Once upon a time, Americana musicians dismissed synthesizers, drum machines, vocal processing, and programming as soulless products of our modern technological state. Where archaic, time-tested instruments like banjo, guitar, and drum kits express authentic human experience, these newfangled gizmos, with their myriad robotic zaps and pulsating repetitions, are cold and artificial. This was some deeply ingrained thinking, and let’s not forget: It was just over 50 years ago that, according to legend, hardline folk revivalist Pete Seeger attempted to take an axe to the cables amplifying Bob Dylan’s infamous electric set at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival. And that was over nothing more than some electricity!
Times sure have changed. You can’t throw a rock these days without hitting an Americana, blues, or other roots-flavored artist who isn’t plucking a banjo over bubbling drum machines or weaving acoustic fingerpicking around club grooves. Currently, one of the biggest bands in the U.S. is Judah & the Lion, whose omnipresent mega-hit “Take It All Back” is high-energy bluegrass filtered through the digital production qualities of hip-hop. The same goes for The Avett Brothers’ “Ain’t No Man” off of True Sadness, which is laced with flickering synthesizers.
Sonically speaking, some of this stuff ventures pretty far out. Where Judah & the Lion and The Avetts are fairly subtle in their digital flirtations, singer/songwriter Justin Vernon—a.k.a. Bon Iver—sounds like an Auto-Tune-drenched cyborg on his critically acclaimed 22, A Million, a full-length album that’s a million light years removed from the rustic indie folk that launched his career. Then there’s the Gazzo remix of American Authors’ “Best Day of My Life,” which turns the bouncing, folk-pop ditty into a bass-thumping banger perfect for sets at the Electric Daisy Carnival. Can you imagine what Pete Seeger would think of roots music mixed with EDM? We shudder to think.