For anyone with even a passing interest in American roots music, this collection may be essential.
Okay, I'll admit it: the first time I popped in the opening disc in Rounder's mammoth, four-disc, 40-year retrospective, I steeled myself for five-plus hours of pickin' and twangin' and fiddlin' -- American roots music at its most stripped-down. That's what the Rounder label is all about, right? And to tell the truth, I got plenty of that, starting with the very first track and the nimble banjo arpeggios of "Old Home Place" by JD Crowe and the New South. But soon other, unexpected strands started mixing in: rippling kora runs on Alhaji Bai Konte's "Jula Jekere"; the buzzing zydeco accordion of DL Menard and the Louisiana Aces as they burned through "La Porte Dans Arriere"; the broken-glass vocals and gritty guitar of George Thorogood scorching through "Who Do You Love", the hands-down best track on 1979's Move It on Over.
This is to say nothing of the tunes more widely associated with Rounder's rootsy repertoire, like mandolin ace David Grisman's "I Ain’t Broke But I’m Badly Bent", or the swooping, swooning guitar picking of Norman Blake's "Down Home Summertime Blues". In all, there are 24 tracks on this disc -- and it's only the first of four.
The second disc continues the eclecticism. Cuts by the Klezmer Conservatory Band, reggae outfit Culture, and cajun artists Flaco Jiménez, Buckwheat Zydeco, and Beausoleil stand alongside string-band stalwarts such as Béla Fleck, whose "Whitewater" might be the single greatest banjo tune ever recorded. (Yes, I know that's a ridiculous thing to say.) There are plenty of nuggets for connoiseurs of the traditional, with cuts by the Bluegrass Album Band and Hazel Dickens -- "My Blue Ridge Cabin Home" and the unvarnished "Mama's Hand", respectively -- mixed in with all the other stew.
There's plenty of blues in this set as well, much of it cropping up on disc three, with "Sing It" by Marcia Ball, Irma Thomas, and Tracy Nelson, "A Virus Called the Blues" by piano virtuoso Charles Brown, and contributions from Clarence Gatemouth Brown, Irma Thomas, and Roomful of Blues. This isn't to say that the disc is given over entirely to the blues: Longview's "High Lonesome" is straight-up cowboy country, while Beau Jocque's "Give Him Cornbread" takes us back to cajun-accordion country. Folkie contributions from singers such as Alison Krauss, Tish Hinojosa, and Jimmie Dale Gilmore ensure an ever-rotating cast of acoustic-music all-stars.
The fourth disc in the set, representing the decade since 2000, contains the most mixed set of all, combining established stars like Robert Plant and Alison Kraus along with folk-rock outfits both new and established (Son Volt, Cowboy Junkies, They Might Be Giants). Former Led Zeppelin frontman Plant is represented twice, once in the plaintive "Please Read the Letter", a duet with Krauss from their 2007 crossover hit Raising Sand, and again with "The Only Sound That Matters", a lilting tune from Band of Joy, his most recent record. These songs won't make anyone forget "Whole Lotta Love", but they’re pleasant enough.
Son Volt's "Down to the Wire" might make some people forget "Whole Lotta Love", as it channels snaky slide guitar tones and warbling, lethargic-yet-earnest vocals into a shaky, pitch-perfect lament. Doc Watson and Earl Scruggs keep it real, bluegrass-style, with the uptempo bluegrass of "Roll in My Sweet Baby's Arms", performed live, and Willie Nelson does the same with "Man with the Blues". The playlist includes luminaries such as Irma Thomas, Mary Chapin-Carpenter, and Rhonda Vincent -- and the less said about Rush, the better. (But hey, that’s just me.)
Packed in a handy cardboard case and including a 96-page booklet detailing Rounder's colorful history, this package is handsomely done. For anyone with even a passing interest in acoustic (mostly) music, or the disparate strands of American folk that have fed the streams of pop, rock, and soul, this collection is highly recommended. In fact, it may just be essential.