- - Monday, February 2, 2015

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

It was 5 p.m. in Nashville but 11 p.m., or maybe even later, inside Benjamin Folke Thomas.

The 20-something Mr. Folke Thomas was in Music City at the invitation of the BBC and lauded music tastemaker Whisperin’ Bob Harris. The native Swede and current resident of England was among a handful of musicians Mr. Harris gathered to showcase U.K. music at this fall’s Americana Music Festival in Nashville. Despite the jet lag and what was surely a bit of culture shock, Mr. Folke Thomas seemed to have unwavering enthusiasm.

“We were by the stage door when they came out. It was brilliant,” said Mr. Folke Thomas, talking about his fan encounters with Loretta Lynn, Ry Cooder, Jason Isbell, Jim Lauderdale and other Nashville royalty outside the storied Ryman Auditorium. “I don’t know how I ended up in Nashville. I have always been obsessed with country music [such as from] Loretta Lynn and Charley Pride. I’ve seen pictures of Music Row and Tootsies [World Famous Orchid Lounge, a famous watering hole for Opry performers] and know all the names of places but had never been here. The first thing I saw was the Bridgestone Arena and all the neon lights, and you have to kick yourself. You feel like you’re on some kick of drug.”

Or, perhaps, a rocket.

A month before his Nashville showcase, Mr. Folke Thomas was just another up-and-comer on the jam-packed alt-country circuit in Europe. Then he played a much-lauded set before 20,000-plus fans at the Fairport Convention’s Cropredy Festival in England that set him way ahead of the pack.

He hasn’t slowed since.

After Nashville, Mr. Folke Thomas set about finishing his sophomore record, “Rogue State of Mind,” the follow-up to his critically acclaimed “Too Close to Here” and playing a host of venues throughout Europe.

“We’ve played in a cave, in a smoke room and pretty much every single bar in Switzerland, it feels like,” he recently said on Facebook.

Ever since Cropredy, Mr. Folke Thomas‘ world has been full of such incongruities, yet his music has remained consistently stunning.

Consider his release scheduled for May.

Whether the song is heightened by the jangle of electric guitars over a pop-filled beat (“Beat the Border”), gentle acoustic waves (“Married”) or a classic Townes Van Zandt-meets-Johnny Cash ballad (“Little Too Late,” a true standout track) the songs throb with the heartfelt intensity of the most personal memoir.

Mr. Folke Thomas‘ deeply world-weary vocals — at odds with his boyish appearance and personality — anchor the songs with a Merle Haggard intensity that speaks to the universal condition.

As personal as his songs seem, Mr. Folke Thomas insists he isn’t interested in the navel-gazing songwriting that has gained traction in recent years. Instead, he said, he uses such classic artists as Bob Dylan, Lead Belly and Robert Johnson as musical inspirations.

“I love the classic songwriters,” he said, sipping a beer before his Nashville set while name-checking Nanci Griffith, Iris DeMent and Stevie Nicks. “I have a lot to learn, though. Songwriting isn’t something I enjoy doing, but it’s something I have to do. It’s not that I’m proud of it but, whew, I can do it.”

Incredibly well, one might add.


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