American roots music has temporarily grabbed public attention once again, but the folks at Rough Guides have bit off more than they could easily chew with this release. Overall, this is an uneven and sometimes jarring introduction to what is now being termed American “roots” music. Like “world” which went before it, the relatively new definition of “roots music” acts as a convenient umbrella for a diverse range of traditional ethnic music. The styles found under the aegis of “roots music” include an already huge array of genres like traditional country music, blues, gospel, zydeco, tejano, and Native American pow-wow, though the definition was enlarged even more on this offering to welcome Hawaiian music to the fold as being part of American “roots”. “Roots” as a word, to my way of thinking, is beginning to behave a little like “synergy”. Once an exciting concept, now with overuse and continued re-definition, “roots” like “synergy” is on the verge of becoming an ordinary and predictable way of thinking about vibrant possibilities. Due to current popularity, roots music is the subject of a growing number of NPR and PBS broadcast specials, with big boxed CD sets not far behind, and the simple word I once loved is beginning to bug me. It is, for instance, too often mispronounced by foreign experts as “rewts”. I admit still use the word myself, it’s convenient, but I don’t always like to.
With this collection, rather than imagining a road trip through vast distances with regional radio as a companion, this trip’s progression seems erratic in direction, as if the navigator mistook the folds and creases of a well-used map to be the dotted roadways. You might not know exactly where you are, but you can still be fairly certain you’re in America somewhere. Drawn from such a broad a range of material, with samples from each accepted genre to exemplify the aural category, yet the compiler’s intent behind the individual selections can seem as unclear and frustrating as a dusty windshield. While there really isn’t a bad track on the whole album, as a result of seeking a supersized view, the selections play more like brief pit stops where the driver, though uncertain of his course, still refuses to ask directions. And strangely, this ends up feeling a little bit like hearing about America from an outsider’s point of view. Ralph Stanley’s chilling “I Am Weary Let Me Rest” was placed as an opening cut, maybe considered as the beginning expression to evoke notions of ongoing endurance, like the roots music that follows that is itself “a story of perseverance”.
For this listener, the big part of the problem results from the scattergun approach to programming, so this doesn’t play well as an album for me. Even with 20 tracks, there seems to be overmuch of country, bluegrass, and newgrass (Ralph Stanley, Claire Lynch, Bill Monroe, Ricky Skaggs, Ginny Hawker, David Grisman) with their offerings thrown in and through the sequencing like a handful of darts at the wall. On this outing, the roots are represented by those six country tunes, one country-sounding cajun (Steve Riley & the Mamou Playboys), one modern zydeco (Rosie Ledet), one modern interpreter of New Orleans brassy jazz (Kermit Ruffins), two folk heroes (Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger); three gospel greats (and, honest to God, could it get greater, really, than Mahalia Jackson singing “Nobody Knows”, the Staples Singers “New Born Soul”, and the Soul Stirrers “Jesus Gave Me Water”?); one bright-sounding Tejano accordionist (Flaco Jimenez), one Hawaiian old-time tune accompanied by National slide guitar (the Tau Mau Family with Bob Brozman), one folk song from the Oneida Nation (Joanne Shennandoah of the Iroquois Confederacy), and three blues songs from people who moved to Chicago. New and old, all thrown together, one genre abutting the next without a chance for the listener to really gain a stronger handhold much less understanding other than the ability to recognize the distinct sound of a genre.
But I’m really happy to report the selection for the blues is right on, beginning with a raunch boast from Koko Taylor pronouncing everybody knows her big bad self to be the “Voo Doo Woman”. Listening to Mighty Joe Young’s easy scratch on his guitar lead-in doesn’t give any indication of the powerful squall about to appear. She does things humanly impossible and knows all (“I look through water and spy dry land”), and can summon and control the wildest elements of nature (“I raise my hand and the sky begins to cry”). With Koko Taylor’s powerful blast and Mae Thornton’s saucy punch, the blues women from Chicago can find no finer representation. Culled from her 1969 album with Arhoolie, Mae Thornton’s “Bumble Bee” is solid, solid blues, and this one’s raunchy, too, but this time the harmonica’s moaning and squalling to echo the boldfaced meaning in her lyrics. I’m often nervous that her Arhoolie sessions seem to threaten to become perpetual rarities, but all it takes is hearing just one song off Ball and Chain to lure people out to look for that record. And third one’s the charm, an early, early from the 1940’s likely unrecognizable to modern ears Muddy Waters on “I Feel Like Going Home”. His rolling stinging electric slide is perfectly developed, and Muddy’s voice is strong, but this early version possesses altogether quite a different sound and feel from what he would be producing in just a few years as “The Walkin’ Blues” with his crackerjack band for Chess Records. This is more like Muddy Waters when he’d just arrived in Chicago and truthfully this is some of the best I’ve heard from him. If I say I’ve heard a lot of his bests, that just means this one is so good, it somehow shoulders ahead even the best of those I’ve heard.
It’s a huge panorama that American Roots tries to capture, and such a wide lens will tend not only to lose focus, but to distort elements of the picture. While all the forms developed to their recognizable states within a particular geography, there are strong reasons why they did so. Not even making an attempt to explain any part of those reasons is the hole in this collection. The genres and the people who made the music, their travails and triumphs, might always be afforded more respect by being accorded a dedicated and individualized attention. That’s likely preferable to merely lumping them all together into a musical melting pot called “American Roots” and saying they’re different from the “glitzy overproduced MTV-style bare-midriff pop that symbolized the nation’s corporate face”. That just sounds like the beginning of a good rap, but it’s not really saying anything.