Some say folk rock was born January 20, 1965, the day a group of folk musicians-turned-Beatles fans calling themselves the Byrds entered Columbia Recording Studios in Hollywood to record “Mr. Tambourine Man,” a then-unreleased Bob Dylan song. (Interestingly, the quintet’s leader, Jim—later Roger—McGuinn, had already played solo acoustic versions of Beatles songs in coffeehouses.) Others cite July 25, 1965, the date of Dylan’s infamous “electric” appearance at the Newport Folk Festival, as folk rock’s big bang. But that performance, which also featured some of the singer’s earlier acoustic tunes, can itself be seen as the culmination of the genre-blending experiments he’d begun the year before, which led to ’65’s Bringing It All Back Home and Highway 61 Revisited. And, of course, there were other electrified folk-ish acts—the Beau Brummels, the Searchers—who’d had similar ideas around the same time. In any event, folk rock seems to have been a natural occurrence, a phenomenon of traditionalist-visionaries, with an exact birth date that’s hard to pin down. And the current between its twin tributaries has only gotten blurrier over the last 45 years. Today, in an era when most “folks” play rock, where does one stream end and the other begin? Nowadays, it’s rock itself that’s the true folk music: Young musicians generally start out by learning something like “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” not “Big Rock Candy Mountain.” So does folk rock really even exist as such anymore, when the majority of its practitioners lack the roots-repertoire foundation it originally evolved from? Or does all of this lexicographical analysis even matter?
“It matters on iTunes or CD Baby, I guess,” guitarist, banjoist, and singer Mike Merenda says with a shrug. “Not to us, though. But I don’t like to call us folk because a lot of people still think of Peter, Paul & Mary when they hear the word folk—and that’s not us.” Much agreed: The rich sound Merenda and his wife, the fiddler, guitarist, and singer Ruthy Ungar, make as Mike and Ruthy is thankfully devoid of the cloying, A Mighty Wind
-like cutesyness that tainted so much of the postwar folk boom. (The Serendipity Singers, anyone?) The couple have released three albums of their timeless, acoustic-based music—the duet-oriented The Honeymoon Agenda
and Waltz of the Chickadee
(2008 and 2009, respectively) and the new, full-band Million to One
—on their own Humble Abode label.
“Well, you do have to pick a category when you sell your music on those websites, though, and when you pitch it to press and radio people,” says Ungar, her brow furrowed with thought as she folds laundry at the kitchen table of the pair’s West Hurley home. “But with the new album, ‘folk rock’ does seem to make sense because of the sound,” she continues, keeping her voice down as the couple’s two-year-old son Will naps in the next room. “It has drums, electric bass and guitar, keyboards, and some samples, along with [the duo’s own] acoustic instruments and harmonies.”
Those harmonies. Heartbreaking. Gorgeous. As pure and eternal as the wind that carries them. In fact, with the way the couple’s voices climb and curl together one can’t picture them ever not having sung together. “I’ve always loved singing harmony, even if it’s just with some song on the radio,” says Ungar. “Mike’s voice is very breathy and mine is really strong, so it was a challenge at first. But I think that’s part of what makes us sound different than other duos.”
Fittingly, Merenda and Ungar’s musical union is itself a bridging of the rock and folk scenes. Merenda grew up in New Hampshire, where he played in alternative and ska bands while at college. Ungar is deeply steeped in traditional music, being the daughter of Saugerties master fiddler Jay Ungar and folksinger Lyn Hardy. (The couple regularly appears with the Jay Ungar and Molly Mason Family Band.) But although as a child she played music with her parents for fun, Ungar’s goal in her teens and twenties was a career in theater. By 1998, however, when she met Merenda in New York and the two formed insurgent string trio Rhinegold with mandolinist Carter Little, she’d come home, so to speak. It was clear from the start there was something special between her and Merenda—though it’s hard to say which came first, the music or the romance.
“To me Mike and Ruthy fell in love first and their music just naturally follows that,” says Little. “They just have this organic harmony about them that’s part of everything in their lives; their family, their music, the way they relate to other musicians. And with the audience. There’s a very pure ease of expression, very special and soulful.”