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Five contemporary folks acts you need to hear

With soulful melodies and thoughtful lyrics, a few contemporary folk acts are bubbling up from obscurity and capturing the attention of mainstream listeners.

By Eric Bradley

With soulful melodies and thoughtful lyrics, a few contemporary folk acts are bubbling up from obscurity and capturing the attention of mainstream listeners. Here are five of today’s can’t-miss folk acts who are introducing audiences to America’s roots music — even though some of the artists aren’t even from America in the first place.

Mumford & Sons Sigh No More

Mumford & Sons' "Sigh No More."

1. Mumford & Sons. This West London group has done more to bridge the divide between traditional folk and mainstream music than The Avett Brothers. The quartet’s 2010 release, “Sigh No More” (Glass Note) was a smash in alternative-rock circles and was appreciated by both rock and pop lovers. There is everything to love about “Sigh No More”: The songs are smart, the instrumentation is infused with an American bluegrass stomp, and the fact all that talent pours out of a debut album is worth the spend in the first place.

The Civil Wars Barton Hollow

The Civil Wars' "Barton Hollow."

2. The Civil Wars. Joy Williams and John Paul White’s 2011 release, “Barton Hollow” (Sensibility Music) hit the folk scene like a sonic boom. The album is eminently listenable, and you’ll find yourself queueing it up repeatedly. A smart combination of blues, bluegrass and pain is blended perfectly, thanks entirely to the chemistry between Williams and White. How they can sing these songs without tearing each other’s clothes off is baffling. It’s a shame their accolades aren’t sung louder, but that may be changing, thanks to their 2012 double Grammy win in folk and country.

Sarah Jarosz

Sarah Jarosz. Publicity photo.

3. Sarah Jarosz. Jarosz has two records under her belt, but her performance and musical taste sound like she’s also a two-time Grammy winner with a celebrity-filled duets album on the way. Her 2009 “Song Up In Her Head” is impressive, but it was far surpassed by 2011’s “Follow Me Down” (both on Sugarhill). On it Jarosz stakes a confident claim as the fastest-rising star in acoustic music. Her passion for music — bluegrass, blues and roots — comes out on her track “Annabelle Lee.” Jarosz has a bright future, and she deserves a spot in your music library.

Drew Nelson Tilt-A-Whirl

Drew Nelson, "Tilt-A-Whirl."

4. Drew Nelson. This year’s “Tilt A Whirl” (Red House Records) documents Nelson’s timely return to the studio. It’s his first album in three years and is stacked back to back with songs that rail on about just how screwed up our country’s priorities are. His guitar-driven songs are no doubt influenced by his life in Michigan, the most economically troubled state in the union. His song “Promised Land” sings the ballad of the working poor, and “Dust” eloquently tells the big banks where to stick their mortgages. Nelson is maturing with each new album, and he knows how to use his guitar to hit you where it counts.

Amos Lee

Amos Lee. Publicity photo/Harper Smith.

5. Amos Lee. Amos Lee has four albums under his belt, with “As The Crow Flies” (Blue Note, released Feb. 14, 2012) the latest to make its bow. In his 2011 release, “Mission Bell,” Lee tied up a lot of loose strings in both his song writing and music. The album featured a duet with Willie Nelson that was probably added to capture more media coverage. Interestingly, the album is so good on its own that the duet can be considered gratuitous. Each song plays a crucial role in the story that unfolds across 12 tracks. I interpreted the album as telling the tale of a man facing his death and his walk (Charles Dickens’ style) across the canvas of his life and the underworld. “El Camino” would be the perfect addition to a movie soundtrack, guaranteed to blow unbelievers out of the water. GM