Walk into any coffee shop downtown, and there is a pretty good chance Noah Kahan will shuffle his way through a playlist as you wait for your Americano. Maybe you pull out your phone, scroll TikTok reels, and soon you hear the viral song “Stick Season” by the same artist in your airpods. Once your order is ready, you’ll walk through the autumn leaves tousled around by light wind on the streets, get into your car, turn on the radio, and “Dial Drunk” croons from the speakers.
In this music moment, Noah Kahan has made a mark.
In September of 2017, the up and coming alternative folk pop artist released his single, “Hurt Somebody” and followed up in 2018 with his debut album “Busyhead”, and his next album, “I Was/I Am” in 2021. It was his album “Stick Season” in 2022 that broke through to mainstream listeners, and went viral on TikTok.
TikTok plays a key role in this cultural phenomenon of people turning their attention to the folk-pop genre. It’s a promotional platform where people can go viral and artists can use the app as an experimental tool to test out their songs on the general public.
Kahan is a symbol of the rise of folk-pop music. It’s a blend of sound that strings together banjo, acoustic guitar, electric, mandolin and the fiddle together with a deep nostalgia and heartcry to history.
Folk music refers to a genre of songs created out of oral tradition, typically speaking to a community of people like a village, church or ethnic group. Folk music contains themes, messages and language that resonate with a type of culture, geographic region or group.
Pop music simply labels any music as recognized or “popular”. The pop music formula equates to repeated choruses or verses, delivers a signature upbeat tempo, similar chord progressions and the topic of song usually revolves around love. Combine the two genres, and you have pop-folk music.
Tyler Childers, Zach Bryan, The Lumineers and Oliver Anthony Music are all folk-pop artists that have risen to mainstream attention. Not all of these artists are strictly pop-folk, there are rock and roll, country, and alternative sounds in the mix to all their albums. But, the overall feel inspires a listener to assume the style is somewhere between a campfire ditty and modern melody.
Even though some might argue that folk-pop music is a niche genre, look at the rankings. Billboards Top 100 artists of today include Zach Bryan at #5, Noah Kahan at #24, Tyler Childers at #51 and Oliver Anthony Music at #65.
Zach Bryan’s music career in the pop-folk genre boomed in the last few months, with songs like “Something in the Orange”, “Heading South” and “Oklahoma Smokeshow” drawing in listeners. Like Kahan, his songwriting style incorporates raw, honest storytelling with red-dirt tones and stomp-clap tempos.
As tastes change, so does sound. Music adapts to the time — think of artists like Bob Dylan, Woody Gurthie, Odetta Holmes or Leonard Cohen. All these artists’ music spoke to audiences at the time for different reasons, just like folk-pop artists of today.
The appeal of the relatability elements of folk and catchy, easy to remember structures of songs that distinguishes pop has brought these artists to the forefront of the genre in the music industry.
One of the iconic lines from “Burn Burn Burn” by Bryan is, “Well everyone seems like a damn genius lately / Tik-Tok talkin’ / late-night TV / There’s still so much I have yet to know.”
Bryan accurately expressed a common internal interpretation of the app and its influencers, and a lack of knowledge one might possess. There is so much information, disinformation and misinformation that makes it overwhelming.
He goes on to sing about the paradox of social life where going out on the town can be an event that instead of bringing fun and connection can feel empty and meaningless.
“We get dressed up just to go downtown In some ego-filled late night crowd / seems to be where I feel most alone / I’d like to get lost on some old back road.”
As for Kahan, one fan favorite line from his song “Growing Sideways.” is “I’m still angry at my parents for what my parents did to them / but it’s a start / But I ignore things / and I move sideways / Till I forget what I felt in the first place.”
Kahan articulates a stage of growing up and maturing where suddenly the sins of our families come to light, and the facade of childhood in some degree falls. Every family has its shortcomings, and learning to heal and process those hardships can sometimes feel like you are moving sideways instead of forward.
Skilled music artists need to be skilled storytellers, therefore writers. From lyrics to melody, what Bryan, Kahan and others sing about resonates deeply with their widespread audiences on a heart level, which is why they have successfully entered the mainstream scene.