If the folkie soundtrack to the Coen brothers' romp O Brother, Where Art Thou? has given you a hankering for American roots music, Rounder Records' Roots Music four-disc set might seem like the logical box to buy. But hold your horses. Don't confuse this mislabeled anthology with the just-released American Roots Music box of historic traditional-music recordings from the PBS TV series of the same name. And it's nowhere near the same league as roots-music milestones like Smithsonian Folkways' six-CD Anthology of American Folk Music, which includes seminal folk and ethnic music recordings from the 1920s to the 1930s, or the Arhoolie label's The Journey of Chris Strachwitz box set with its field recordings of greats and eccentrics dating back to the 1960s.
Scott Billington tries to avoid the shadow of these sets by crowing in his liner notes to Rounder's Roots Music, "This is no scratchy collection of old recordings, but a vital document of the unique American landscape, where music from all over the world collided and colluded." That means there isn't a classic recording within earshot, though a few legendary performers are included, like Mississippi Fred McDowell and Etta Baker, who lived long enough to make fresh recordings for Rounder. Otherwise the set is weighted toward bluegrass-derived pieces that for all their prettiness come across as offshoot, not roots. The songs that live up to the roots billing are those that wear their ethnic origins large.
Some of these selections are first rate, beginning with a wild rendition of "Iko, Iko" by Bo Dollis and the Wild Magnolias; it has nothing to do with the Dixie Cups' hit from the 1960s and everything to do with the secret language of the Mardi Gras Black Indian gangs of New Orleans. It recalls Trinidadian stick-fighting kalinda songs. The Tau Moe Family provides a hint of nineteenth-century Hawaiian music on the achingly beautiful "Mai Kai No Kaual," recorded in 1988 when lead vocalist Rose Moe was 80. The Halfa Brothers open disc two with a gritty Cajun helping of fiddles, triangles, and accordion on one of the oldest pieces in the set, caught live in the mid-1960s at the Newport Folk Festival. D.L. Menard, the "Cajun Hank Williams," makes the simple but beautifully played two-step "Ti Galop Pour Mamou" wriggle with archaic intensity. But the unbridled triumph belongs to Santiago Jimenez, Jr., with "Zulema Waltz," a Tejano accordion jewel written by his father, Santiago, Sr., and played as richly as if Junior holds a full waltz orchestra against his heart. Proving that European-based music can also bear down to the nitty-gritty, Liz Carroll and James Keane, Jr., perform a pumping squeezebox duet of Irish reels.
Discs one and two of Roots Music supposedly focus on traditional approaches, while discs three and four lean on modern interpretations, taking us yet another step away from undyed roots. The result is less Cajun, zydeco, and Latin-influenced material and more mainstream country and bluegrass derivations, even "Funkyard" by Walter "Wolfman" Washington, which is about as rootsy as a ceiling fan. What's ironic about the choices here is that compiler Louisa Hufstader certainly had access to Rounder's mother lode of must-have, salt-of-the-earth, scary-great roots recordings. The label publishes the Alan Lomax series of American and international traditional music, almost any installment of which will stand your hair on end, especially the Southern Journey American series. If featuring midcentury and later artists is the idea, this redefines the whole concept of roots. Rhino's three-CD The Sun Records Collection anthology of blues, early rock, and rockabilly feels more essential than much of the music here. A better approach would be tapping into living roots music from ethnic pockets not yet hopelessly streamlined by mass culture, such as Southwestern chicken-scratch, along with broader coverage of Tex-Mex, Cajun, zydeco, klezmer, and American interpretations of Latin music. That's the roots set I'm waiting for.