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Roots Redux

Matthew Sabatella connects with just plain folk

The company's goal, at least in part, was to become a viable alternative to the constraints major music labels often impose on musicians. "It wasn't so much a reaction against the music industry as it was seizing an opportunity to make things happen for ourselves," Sabatella contends. "As far as how the industry stands now, I don't know and I don't care. The do-it-yourself mentality is so internalized and the tools for independents are so readily available that I don't even give the ömusic industry' a thought."

Slipstream's larger concept eventually faltered, but it remained viable as an outlet for Sabatella's own albums. "We had a good run, but by the early 2000s, the site was breaking even financially, at best. It took a lot of time to maintain, and I had gotten so deeply into traditional music that I finally made the decision to pull the plug. The inspiration with which I started it had faded, and I was becoming totally committed to this other musical experience."

Sabatella's first solo album, Where the Hell Am I?, released in 1997, featured a host of Miami's musical mainstays. It was the work of an artist who was cloaking himself in the anthemic if somewhat generic radio-ready rock style of the decade. His second effort, A Walk in the Park, saw him taking a more introspective approach, replete with acoustic guitars and a more elegiac perspective.

"I think my second album ... is somewhat of a bridge between my first album and Ballad of America," Sabatella suggests. "But I wouldn't drive a pickup truck over it." A subsequent original, "This Old Hammer" — which would later turn up on Ballad of America, Volume 1 — marked his first foray into a pure folk sound. That, in turn, led him to explore the musical roots transported from the old world to the new, the basis of America's musical melting pot. It even inspired him in his day job, first as an elementary school music teacher and then as an employee in the district office of Miami-Dade County Public Schools, where he currently helps develop the school system's arts- and music-related curriculum.

Back at its book fair gig, Sabatella's Rambling String Band is in full swing. Launching into "The Wabash Cannonball," the musicians lean together toward an invisible center, connected by a common bond, each instinctively drawn by the timeless flow of these rustic, robust melodies. Other chestnuts follow: the beautiful ballad "Shenandoah," the jaunty sing-along "Once More A-Lumbering Go," the familiar strains of "Skip to My Lou," each preceded by a Sabatella narrative detailing the tune's folk-fueled origins. "I feel like these traditional songs are my songs," Sabatella says later. "I'm not doing cover songs. I'm creating and reinventing these songs with my sensibilities as a musician and songwriter."

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