Where You Can Find the Best Folk Music Out There - OZY | A Modern Media Company

WHY YOU SHOULD CARE

Because folk is for more than just folkies.

When Anthony Simpkins hunts for new musicians to feature on his wildly popular YouTube channel, the music itself is almost secondary. “I guess I’m looking for a story,” he says, “kind of like I imagine a journalist would.”

That’s probably why each video seems like an intimate experience: The camera dances gracefully around the performer (or performers), as they croon and drawl — or warble and wail — their way through tunes that capture the essence of the restless and wandering American soul.

Perched near a creek bed, beside railroad tracks or between the pews in an empty church, the artists physically express their personal stories, usually with a heavy dose of melancholy or swagger, more than merely singing about them. With nearly 106,000 subscribers, and approaching 53 million views since its inception eight years ago, GemsOnVHS is a stunning audiovisual diary from the undiscovered corners of American folk music. 

You probably won’t find the artists that Simpkins, 28, posts in too many other other places. And that’s the point: His platform gives voice to a little-known collection of salt-of-the-earth performers from around the country, usually with compelling tales to match their soul-stirring music. 

In their respective videos, for instance, songwriters such as Tennessee train-hopper Benjamin Tod and Texas native Casper Allen — both of whom have battled addiction among other life-altering challenges — muse on the trials they’ve faced with a maturity far beyond their years. “Thread a needle through your arm, tryin’ to stitch it back together again,” Allen sings in “Paper Ships.”

Funded by Patreon donations and earnings from commercial video work, Nashville-based Simpkins criss-crisscrosses the U.S. to team up with promising artists on his projects, occasionally finding himself abroad in places like Scotland — a country with a musical heritage interwoven with America’s own. For now, as the coronavirus pandemic keeps everyone indoors, he’s catching up on loads of unedited footage, with plenty of time to crack away on long overdue projects.

These days, GemsOnVHS is well-known enough that he doesn’t have to do much recruiting (which he hates). Most artists reach out to him, Simpkins says, since the channel is “a dog whistle to people who like the same stuff as us.” In other words, he’s created something of an independent musician’s online dream. “Good music just comes with the other stuff that I end up finding,” he says.

Visitors to his channel will find a new clip every two weeks or so. But Simpkins’ plans are becoming bigger: “We’re going to take over the world, and soon all music will be released through our channel,” he says with a wit drier than the sawdust-covered floor of a Kentucky watering hole. “Spotify and Apple Music are going to shut down in defeat.”

Seriously, though: Besides hoping to release several records this year, he’s also setting his sights on a podcast to continue building on Gems’ storytelling efforts — so long as the talent keeps rolling in, that is.

“I’m looking for geniuses,” Simpkins says, “and I think people with a certain amount of genius happen to write really good songs.”

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