Two weeks ago the influential business magazine Forbes published its annual list of the 100 Most Powerful Celebrities. At its top was Lady Gaga, a woman whose outlandish costumes are at least as memorable as her music. Yes, "Poker Face" and "Bad Romance" are solid pop singles, but it's the meat dresses, eggs and coffins that really get a girl noticed these days. And while no one can argue with Gaga's central message (that everyone should be proud of what they are), there is more than a hint of Life of Brian's "We are all individuals" to the way Gaga's fans – her "little monsters" as she calls them – have bathed in their leader's glow to celebrate their own "uniqueness".
Back in the 1960s, young people were encouraged to "Protest against the rising tide of conformity". In the 21st century, they might be forgiven for wanting to react against this rising tide of non-conformity. On top of that, there has never been so much music to choose from. There is a bewildering array of genres and almost as many ways to consume them. Do you download your dubstep? Walk to work listening to electro on your mobile? Are you an indie fan obsessed with vinyl? A new-music hunter addicted to Spotify and MySpace? Loving music has never felt so demanding. k
So what is an artist to do to stand out from the crowd? For the young women profiled on these pages, the answer became obvious from an early age. Although all were exposed to many different kinds of music, the songs that rang truest were often those written long before they, and even their parents, were born. For every action, a reaction. As pop becomes overcomplicated, it is the simplicity of country, bluegrass and songs from the pre-rock'n'roll era that the artists here found themselves turning to again and again.
There are other reasons for a return to this style of music. Certainly, the success of O Brother, Where Art Thou?, as a film and a soundtrack, led many to discover the towering talents of Alison Krauss and Gillian Welch, both of whom had been giving this music a new lease of life long before that global breakthrough. The more musicologically minded might even wish to draw economic parallels between the times we live in and Depression-era America. But that is another subject for other pieces. Our purpose here is simply to draw your attention to three acts who have chosen to draw on a musical well that is as far away from the Gagas of this world as it is possible to find. Acts for whom making music has little to do with costumes, marketing, fireworks or stage pyrotechnics. Go to see any of these performers live and you will be treated to something simple, primal and, for all its old-timeyness, timeless: singers able to evoke the full range of emotions through the power of human voice and stringed instrument.
THE TOY HEARTS
Sophia (28), Hannah (25) and Stewart Johnson (61) are a father-and-daughters country, bluegrass and western swing outfit from Birmingham, England. Their latest album, 'Femme Fatale', was recorded in Nashville
Sophia: "We've been playing together for about 10 years. We grew up in a musical household listening to Elvis Presley, Chet Baker, Bill Monroe and Bob Wills, and it came as a shock when we went to school and discovered that everyone else was into Take That. We went to a multicultural girls' comprehensive and we were the ethnic minority. People assume that our dad brainwashed us, but that's not the case. We just latched on to bluegrass and decided to play it as a group. We enlisted dad as we didn't know any other banjo players.
"To us, that music was always cool. We didn't even question it. This was in the days before YouTube and the internet, so if you wanted to see bluegrass you had to go and see it live. We would be the only girls going to the local working men's club and we couldn't believe the energy and excitement. When O Brother came along, it did bring more youngsters to our gigs and the most common reaction was people coming up to us and saying [puts on broad Birmingham accent], 'I don't really like country music, boot I do loike yow.' The market is saturated, but when you see music with no frills and fuss it still sends shivers down your spine.
"The thing that makes Toy Hearts unique is that we mix country with western swing with European gypsy jazz. We're open to all sorts of music but someone recently asked whether they could put a dubstep beat to one of our songs and we were like, 'You can do what you like as long as we don't have to listen to it.'"
Hannah: "It's weird, because although we grew up here, I've always found British folk music hard to relate to – I didn't grow up by the sea and I don't have a fisherman grandfather. On top of that, folk music doesn't swing. Our parents broke up when I was three and I remember hearing Hank Williams singing 'My Son Calls Another Man Daddy'. Those old songs talk about family and I could relate to that. They wrote about complex situations in everyday language and for some reason that's not considered cool in Britain.
"People here can't seem to escape the idea that country music is all about line-dancing, hillbillies and yee-haw. We got a bit of stick at school. We didn't have much money and somehow sitting around playing this music united us. Although a lot of the songs are about heartbreak, it's essentially happy music. It makes you feel safe. It makes you feel good and the fact that it wasn't popular made it even more special for us."
'Femme Fatale' is out now. For tour dates: thetoyhearts.com
THE SECRET SISTERS
Lydia (22) and Laura Rogers (25) are sisters from Alabama who were discovered at open auditions in Nashville, where Laura was working as a nanny. Their debut album of "new-age traditional country music" has been in the UK top 30
Laura: "Growing up, we'd sing for the fun of it, but we never intended to do anything together. I went to an open audition to see if I could conquer my stage fright, but after the reaction I got, I called Lydia and told her she had to come try out too. So she drove from Alabama to Nashville, and after they heard her, the producer Dave Cobb asked us if we ever sung together.
"I think the public has reached a point where they're so tired of hearing fake, Auto-Tuned music. They want something that is pure, innocent and sincere. The artists we draw from didn't have all these fancy studio tools. They just had their voices and guitars. Traditional, roots music told stories about people who didn't necessarily have a voice. It spoke for the poor and it was a form of release. I guess we romanticise that era, but for some reason we both really value nostalgia.
"The reaction we get around the world blows our minds. We're just two little girls from Alabama; we never had any vocal training. But we treat our live shows like we're sitting around in our living-room and people seem to respond to it. It's about having a good time. If you're not having fun, you're not doing it right."
Lydia: "We like to sing the kind of songs we listened to growing up. Our dad exposed us to all kinds of music, but I think there's a shift these days with people such as Mumford & Sons and the Avett Brothers all reaching back to that old sound that people love so much.
"There's something about that era of music that gives you a homesick feeling, even if you don't know what you're homesick for. For us, it's got a lot to do with our grandfather. He sang in a group called the Happy Valley Boys and he raised five girls on whatever little he could make from being a mechanic. I hear this music and associate it with him and it doesn't matter where I am, I take that with me. And I think that's what people mean when they talk about the "purity" of our music – we place a lot of value on our family and our faith."
'Secret Sisters' is out now. For more: secretsistersband.com
A mandolin and banjo wunderkind, Jarosz, 20, emerged through the bluegrass music community and has since been nominated for a Grammy. She is currently studying music at the New England Conservatory, has just released her second album and tours the UK in July
"I grew up in Wimberley, which is a small town close to Austin, Texas, and I was lucky because my parents are both teachers and they would regularly take me to concerts where I'd hear all kinds of music. But I really started getting bitten by the bug when I heard Nickel Creek, who are sort of my generation, and a bluegrass band called Hot Rize, whose mandolin player was Tim O'Brien. I discovered them both at the same time and through them I started tracing that music back to what had come before. I love artists who have the rootsy background but are prepared to push the envelope.
"I can't even remember the first time I heard Gillian Welch but she was certainly a major influence. Like her, I want to be able to play anything I want in the future. Purists always want to preserve the marrow of the style but the people I've always respected haven't been afraid of change. Studying music in school is giving me the tools to bring all my musical ideas to life. I'm studying everything from Messiaen to Miles Davis to klezmer.
"These days we all have so much technology and entertainment in our faces. There's a constant wave of craziness and it seems to me that people are just craving for something honest and true that takes you back to a time when things weren't like this. I may be a young person, but even I can see what's real and what's not."
'Follow Me Down' is out now. Jarosz tours the UK from 14 July. For details: sarahjarosz.com