Acoustic Rock Resurgence - Late-'80s Folk Singer-Songwriter Revival Profile

American singer-songwriter Tracy Chapman in performance, 1988.
Dave Hogan/Hulton Archive/Getty Images


Folk music-inspired singer-songwriters who specialized in acoustic guitar-centered tunes with narrative lyrics had become relatively scarce by the mid '70s immediately following the spiked popularity of the sensitive singer-songwriter movement. Nevertheless, such understated folk rock and folk pop had never completely disappeared even as punk rock, new wave, arena rock and heavy metal often dominated the music landscape. So, when artists like Tracy Chapman, Suzanne Vega, Indigo Girls and Billy Bragg emerged during the latter half of the decade, a substantial audience was there to greet them.


Of course, folk music had entered the pop music consciousness in earnest during the '60s, as the Greenwich Village scene produced scores of singer-songwriters able to command attention with just their guitars, voices and pens. Led by Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Janis Ian and Phil Ochs, this movement spread influence quickly and with authority, helping to impact emerging genres from folk rock to country rock and classic rock. Artists like Simon & Garfunkel, James Taylor and Carole King dominated the early '70s and made literate songwriting and gentle acoustic melodies into an absolute staple of pop music listening.

Late-'80s Folk Singer-Songwriter Revival:

Once the early-'80s fixation on synth pop, new wave and arena rock began to die down, the resulting pop music gaps held some space for quiet, thoughtful songwriters to gain listeners once again. Still, hair metal, dance pop and the rising genres of rap and hip-hop certainly held plenty of sway in some circles, as did the developing alternative music scene. Even so, veteran and burgeoning troubadours alike including Steve Forbert, John Gorka, Shawn Colvin and John Wesley Harding began to see their chance to carve out a niche for song-centered, personal folk tunes. With the help of the trails they blazed, singer-songwriters were even able to survive the explosion of grunge and post-grunge during the early and mid '90s.

Legacy & Influence:

In fact, folk singer-songwriters not only survived but began to pop up in greater numbers and variety as the '90s wore on. Directly influencing the alternative country movement as well as what has eventually become known as adult alternative music, late-'80s folk musicians have continued to add layers to their own careers as well. Peter Case, Robert Earl Keen, Aimee Mann, Freedy Johnston and many others have built many bridges to the new millennium and beyond that would have never been possible without the often quiet and sometimes lone voices of Chapman, Vega, and the Indigo Girls.

Other Key Late '80s & Early '90s Folk Singer-Songwriter Artists:

  • Bruce Cockburn
  • Nanci Griffith
  • Greg Brown
  • Lucinda Williams
  • David Wilcox
  • Patty Larkin
  • Catie Curtis
  • Rickie Lee Jones
  • Sarah McLachlan
  • Joe Henry
  • Syd Straw