Punk rock and roots music aren’t typically mentioned in the same breath. However, the two seemingly disparate genres share more in common than initially meets the ear. Both descend from decidedly DIY mindsets; both celebrate players who play fast; both tend, moreso than their mainstream rock and country counterparts, to veer into the political.
That a sizeable portion of roots musicians have backgrounds in or an appreciation for punk music shouldn’t be a surprise, then, as the genres, perhaps not exactly siblings, interact as something like cousins in the same musical family tree.
Here are nine acoustic players we feel best represent that union between the two.
With lyrics like “go straight to hell boys,” it’s no wonder why we included fiddler Betse Ellis, although that’s far from the only reason we think she rocks. Ellis’ fiery fiddlin’ and give-no-fucks attitude coalesce her wide range of influences, which include both John Hartford and Joe Strummer, into one hell of a performance.
Multi-instrumentalist Charlie Parr is as prolific as he is talented, having released a whopping 14 studio albums since 2002. Combine his prodigious output with his masterful playing and no-frills aesthetic and you have an artist who’s totally at home hanging out with punk bands and bluegrassers alike.
The New York Times described Tim Eriksen’s playing as “breakneck,” and that’s really the only word that fits the musician and ethnomusicologist’s approach to his instruments. That he spends his days immersed in musical history lends a sense of tradition to his music, one that, if not overtly political, carries on the punk tradition of engaging thoughtfully with the world around you through song.
In addition to founding the Legendary Shack Shakers and pursuing both a solo career and gigs as a studio harmonica player for artists like Merle Haggard, J.D. Wilkes is a successful visual artist, filmmaker and author, known for works like the satirical, socially conscious comic strips “Head Cheese” and the documentary film Seven Signs.
Michigan duo, Billy Strings and Don Julin, describe their music as incendiary, and, William Miller be damned, they’re right. We once called them “the unholy child of Pantera and Tony Rice,” and that still about sums it up: these dudes will put on one of the rockinest bluegrass shows you’ll ever see.
Possessed by Paul James
There’s nothing more DIY than a one-man-band, and there is no better one-man-band playing today than Austin, TX’s Possessed by Paul James. Also known as Konrad Wert, James captivates audiences with his own blend of blues, acoustic and punk music, a unique sound that has earned him fans in the roots and hardcore communities alike.
Alynda Lee Segarra of Hurray For The Riff Raff
Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you know that Hurray For The Riff Raff’s Alynda Lee Segarra is one of the most important voices in roots-based protest music today. Segarra is no stranger to the punk scene, either, telling eMusic, “The minute I could take the subway by myself, I headed to the Lower East Side because I knew that’s where all the weirdos were, where all the punks were.”
A cursory listen through John Moreland’s most recent album High on Tulsa Heat doesn’t necessarily scream punk, but the Oklahoma singer-songwriter cut his teeth in hardcore bands as a teen, an experience that likely imbued his music with the raw emotion for which it has come to be known and Moreland himself with the drive and DIY know-how to make it on his own.
Though Thile is known for his work in a number of genres — from the progressive acoustics of Punch Brothers to his meticulous, faithful interpretations of Bach sonatas and partitas — his connections to punk and rock music are numerous. Though the speed and virtuosity of his playing alone could earn him a spot on this list, it’s covers of tunes like U.K. punk trio Mclusky’s “Icarus Smicarus” that really seal the deal.