learn more about this particular scene. Though the music and style of different bands in this scene can be quite varied, most of it seems to retain some of the defining qualities of folk music: "homemade-type music played mainly by ear, arising out of older traditions but with a meaning for today" (Seeger 5) with simple and often subtle songs and lyrics (185). Deer Tick specifically seems to reflect Burns' description of folk-rock; he describes it as an "amalgamation of folk music and rock music [that] might be regarded as part of an evolutionary process in rock music that started in the late 1960s and early 1970s...this process is ongoing as folk-rock music continues to combine tradition and transformation" (197). For more comparisons between Deer Tick and Providence's folk scene and scholarly definitions of folk, read on here.

In order to learn more about this scene, I, along with Dani, interviewed and talked with participants, attended local shows, and researched what "folk" really was and what it might mean today. We wanted to learn what constituted this scene—who was a part of it, how people interacted, how did it begin, how has it/is it growing, changing, transforming... While some of our original thoughts and theories were supported by what we learned, others were proven wrong or, at the very least, somewhat ignorant. Not only did I somewhat-incorrectly perceive the artists and fans to be hipsters adopting an ironic hillbilly style, but I also underestimated the wide scope of musical genres and styles prevalent in the scene.

First, the aesthetic style—though the proliferation of flannel and mustaches may seem entirely ironic, there seems to be a genuine longing for something that these things represent. Dani interviewed Evan, an involved member of the scene, who commented, "There’s this like championing of like “white trash” or Italian stereotypes...driving pickup trucks, wearing like mustaches and facial hair which is kind of part of a larger thing...and like, specifically like bad tattoos, specifically like American flags and eagles, all these kind of stuff that like whatever is cool but it's not, it's ironic but it's not ironic. That’s not really the point, it’s a genuine yearning for these things, it’s a genuine yearning for this kind of a country boy experience, and I see that in myself and in lots of other people too but it manifests itself in a particular way here." While there may be exceptions, it is very possible that this yearning is tied to the middle class (and often lower-middle class) origins of many of the artists in the scene.

The music itself is much more broad and complicated than I originally anticipated. Whereas I associated the music with simple songs and heavy lyrics, there is more to it than just that. According to Sam, my interviewee, "[M]ost of the bands involved in [the scene] aren't strictly folk. They have rock influences, they have blues influences, they have country influences... there's even some metal influences in there sometimes." When asked to describe the music itself, he said, "It's kind of tricky... I would say that there is a sort of sound to it and it's kind of hard to describe a sound with words, but... for the most part it's definitely folk-inspired—a lot of focus on lyricism more than instrumentals... On the other hand, it's not traditional folk. It's mostly electric, mostly a full band with drums—although there are some performers who just have a guitar." Sam's comments seemed to prove that Providence's folk scene was comparable to other folk revivals that have occurred over the past few decades—folk that is evolving and changing along with other genres as they are mixed and matched, inspiring and inspired. In addition, most musical acts, including Deer Tick, do seem to focus on what I have always thought of as a principle quality of folk music—lyricism, which you can read about in my interview with Sam (check out the link above).

Disregarding the music, the scene was interesting in and of itself. It continues to grow almost entirely through word of mouth. Not only that, but its core members seem to be related not through their music (though I'm sure that does help), but through friendships. Though Evan described the scene musically as "country music played by people with tattoos," he also said that "this is more sort of a group of friends at this point," something I realized when, at a semi-secret Deer Tick show, friends were invited to stay afterwards and seemed to make up a large part of the crowd. The artists themselves are also fans and friends of each other. John McCauley, in several interviews, has mentioned his interest in Chris Paddock and Diego Perez, two other Providence musicians, as well as quite a few other artists and bands, but just going to a few shows, watching YouTube videos, and reading up the various MySpaces has shown me that their relationship goes much deeper than just similar music tastes--they are quite obviously good friends. Chris travelled with Deer Tick during their last tour, ostensibly as their manager, but more as a friend. Both he and Diego often play on stage with Deer Tick at their shows, especially when playing a show in Providence. Each time I see the band, Chris has made an appearance for the song "These Old Shoes," a song of his which Deer Tick covered that has since become one of their biggest hits.

While Deer Tick and the Providence folk-scene proved to be an interesting case study, I'm interested in learning more about similar folk scenes in other locales and how they are all related to each other, if they even are. Do they all share this same longing for "American" ideals? How does class play into the involvement of people in the scene? How do the musical styles compare? Are other scenes also based more on relationships than on musical similarities? I would also like to get in contact with John McCauley (something that I did once but was then unable to do again) and talk with him more about the origins of Deer Tick and his early involvement in the scene. How has it changed since he first became a part of it? Where does he see it going in the future? It seems like the possibilities for this scene are endless, and we can only wait, watch, and listen for what will emerge from it next.

Pictures from Deer Tick's recent show at Lupo's in Providence

Word Count: 1347


Alarik, Scott. Deep Community: Adventures in the Modern Folk Underground. Cambridge, MA: Black Wolf Press, 2003.

Burns, Robert G. H. "Continuity, Variation, and Authenticity in the English Folk-Rock Movement." Folk Music Journal. 2007.

Cohen, Ronald D. Folk Music: The Basics. New York: Routledge, 2006.

Lornell, Kip. Introducing American Folk Music. Madison, WI: Brown and Benchmark, 1993.

Seeger, Pete. The Incolpeat Folksinger. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1972.