What the hell is "Roots Music"?

PBS serves up McFolk.


American Roots Music (Palm Pictures)

BLUES. COUNTRY. Bluegrass. Gospel. Folk.

A few months or maybe a year back, these were all separate genres, each with its own identity and its own small, hard-core group of obsessed fans. Then the soundtrack from the film O Brother! Where Art Thou? sold in excess of two million copies. Jaws throughout the music industry dropped. Phone calls were made. CDs were quickly repackaged to cash in on O Brother-mania. And now, we have ended up with something called "roots music"—a very convenient, highly marketable label that claims all of the previously mentioned styles, in addition to Tejano, Native American, and Cajun music, as its components.

Just in time for the holiday shopping season, director Jim Brown attempts to reconcile this broad term in a four-hour documentary titled American Roots Music. In production since March 2000 (a full nine months before the release of O Brother . . . ), the project is a rare collaboration among almost every major musical archive in the country—the Library of Congress, the Smithsonian Institution, Cleveland's Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum, and Seattle's Experience Music Project. The film is being televised on four consecutive Mondays on PBS (the third episode will air 10 p.m. Mon., Nov. 12) and has already been released as video ($44.95), DVD ($42.95), and CD ($49.97) boxed sets. There is also a single "highlights" CD ($17.97) that crams 18 cuts from 12 genres into one stocking-sized package.

Creating a definitive documentary film on a single genre of music is hard enough. Just ask the undisputed PBS heavyweight champion Ken Burns, whose 19-hour Jazz was commercially successful and sold truckloads of CDs that bore the sticker, "As heard on Ken Burns' Jazz." Still, critics maligned that gargantuan film for being less than thorough. Many felt that Burns omitted far too much for it to be called a complete document—that he dismissed jazz's more revolutionary movements and relied too heavily on the ultraconservative viewpoint of his chief consultant, Wynton Marsalis. Jazz fans weren't surprised to hear reports that Burns owned no more than two jazz recordings before embarking on the project.

If Burns couldn't tell a comprehensive story in 19 hours, how can Jim Brown expect to trace the evolution of a dozen disparate traditions in four? Ultimately, the success of a documentary can only be judged by the intentions of the filmmaker. Burns, as was evident from the sheer length of Jazz and the authoritative tenor of its companion book and boxed set, was aiming to be a final definition. Brown, it seems, isn't even trying to tell the whole story.

Instead, he makes a statement about the interconnectedness of early 20th-century American musical traditions. By identifying the key figures in each genre, he concludes that they all drew from the same well of inspiration—that blueswoman Bessie Smith, protest singer Woody Guthrie, and even Tex-Mex accordionist Flaco Jimenez are all products of the American melting pot.

Whether or not you agree with Brown's thesis, his explanation is fun to watch. The documentary moves at a breakneck speed, the same "short attention span" pace that was pioneered by VH-1's Behind the Music series. In fact, American Roots Music borrows quite a few elements from the VH-1 staple. Its narrator is the gruff-voiced Kris Kristofferson, whose down-home baritone provides the narration for some of the better, more suspenseful episodes of BTM. On a sad note, both shows seem fascinated with what celebrities have to say about the music, rather than with the music itself. Live performance footage is consistently overdubbed with audio from an interview. Most of the commentary in American Roots Music is poignant, especially when it's from the original sources, such as B.B. King, Ralph Stanley, and Doc Watson. Sometimes, however, it's incidental and could have been sacrificed, or at least saved for the DVD's "special features" section.

Though the series will inevitably be accused of leaving out as many innovators as it features, it's clear that Brown is familiar with his subject matter. His past documentary projects include biographical works on Hank Williams, Guthrie, Leadbelly, and Pete Seeger. Likewise, American Roots Music is not so much about the foundations of musical forms but the larger-than-life personalities that popularized them. Legends like Guthrie, Bill Monroe, and Bob Wills are lovingly remembered, complete with never-before-seen film footage that captures the artists at the heights of their respective careers.

But don't be fooled by labels. The musical styles profiled in American Roots Music each have their own rich histories, independent of any conclusions made by Brown's abridged version. If the series catches your fancy, dig deeper.

Check out Harry Smith's essential Anthology of American Folk Music, which he compiled way back in 1952. Or Rachel Leibling's excellent 1994 documentary, High Lonesome: The Story of Bluegrass Music. Just don't let the record companies and PBS's marketing directors turn a century of "roots music" (whatever that is) into McFolk.


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