The 1990s were a vibrant, versatile time in American folk music, as alt-country and the folk-punk realm both picked up steam and changed the face of contemporary folk music. Meanwhile, artists that had been around for decades also continued to put out excellent records and keep their hats in the ring. Learn more about contemporary folk music with this look at the 15 best folk, bluegrass, and alt-country albums of the 1990s.
Uncle Tupelo's 1990 debut, No Depression, didn't only introduce the world to a new Midwestern band, it was also one of the first major releases that could be adequately considered alternative country. It inspired a magazine by the same name that came to help define the roots community and was, in general, just a really great record.
I've Got That Old Feeling, Alison Krauss' third album, saw her hitting her stride and delivering a handful of songs that solidified her place in the hearts of contemporary bluegrass, folk, country, and mainstream music fans. This album was an early indication of the great music that was to come from an artist who has since become one of modern music's greatest contributors.
Named Kerrville Folk Festival New Folk Winner in 1984, John Gorka followed into the late '80s and early '90s with a number of excellent releases. On Jack's Crows, Gorka included some timeless tunes that have proven to stand up as some of his best work ("Houses in the Fields," "The Mercy of the Wheels," "I'm From New Jersey").
Suzanne Vega's 99.9F album tested the limits of contemporary folk music, experimenting with the artistry of electronic music and melding it with Vega's decidedly provocative contemporary folk songs. It was a breakthrough album in many ways and crossed over to pique the interest of many mainstream music fans that may not have been as open to picking up a record by a folksinger prior to that.
Shawn Colvin's A Few Small Repairs may have contained the single ("Sonny Came Home") that helped make her famous, but Fat City has been one of the best efforts of her career. Containing incredible introspective tunes like "Polaroids" and "Kill the Messenger." While inarguably less commercial than Repairs, it was an excellent introduction to her work.
Michelle Shocked was one of the best new folk singer-songwriters in the '90s, blending together various styles of roots and Americana that encapsulated old folk music and blues with other more mainstream styles. Arkansas Traveler included classic tunes like the title track and "Prodigal Daughter (Cotton Eyed Joe)."
Emmylou Harris had been around on the music scene for nearly two decades by the time the '90s got into swing, but Wrecking Ball was one of her most notable discs until that point. It was a marked departure from the decidedly country tilt of her previous records. And the title track—penned by Lucinda Williams—still stands as one of her best tunes.
Dar Williams' Mortal City disc was, in many ways, her breakthrough effort, and it contains many of the songs that are still considered by many fans as her greatest hits: "As Cool As I Am," "Iowa," "The Christians and the Pagans."
In 1996, there was no way to predict how much influence Gillian Welch would come to have over the folk and bluegrass worlds—O Brother, Where Art Thou? was still a few years off—but her debut Revival was an excellent introduction to her beautiful work. It also earned her a Grammy nomination for Best Contemporary Folk Album.
Greg Brown had, by 1996, delivered more than a dozen albums full of exquisite work, but Further In was one of his finest, most contemplative discs to date. Every single song was excellently performed, bringing together Brown's thick influence of gospel, blues, and folk music.