If there was blue blood in music, it would be seeping through the veins of Rufus Wainwright. His pedigree is such that it is no surprise that during his 25-year career he has traversed every musical genre from pop to opera and even to scoring Shakespearean sonnets.
Now it is time to add folk to the resume. No surprise really, considering his parents – Loudon Wainwright lll and Kate McGarrigle – were star folk singers in their own right. And, while on the subject of musical royalty, his younger sister is acclaimed singer-songwriter Martha Wainwright.
Rufus has just produced his 10th studio album Folkocracy which must rate as one of 2023’s most inventive Americana albums. The name, as one might expect, openly acknowledges his birthright, as he wisely refers to his family as "bona fide folkocracy."
In his efforts to define folk in the broadest possible spectrum, he has invited a host of guest artists – across many musical genres - to join him on 12 of the 15 tracks.
"One of the main things we thought would be fun for the listener is if we heard some of these performers singing in a genre we're not used to hearing them in," Rufus told No Depression.
And yes, family members are among the collaborators. Besides Martha, the biggest family name on the album must be his aunt Anna McGarrigle, who, with Rufus’s mother Kate, formed the famous McGarrigle Sisters who performed and recorded as a duo for 30 years until Kate’s death in 2010 at the age of 63.
Anna makes an appearance on one track, “Wild Mountain Thyme,” where she plays accordion. There is a significant family presence on this particular song, as Rufus and Anna are joined by Martha, Anna’s daughter Lily Lanken and Lucy Wainwright Roche, half-sister of Rufus and Martha.
For folk purists, there must be something heart wrenching about the inclusion of “Wild Mountain Thyme” and indeed the large family involvement. For nearly 15 years ago, Rufus joined his mother Kate and aunt Anna when they collaborated with legend Emmylou Harris and Scottish singer-songwriter Dick Gaughan on this particular song. It is regarded by many as the finest version ever recorded of this much-covered Celtic folk classic, for the acclaimed album The Original Transatlantic Sessions, Volume Three.
The influence of Celtic ballads, transplanted across the Atlantic by Scottish and Irish migrants in the 19th century, is acknowledged by Rufus in three other tracks. He performs solo on both the traditional fur-trader’s lament “Shenandoah” and the Irish anti-war ballad “Arthur McBride.” But on another ballad of Irish origin, the Appalachian murder ballad listed as “Down in the Willow Garden,” but more commonly known as “Rose Connolly,” he enlists the vocals support of Country star Brandi Carlisle. Their treatment is slow and appropriately haunting.
Rufus told No Depression: “A lot of those murder ballads stemmed from real situations and were a way to process that violence, which as we all know is a big part of the American story. And by not singing about it, I mean, you're just suppressing something that's going to get out,anyway, so it might as well get out in song."
Folk tradition is stretched well beyond the North Atlantic when Rufus teams up with Honolulu-born pop-star Nicole Scherzinger - of Pussycat Dolls fame - for a simply-beautiful duet on the Hawaiian protest ballad "Kaulana Na Pua," written in 1893. Their delivery in Hawaiian of a song of such historical significance in perfection-personified.
ʻAʻole aʻe kau i ka pūlima Do not fix a signature Maluna o ka pepa o ka ʻenemi To the paper of the enemy Hoʻohui ʻāina kūʻai hewa With its sin of annexation I ka pono sivila aʻo ke kanaka And sale of the civil rights of the people
Fast forward a century, and two songs from the scintillating pop era of the 1960’s & ‘70’s – “Twelve Thirty (Young Girls Are Coming to the Canyon)” and “Harvest.” Rufus is drawing a long bow to define these pop classic as folk. Whatever, it sure works.
“Twelve Thirty” was the last great single released by The Mamas & the Papas in 1967. It was written by John Phillips, who was inspired by the bohemian lifestyle in Laurel Canyon, outside Los Angeles, where the band had relocated from New York City. It is accepted that the “young girls” were the groupies attracted to the show-biz types who lived there.
Young girls are coming to the canyon And in the mornings I can see them walking I can no longer keep my blinds drawn And I can't keep myself from talking
No doubt Rufus saw this artistic perception of ‘60’s lifestyle as a justifiable reason to define as folk. On this track he employs Sheryl Crow and Susanna Hoffs to hit those chorus high notes achieved by Michelle Phillips and Mama Cass. His wonderful treatment largely duplicates the original.
"We wanted to do exactly what The Mamas & the Papas. We mirrored their harmonies exactly. We didn't stray too far from the original. We did a Library of Congress dissection of it. Like 'How does this song work? How does this arrangement work?' It was just a way to be as faithful to the original as possible," Rufus told No Depression.
"Rock is now folk," he added. "I mean it's the right amount of time, 50 to 60 years. That's sort of the litmus test if a song is worthy to continue to be interpreted. And I feel that song deserves as good a chance as any."
And no doubt he applied this “litmus test” to “Harvest,” which was an appealing title track off Neil Young’s 1972 classic album. Young has long regarded it as one of his best songs, but the obscurity of the lyrics has led to much speculation about its true meaning. It is generally accepted that it relates to how much love can be harvested from a relationship and Young himself has stated the song was inspired by his then developing love for actress Carrie Snodgress.
“Harvest” has been long performed by Rufus and his under-stated, fiddle-infused treatment on Folkocracy works nicely on such a mellow song. Here he reaches into another big-name family in popular music by having Chris Stills, along with Andrew Bird, join him on vocals. Chris is the son of rock legend Stephen Stills who, of course, has collaborated with Young over the years. Chris also appears on "Twelve Thirty."
The choice of such a broad range of collaborators on this album says as much about how Rufus wants to define folk music, as does his wide choice of songs. Producer and keyboardist Mitchell Froom, who has played with almost everyone from Bob Dylan to Crowded House, had a key role as co-producer and general musical confident to Rufus. He provides backing on most tracks, as does a performer at the other end of the career spectrum, up-and-coming singer-guitarist Madison Cunningham, who won a Grammy for Best Folk Album in 2022.
If ever there was a definition of an intellectual album, then it must be Folkocracy. It is not hard to imagine music academics spending hours trawling through each arrangement to see what conclusions they might reach.
Rufus himself has a rather simple conclusion: "Folk music is rooted in the real, and therefore it's timeless. It doesn't belong to any particular era."
Editor Crossroads - Americana Music Appreciation