I have been playing with the idea of this series where I take a well-known, well-marketed (perhaps oversaturated) musician and recommend a less-known act with similar qualities. Now, if anyone actually reads this, I know there is a good chance for controversy, so here are the ground rules.
- Upfront, I don’t mean for this series to be about stacking one artist against the other. The only comparison I mean to drive is that if you like one, you may like the other. It’s like Pandora, you know? Only I’m a real person and not an algorithm so my suggestions are subjective, not scientific, and essentially created out of thin air. Ready to trust me yet?!
- I’m not promising I will always recommend some new or obscure artist. I just like making connections, and I want to share them. Most of the music I love has come to me by way of someone telling me “Oh, you like ___? You should listen to ___ then!”
- I am fascinated by marketing in the music industry, and I like to watch how stars are made. Despite numbers 1 and 2 of my list, I know some bias on my part will come out for the lesser known artist. Not because I think lesser known is inherently better, but because most well known acts have massive teams behind them ensuring visibility and opportunity.
A few months back, when I heard “Everything Has Changed” by Taylor Swift, I instantly fell in love with it. I’m ashamed to say when I realized it was BY Taylor Swift, I got a little salty about liking it, and decided that, actually it wasn’t that good. But I kept hearing it so I made excuses. I would say, “Man, what’s wrong with me? I really like that new Taylor Swift. I mean, I don’t even KNOW MYSELF anymore.”
I mean, what is sadder than a 28-year old woman liking a Taylor Swift song? Oh. A 28-year old woman who can think it’s uncool to like something for superficial reasons. I don’t want to split hairs over Taylor Swift’s talent. With a couple exceptions, I don’t find her music compelling, but I understand why she’s so popular. Her appeal (and success) is based primarily on the fact that she’s mastered the ability to walk the line between country music and pop, which is a necessity for wide-stream success for anyone with a hint of twang in their songs (since Shania, I propose). She writes her songs and plays instruments which, regardless of talent, legitimizes her. She sings songs about heartbreak and vulnerability and being invisible which are universally appealing topics for young girls, her target audience, so there’s no doubt in my mind that she strongly resonates with a lot of girls and young women.
So, I decided to listen to more of her music, and I gave a lot of her songs a good try. Most of them did little for me, but I am still crazy about “Everything Has Changed.” And, geez, that is just a good song! The melodies between Taylor and Ed Sheeran are downright pleasant, and the chorus is catchy. It’s nice. So nice that when I was still trying to justify liking the song I told my husband, “It’s almost like something Sara Watkins might sing.”
The more I thought about that, the more I started to feel like the case could be made that Sara Watkins is a natural next step for Taylor Swift fans. Now, I adore Sara Watkins. I will admit that I’m entirely biased and prefer her 100 times over to Taylor Swift, and no matter the niceties in this post, I would take a lot of pleasure in converting a Taylor fan into a Sara fan*. I mean, you could be both, at least! Whereas Taylor plays with the boundaries of country and pop (with the help of good producers, no doubt), Sara has built her own sound intermingling those genres after decades of making music. She’s accessible to a younger audience, but also for those who feel a little too old for Taylor (and not even biologically, but women and girls who have moved past starry-eyed love songs) would really like Sara’s music because it manages to be catchy, fun, mature, and smart.
Committed country music listeners may remember the band Sara was in for close to two decades, Nickel Creek. Alison Kraus helped them gain notoriety in the early 2000s, which is when I first took notice of them. They made some leeway onto country radio and television. They were also wildly popular among progressive bluegrass and alt-country fans. I fell for them quickly because they took the bluegrass music I was fond of and added an edge that I craved in all my music.
In 2007, the band went on hiatus and Sara and the other members (her brother Sean Watkins and Chris Thile) have pursued other projects since. Sara makes a lot of appearances on A Prairie Home Companion, and she and Sean host their own podcast, The Watkins Family Hour. She has a beautiful soprano voice, plays the fiddle like a fiend (she and her bandmates were often called prodigies), and writes many of her songs (of which she has released two albums). She often collaborates with hugely talented artists like Gillian Welch, Tom O’Brien, Rayna Gellert, and Fiona Apple. When I saw her live, she quietened an entire theater of people who sat captivated as she sang a song with no mic, no amp, and just her own ukulele accompanying.
SO, if you like Taylor, or if you at least like “Everything Has Changed,” I urge you to delve into Sara’s catalog. Get started with the suggestions below!
Sara’s “You and Me” is an older sister to “Everything Has Changed.” It’s light and airy, sweet but haunted.
Fiona joins her for the inspirational and harmony-heavy “Take Up Your Spade.”
Finally, she covers John Hartford’s Long Hot Summer Days and kills it. No easy feat.
*A big part of my problem with Taylor is that I believe she’s very much a product shaped and sold to us. A beautiful detail here is that Taylor’s record label is “Big Machine” while Sara is on “Nonesuch.” 🙂