Country cousins

Alternative music - Beagles and Land-Rovers, or tumbleweed and sipping whiskey? David Vascott invest

In Britain, folk and pop music tend to make awkward bedfellows. It's not that we dislike a dash of traditional with the modern, but, as with fast food, we tend to prefer imports from the United States to home-grown produce. OK, we had Donovan 40 years ago, but he was no Dylan. (I refer anyone who considers this a heresy to the OED. Guess which of the two ramblin' boys has his own entry.) Then there was Nick Drake, whose record sales never matched his off-key brilliance. Since the 1970s, most British blends of folk and pop have been at best ephemeral, at worst laughable. When Kevin Rowland of Dexys Midnight Runners decided to "go folk" in the early 1980s, little did he know that "Come On Eileen" would be a stag-night stomper for decades to come. And let's not even talk about the Levellers. Or Foster and Allen. (Who does, anyway?)

Yet the Americans, irritatingly, do not seem to have a problem integrating folk with pop and rock. Their own brand of folk, country music, is a billion-dollar industry. No one batted an eyelid when Nirvana went acoustic on MTV Unplug-ged, covering a number of songs by those original folk-punks, the Meat Puppets. And Johnny Cash's heart-stopping cover version of "Hurt" by the electro-goth Nine Inch Nails confirmed that the country/rock symbiosis had come of age.

Given all this, it is surprising that the summer's most talked-about folk festival will be happening not in sun-bleached Nashville, Tennessee, but in the drizzly Brecon Beacons in Wales. Now in its third year, the Green Man Festival, a three-day event headlined by the Incredible String Band, Bonnie "Prince" Billy and Joanna Newsom, is beginning to attract the sort of attention usually reserved for the Reading, Homelands and V festivals.

Green Man's growing popularity is due largely to its ability to straddle the folk/rock fence, thereby garnering support on both sides of the Atlantic. A 100 per cent British folk festival on a Welsh hillside would be an unappetising pros-pect. But throw in a name like Bonnie "Prince" Billy - an extravagantly eccentric country artist with long-running links to the US underground rock scene - and you're on to a winner. That is not to say that the Louisville singer-songwriter (whose real name is Will Oldham) is anything less than the genuine article: Johnny Cash's cover of his 1999 track "I See a Darkness" confirmed Oldham's unimpeachable country credentials. His music is hardly regular Tennessee fare, however. The singer twins his magpie approach to folk styles, from bluegrass to "folktronica", with an eccentric turn of phrase that leaps from the scabrous via the scatological to the sublime.

Oldham's Drag City labelmate Joanna Newsom, a Californian vocalist-harpist, has also been notching up column inches in British music magazines, particularly since the release of her 2004 album The Milk-Eyed Mender. The 23-year-old's odd, childish voice is frequently compared to Bjork's, although in truth it is more of a strangely alluring Muppet/ Billie Holiday hybrid than anything else. With an appearance at Patti Smith's Meltdown festival at the Royal Festival Hall in June and a headline slot at Green Man, Newsom offers curious vocals and minimal instrumentation that are winning British hearts and minds.

The remainder of the Green Man Festival, according to organisers, comprises "more than 50 artists drawn from the burgeoning worldwide folk revival and folktronica scenes". Describing the scene as burgeoning ignores how many of the revivalists - Bonnie "Prince" Billy, Cat Power, Jason Molina and Smog, to name a few - have been hauling their acoustic guitars around the circuit for years. All the same, it is true that the US-led folk revival seems to be gathering momentum. The Nebraskan prodigy Conor Oberst, who records as Bright Eyes, has had huge success with his gritty post-9/11 country music, particularly this year's I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning, on which Emmylou Harris sings backing vocals. Bright Eyes has played several of this year's major festivals in the UK, along with two other big names in new folk, Devendra Banhart and Alasdair Roberts.

So, what about British folk? Well, the aforementioned Scot, Alasdair Roberts, is possibly the pick of the bunch: his appearances at Glastonbury, Summer Sundae and Green Man all testify to the appeal of his grumbling, maudlin indie-folk. Then there's the Broken Family Band, whose folk-rock Americana, replete with black humour, is thrilling both live and on record. If there is one complaint, though, it must be that Steven Adams's hill-billy accent doesn't really tally with his East Anglian roots.

It is difficult to fathom why we prefer US folk music to our own. Perhaps it has something to do with the pastoralism inherent in the genre. Modern pastoral images of Britain inevitably include beagles, tweed and Land-Rovers, all decidedly less appealing than the porches, tumbleweed and sipping of whiskey conjured by the American South. Or perhaps it's simply because the huge country music scene in the United States makes greater experimentation that much easier. But with a slew of British acts further down the bill at Green Man, waiting to be discovered and nurtured like their American counterparts, perhaps the times are a-changin'.

The Green Man Festival takes place at Baskerville Hall, Hay-on-Wye from 19-21 August. For more information, call 01874 611 129 or visit www.thegreenmanfestival.co.uk

The Broken Family Band plays the Spitz, London E1 on 8 September and 20 September. For tickets call: 020 7392 9032