What the folk's going on?

When Madonna goes all earth mother, you know it's serious. Get out that acoustic guitar and hand-spun smock, put flowers in your hair and prepare for a summer of Lovin' Spoonful, says Howard Byrom
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A WEEK may be a long time in politics, but that's nothing compared to the mutability of music and fashion. One minute you and your friends are head-nodding to block-rocking beats, the next you're staring obsolescence in the face and they're doing the do-si-do.

Just like Madonna has turned earth mum, there's a new wave of musos who are itching to shrug off their tech-ie artifices, slip into a comfy pair of dungarees and embrace grassroots. In fact the process has already started. And, judging by the amount of imminent releases, by May tempered country blues and low-slung acoustic guitars will be universal. Don't be fooled by washed-up ravers celebrating ten years since the summer of love; real hipsters are gearing up for a summer of Lovin' Spoonful.

The NME's editor, Steve Sutherland, illustrates the emerging moonshine spirit. "There's only so much big-beat and Prodigy you can take, and people are fed up of bands sounding like the Beatles. There's a loose aggregate of bands now who have listened to their dad's Little Feat LPs and don't realise that five years ago this kind of thing would have been incredibly unfashionable." Gomez, Merseyside's first and foremost country rockers, are a perfect example. And, whether you like it or not, they're high on the list of favourites to assume the British Beck mantle. Along with Joan Baez-a-like Sara Jepp, they're signed to label of the moment, Hut. Who, you may recall, set the acoustic balladeer precedent last year with Verve's Urban Hymns album.

Now, to further fuel the campfire, we have folkie superstars headlining two of the summer's biggest festivals. Beck dominates Universe, a weekend dance-a-thon in the grounds of Knebworth House. And Scouse super club, Cream, have Brit Nominee Beth Orton, strummin' an' a singin' at their al fresco event in Hampshire. It's high- profile neo-folksters like these who have paved the way for a new breed of combo, and a scene that's aching to be known as Nu Pholk.

"The whole idea of British folk is people singing with their finger in their ear," says Sutherland, wincing at the notion. "This is more folk- rock. You can imagine Gomez getting stoned, watching a spaghetti western and deciding to write a song." Strictly speaking though, Gomez haven't just done one song. They're about to release a whole album dedicated to whorin' in Mexican Border-towns, six-shooters and whiskey. Isn't this all a bit rich for five spotty youths from Southport? "There's a certain amount of humour in it," offers Fraser Lewry, head of programming at indie station Xfm, "and when it's done well it's convincing. Credence Clearwater Revival were from LA but that didn't stop them singing about the Louisiana bayou."

Ahead of the competition by virtue of association are The Beta Band, perhaps the most promising of the stoop-rock acts. This folkadelic four- piece are produced by The Verve's guitarist, Nick McCabe, and evoke visions of Dylan's backing band, The Band. Their mixture of slide guitars, skittering snares, and loose, lolloping harmonies has bowled over the pundits and now they're sauntering across the tracks to daytime radio. But while mainstream approval is surely on the cards, you can't help but wonder what drives three Scotsmen and a bloke from Portsmouth to play music perfectly suited to a Wild West cookout. Who cares, the cognoscenti love it. "Rock and roll is all about absurdities," says Sutherland, in their defence. "It's like when the Rolling Stones first went to America, met people like Gram Parsons and came back with a manufactured American accent. I think it's fantastic."

It seems that folk and country music has hitched a ride out of the boondocks and into the limelight of popular culture. Hollywood's there already - the soundtrack to Good Will Hunting is dripping with the music of folk prodigy Elliot Smith. And Ben Harper, the folk phenomenon's only true pin-up, plays the Royal Albert Hall in April. This slideguitar playing skater has the lyricism of Bob Dylan and the looks of Bob Marley, and his shows are always a sell-out.

There's a definite trend in the offing and there's nobody better placed than Tom Bridgewater to feel it. He runs Loose, an independent label licensing alternative American folk played by former punk rockers and Riot Grrrls who've rediscovered the music of their hill-billy forefathers. Their current compilation New Sounds of the Old West is a must for anyone who thinks country starts and finishes with Whit Stilman.

The only folk club to speak of is National Babylon at the 12 Bar Club in Soho, but it's only a matter of time. Talkin' Loud, famous for their ultra modern Mercury winners Roni Size and Reprazent, now have veteran folkie, Terry Callier, among their ranks. Even Mo Wax, the label responsible for bringing trip-hop to a wider audience, have a finger in the pie. They're about to release an album by the fourth Beastie Boy, Money Mark, that forges the way for genre-busting, shit-kicking lounge-country. But who's actually buying the stuff? "It's not just old farts buying this neo-folk, it's young farts too," says Nigel House from celebrated indie music store, Rough Trade. "People are looking for songs these days rather than beats and loud guitars. Maybe it's a reaction against all that sterile prog- rock."

If music is mellowing out then the corresponding cultural tone should be felt in fashion. If the answer is blowing in the wind then i-D stylist Simonez Wolf should have felt it. He recently spent a blustery day shooting on Canvey Island with copious amounts of cagoules and brown suede. He's developed a look that can only be described as Liberal Studies Chic. "Subconsciously people are trying to get back to nature," he says. "They're bored with American sportswear and fed up with the consumerist lifestyle. Clark's shoes are becoming more popular, and this summer there's gonna be a big natural outdoor look." This is reflected in Eley Kishimoto's country cousin designs. The rising South London duo have filled a gap in the market for hand-printed polka dot patterns, broderie anglais and hand-spun smocks. Also responsible for the current mood are the people behind Slam City Skates' label Holmes. After dominating street culture for the last decade, and persuading skate kids to wear Shetland wool sweaters, the creative core have left to start their own company, Silas. "Our clothes are a reflection of what's going on now," says Russell Waterman, who as a part-time A&R has a good perspective on prevailing trends. "We take influences from folk and from hip-hop. We're not into techno-millennial alien-friendly clothes, our clothes are really simple. It's about something that's functional, stylish, and to some extent, classic." In the interest of authenticity, most of their clothes are manufactured by traditional weavers in Scotland or by companies who work for the MoD.

There's a definite shift towards the lived-in look, and by the end of the summer we could all be looking like demonstrators on CND march to Aldermaston. It's only a matter of time before Stussy unveils a range of pewter tankards.