Real people real music
The 'O Brother' soundtrack created a roots-music buzz, but its appeal was building well before that.
PITTSBURGH — When a guest on her radio show played an Alison Krauss tune, Susie Barbour fell in love with the bluegrass/country/pop singer and fiddler. Learning that Krauss had recorded the Beatles and Todd Rundgren, Barbour ran to the record store.
Then she heard a song from the "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" soundtrack, which features Krauss, her bandmate Dan Tyminski, and other bluegrass greats. Barbour and 3 million other buyers made "O Brother" the surprise hit of 2001.
We're talking about bluegrass, old-time fiddle-banjo-mandolin mountain music, in a year when R&B, rap, metal, teen pop, and hip-hop dominated.
The success of the "O Brother" soundtrack is the latest sign that Americans want to hear the hybrid blends of folk, blues, country, rockabilly, and regional sounds (zydeco, Cajun, native American) known as roots music, Americana, or its punk-edged cousin, alternative country. On a smaller scale, "The Buena Vista Social Club" album and documentary did the same for Cuban music.
" 'O Brother' for me has much the same resonance as (Nirvana's) 'Teen Spirit' had," says Grant Alden, co-founder/editor of No Depression, an alternative-country magazine based in Nashville, Tenn. "It's this moment in which something somehow gets into popular consciousness that isn't a manufactured emotion."
Dave Alvin, who co-founded the rockabilly/punk band the Blasters before going solo, prefers the term folk music, which he considers "indigenous rural music - or even, to some extent, urban music." Whether it's blues, Cajun, or Swedish fiddling in Minnesota, he says, "it's always been music of subcultures."
To idiom-defying banjo player Bela Fleck, roots music is "real people playing real music that expresses their feelings, their individuality, and their soul."
Singer/songwriter/playwright Alejandro Escovedo calls it "the ability to tell a story in a most basic form."
Virgin Records marketing vice president John Wooler, who co-produced the "I-10 Chronicles" albums of Americana heard along that Southern Interstate, says roots music is song-focused, "as opposed to following trends."
"O Brother" drew attention to Americana, but its appeal - and the historical documentation for it - was building well before that:
"American Roots Music," the fall PBS documentary accompanied by a lavish book, box set, and DVD/video, began production in 1999. Similar projects include 2001's "Good Rockin' Tonight: the Legacy of Sun Records" and a coming six-part, Martin Scorsese-produced PBS series on the blues. On Jan. 16, PBS will tape an "All-Star Bluegrass Celebration" at Nashville's Ryman Auditorium for a March airing.
Independent record labels such as Bloodshot, Red House, Vanguard, and Rounder are growing, and major labels now have Americana imprints, among them Virgin's Back Porch and Universal Music's Lost Highway, which has two of alt-country's hottest artists: Lucinda Williams and Ryan Adams.
Americana is now a recognized radio format and the new Americana Music Association (co-founder Alden is president-elect), is seeking a separate Grammy category. An Atlanta company is establishing a national Americana cable channel.
Statistics show a steady rise in sales of acoustic instruments, the foundation of roots music. NAMM International Music Products Association spokesman Dan Del Fiorentino reports that a record 910 million guitars were sold in 2000: 490 million electric, 420 million acoustic. The total includes 100 million other fretted stringed instruments. Though acoustics have not outsold electrics since the debut of the electric Fender Stratocaster in 1954, the numbers are closer now than they've been since the 1960s folk boom.
Shows are already selling out for the "Brother" musicians' tour starting Jan. 25 in Lexington, Ky. Performers include Krauss and Tyminski, who sang "O Brother's" key song, "I Am a Man of Constant Sorrow."
Theories regarding Americana's popularity abound - though it must be noted that most of its practitioners disapprove of "genre-fying" music at all. Bloodshot co-owner Rob Miller suspects it's "disgust with the electronic-generated, board-room focus-group, pop-music drivel that's being crammed down our throats on the pop charts and on the country charts."
Robert Santelli, president and CEO of Seattle's Experience Music Project museum, says that CDs allowed baby boomers to replace scratchy old blues and bluegrass records - unsuitable for expensive turntables - and reconnect with that music. Hard rock also became less appealing, and they couldn't relate to gangsta rap or hip-hop, so they sought something rock-connected, but more comfortable.
Mr. Santelli, a "Roots Music" consultant who co-edited the book "American Roots Music," says the unexpected success of 1990's "Robert Johnson: The Complete Recordings" box set - 50 years after the bluesman died - awakened curiosity about American musical history, as did "The Anthology of American Folk Music" and other reissues. College courses and music conferences further aroused interest.
Research suggests Americana's core audience to be college-educated professional males; Alden says he believes it's veterans of college radio who appreciate nonmainstream music and have outgrown punk. Miller says buyers are disaffected rockers revolted by flannel shirts in Gap ads, "their so-called alternative lifestyle used as marketing tools."
Some say Sept. 11 also plays a role. In distressful times, people seek honest, healing music that might offer some answers, says Red House founder Bob Feldman.
The term roots music, Mr. Del Fiorentino says, evokes images of earth and cotton-picking, call-and-response field songs, and spirituals. "What that brought to American popular music," he says, "is emotions. 'Oh, Lord, my back hurts.' 'Oh Lord, I'm hungry.' It wasn't just saying it; it was feeling it."
A less romantic source was 19th-century minstrelsy, in which whites performing in blackface commandeered African-American songs and carried them from town to town - the way music traveled before recordings and radio. John Lomax and his son Alan first preserved and spread awareness about indigenous music by making Depression-era field recordings for the Library of Congress.
But Mr. Alvin says roots music proves that, regardless of who claims ownership or credit, "We've always been a multicultural society."
Will Americana music keep growing? It's not an exploding trend, magazine editor Alden says. It's one radio station taking a chance, proving to other stations that the format can work. It's No Depression's six-year growth from a 2,000-circulation quarterly magazine to a 23,000-circulation bimonthly.
Miller, whose label popularized the Old 97's, Escovedo, and Ryan Adams's former band Whiskeytown, says progress might occur if people quit fearing the "C-word" - country.
"People have really got to open their minds and realize [that roots music is] ... not Dolly Parton singing '9 to 5.' "
Santelli says healthy signs include the expanding number of and increased attendance at roots-related music festivals and concerts. Fleck, whose latest album is of classical music, says music is like speech - a single entity with different languages. "Trying to become familiar with a lot of dialects is what I like to do," he says.
Maverick musician Michelle Shocked, who has created several roots-related albums including "Arkansas Traveler," also loves finding boundaries to cross and creating new ones. "When you do that, you're avoiding the whole trap of being fashionable," she says.
Famed Texas bluesman Delbert McClinton simply says, "If it's not real, it don't stay around long.... If the music is good, you feel it and you know it."
A roots-music neophyte? Never fear. First, immerse yourself in history, then try some contemporary favorites.
American Roots Music: Highlights, a one-disc primer of pivotal figures including Jimmie Rodgers, the Carter Family, Bob Wills, Bill Monroe, Hank Williams, Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters, B.B. King, Mahalia Jackson, Woody Guthrie, Lead Belly, Bob Dylan, Clifton Chenier, and Flaco Jimenez.
Wrecking Ball, by Americana queen Emmylou Harris.
Now That I've Found You: A Collection, by neotraditional country/bluegrass sweetheart Alison Krauss.
Sweet Old World, A moving gem from poet's daughter Lucinda Williams.
Buffalo Springfield box set, chronicling one of folk-based country/rock's first supergroups.
El Corazon, by Steve Earle - alternative country/roots rock's outlaw hero.
Slow Turning, singer/songwriter John Hiatt's masterpiece.
Gold, Ryan Adams' name-that-influence attention-grabber.
Anodyne, by Uncle Tupelo, the first "No Depression" band, which titled its debut album after a Carter family song and ignited a genre.
Shake Hands With Shorty, by the North Mississippi Allstars, blues/rock's new generation.
And: Flight of the Cosmic Hippo, Bela Fleck & the Flecktones; A Man Under the Influence, Alejandro Escovedo; Arkansas Traveler, Michelle Shocked; Public Domain: Songs from the Wild Land, Dave Alvin; Nothing Personal, Delbert McClinton.