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Best of 2012: Folk Music Duos

A closer look at one of 2012's best folk music trends


This was a year of great music, period. But it was also a particularly impressive year for singer-songwriter duos. From South Carolina to Nashville to Toronto, Canada, duos seemed to be popping out of every nook and cranny. I don't know whether it's because a duo is less expensive to tour than a band, less lonely than touring solo...or if it's just because this was a year where artists seemed to be focused on making connections. Regardless, in honor of one of this year's biggest folk music trends, here's a closer look at what some of the most impressive folk music duos were up to this year.

1. Shovels + Rope

Shovels + Rope
promo photo
Shovels + Rope have been slowly clawing up the ladder of the national folk music scene the past few years. The Charleston, SC-based duo of Cary Ann Hearst and Michael Trent make music which is raw and sweaty and richly steeped in the traditions of both country and folk music. It sounds a little like a rusted carburator, but includes all the robust soul of a big diva voice. Throw in some drums, hand claps, trumpets, and chunky guitar distortion, and you get a serious force to be reckoned with - much bigger than just the two people making all that noise.

Listen: "Hail Hail"

2. Whitehorse

Whitehorse - Luke Doucet and Melissa McLelland
courtesy Six Shooter Records
Whitehorse is hardly a new duo, exactly. Both Melissa McLelland and Luke Doucet have been guesting on each other's albums for years. Their decision to finally make it official culminated with their 2011 release, and they quickly started buzzing in the minds and ears of critics and fans alike. But, in 2012, they dropped the deliciously dramatic, The Fate of the World Depends on This Kiss (compare prices), delivering an album which was dark and cinematic and emotionally creative. They're definitely one to watch.

Listen: "Out Like a Lion"

3. Birds of Chicago

Birds of Chicago
promo photo
Similarly to Whitehorse, the members of Birds of Chicago have been contributing to each other's projects for some time. Both JT Nero and Allison Russell (with the Clouds and Po'Girl, respectively) have been flying around each other's music for awhile. After a successful Kickstarter campaign, they delivered their first self-titled album this year. It's a soulful, lush, groovy, remarkable venture depicting two artists approaching the peak of their artistry. It'll be exciting to watch them fly.

Listen: "Trampoline"

4. Folk Uke

Folk Uke - Cathy Guthrie and Amy Nelson
Folk Uke promo photos
Folk Uke didn't break out this year, exactly, but they certainly came into my span of attention. Maybe because 2012 was Woody Guthrie's 100th birthday year and every eye and ear in the folk world was turned on what has become of his legacy...regardless, I happened upon Cathy Guthrie (Arlo's daughter) and Amy Nelson (Willie's daughter) early on this year and became enthralled with their humorous approach to some of life's darkest, most difficult moments. It's like laughing at a funeral, not out of disrespect, but because life and people are absurd.

Listen: "I Miss My Boyfriend"

5. Civil Wars

Civil Wars
promo photo
The Civil Wars didn't release an album in 2012, but they certainly made some headlines. They walked away with a number of nominations from the Americana Music Association, not to mention some Grammy nods. They also delivered stunning performances at festivals all summer. Then, this fall, they suddenly up and canceled a tour, citing "internal discord." (Nice choice of words, given their band name.) The twittersphere blew up with disappointment, proving the incredible universal appeal of their take on contemporary folk-pop. The duo is planning to release a new album early in 2013, though, so we'll see if they manage to make peace and hit the road again. Regardless, their star has hardly fallen yet.

Listen: "Tip of My Tongue"
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