The rock-ification of folk music has a long and honorable history tracing back more than 50 years to Bob Dylan going electric at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival. The Byrds, Buffalo Springfield, and others were members of folk-rock’s foundational movement, as well, with oodles more joining in the decades since, many of whom have more recently gotten lumped into the Americana milieu. But it’s not the same, not a distinction without a difference, as with so many other things.

Producer Dave Cobb recently said of Dylan LeBlanc’s new Renegade record, which Cobb produced, that, what made it special to him, is that it’s a folk songwriter fronting a rock & roll band. Indeed, that’s what has always made folk-rock special… the songs. And LeBlanc is one of the best young songwriters on the scene. (His backing band, the Pollies, are no slouches, either!)

Renegade kicks off with the title track about a good girl falling for a bad boy who gets taken down by the police. Honestly, though, the subject matter could be anything because it has such a great hook and vibe. That’s true for the whole record. You could blast this thing without ever knowing a single lyric and you would love it.

But LeBlanc’s lyrics are always worth tuning into. On “Born Again,” he explores the idea of life’s toll-taking leading to its own reward, that many moments in a person’s life, as hard as they may be, are opportunities for change, growth, and renewal… experiences LeBlanc knows all too well.

Then there’s the sex worker in “Domino,” the gun violence victim in “Bang Bang Bang,” the religion questioner in “Damned,” the slave farm of “Magenta,” and the historical consequences of “Honor Among Thieves.” Those are folk songs, if they are anything, regardless of how raucous the guitars are (and the guitars aren’t that, or even always, raucous, particularly on the latter tracks).

As stunning as LeBlanc’s compositional work is, it would be less so, if rendered by a less stirring voice. Even at his relatively young age, LeBlanc has lived several different and difficult lives. He’s been there and done that — or knows someone who has — no matter what there and that are, and the empathy gained from that living flows through every note to make Renegade one of the best records, from any genre, of 2019. Long live folk-rock & roll!