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Memorable Folk Music Vocalists

Nine of the most unforgettable voices in contemporary folk music


A common misconception is that folksingers are not hugely skilled instrumentalists, much less great vocalists. On the contrary, many excellent vocalists have taken their skills into contemporary folk music, bluegrass and alt.country. Here's a list of a few of the great folk music vocalists.

1. Odetta

Odetta at the premiere of "Lightning In A Bottle"
photo: Paul Hawthorne / Getty Images
Ask anyone to describe Odetta's work, and they'll likely mention her incredible voice, a voice so big and skilled, it can envelop you with sound. Her blend of gospel and folk elements is most notable. The nuances of her voice are possibly the most impressive elements, depicting both vulnerability and strength in the course of one song.

2. kd lang

kd lang
© Victoria Pearson, courtesy Special Ops Media
kd lang started her career as a country singer, moved into alt.country and eventually made her way to her current status as crooner. lang's vocal range is rather impressive, wrapping easily around notes at every stretch of her range. As her recordings have displayed, she seems just as at home crooning away on an old standard as she does covering a Joni Mitchell tune or wailing away on an old cowboy song.

3. Greg Brown

Singer/Songwriter Greg Brown
© Larry McGahey
Singer/songwriter Greg Brown has one of the most memorable male voices in contemporary folk music. His low, grumbly bass fits comfortably in the high and middle ranges, but is most frquently recognized due to it lower end.

4. Brandi Carlile

Brandi Carlile Live in Concert in Seattle
© Kim Ruehl, licensed to About.com
Singer/songwriter Brandi Carlile seems to have suddenly burst on the scene with her album The Story, but really she's been working up to it for some time. It's her voice, however, that often draws the biggest crowds. Frequently compared to the vocal power of Janis Joplin singing songs as heartfelt as Jeff Buckley, Carlile's vocal prowess is not to be denied. She has an impressive ability to move from a soft, introspective note to a powerful growl of a note, then to relax into a smoothness somewhere between, all in one song.

5. Alison Krauss

Alison Krauss live at Eric Clapton's Crossroads Guitar Festival
photo: Tasos Katopodis / Getty Images
Bluegrass singer Alison Krauss has one of the sweetest, smoothest sopranos in her genre these days. Whether rocking through an up-tempo bluegrass tune or hitting high notes with a pure precision, Krauss' voice seems like it was made for singing.

6. Neko Case

Neko Case
© Dennis Kleiman, courtesy Anti Records
alt.country singer/songwriter Neko Case is one of those artists who, when she sings, seems to be channeling some otherworldly force. She just opens her mouth and out comes an extraordinary voice. Echoing elements of gospel, rock, country and blues, Case's voice is certainly one of the most identifiable and memorably large voices on the alt.country scene these days.

7. Joan Baez

Joan Baez
© Dana Tynan
Joan Baez' pure, clear soprano is one of the most beloved voices in modern folk music history. Her vocal performances on covers of songs by Bob Dylan, Phil Ochs and other great songwriters have been huge hits and are counted among some of the best folk music recordings.

8. Del McCoury

Del McCoury Band Live at Wintergrass 2006
© Kim Ruehl, licensed to About.com
Del McCoury's high, lonesome alto is one of the nicest voices in contemporary bluegrass. An original member of the Blue Grass Boys, McCoury's falsetto is absolutely wrought with longing and sentimentality. His voice is also incredibly well-suited for bluegrass gospel.

9. Bob Dylan

Bob Dylan live on MTV Unplugged
photo: Frank Micelotta / Getty Images
Bob Dylan can hardly be considered a great vocalist, but not including him in a list of memorable vocalists would seem somewhat ridiculous. There's hardly a young troubadour in the country who doesn't feel compelled to, at some point, pull out a Dylan cover in a Dylanesque voice. Plenty of people try to mimic this great songwriter's trademark drawl, but few have come close to duplicating it. If there's any folk music artist whose voice is recognizable after even a couple of notes, it's Bob Dylan.
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