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2004 A Good Year for Fans of American Roots Music


American Roots music can be found any day of the week in the clubs of urban centers, at the many concerts performed on university campuses, and at hundreds of bluegrass festivals in towns large and small. Despite a rabid legion of fans, and albums that receive much critical acclaim, Roots music rarely emerges at the top of the sales charts. As VOA's Katherine Cole reports, that doesn't mean 2004 was a bad year for fans of American Roots Music music.

What is American Roots music? It's the mix of blues, country, gospel, folk, bluegrass, zydeco and other homegrown forms that set the stage for today's rock and pop and soul. The past year was filled with solid releases blending all those styles.

On the blues side of the spectrum was Dave Alvin's Ashgrove. Named after the famed Los Angeles nightclub where a teenaged Dave Alvin heard legendary blues performers, Ashgrove is Dave's first collection of new songs in six years, and reviewers are calling it "the album of his career." Ashgrove includes one song Dave wrote with longtime friend Tom Russell, a performer responsible for another of the year's finest Roots recordings.

Tom Russell's Indians, Cowboys, Horses, Dogs finds the songwriter, author, activist, and folk-art painter returning to the American Southwest and Old West for an album of originals and covers. It includes this version of one of the best-loved Western songs in the world, "El Paso."

2004 also saw many recordings on the bluegrass side of the Roots family. Among them, CDs by The Gibson Brothers, The Nashville Bluegrass Band, Alison Krauss and Union Station, and Ricky Skaggs and Kentucky Thunder. The year also brought the release of Shawn Camp: Live At The Station Inn. The CD was recorded by a bunch of old friends before a live audience at a Nashville club, and it's one of the best bluegrass releases of the past 12 months.

Shawn Camp is probably best-known as a songwriter who's provided Number One hits for Garth Brooks, and Brooks And Dunn. At heart, he's a bluegrass picker, and Live At The Station Inn proves that a great CD can be produced without all the gimmicks that Nashville usually adds to new releases.

2004 was also a good year for the singer-songwriters who fall under the American Roots umbrella. The releases of the past 12 months include Slaid Cleaves' Wishbones, the solid follow-up to his Broke Down CD, Todd Snider's East Nashville Blues, Van Lear Rose by Loretta Lynn, and Steve Earle's protest album The Revolution Starts Here. James McMurtry released Live in Aught Three, a concert album with one new song, the haunting "Lights Of Cheyenne."

These are just a sampling of the best of the American Roots releases of 2004. Other notables include Jon Dee Graham's The Great Battle, and Grammy-nominated releases by Buddy Miller, Ani DeFranco, and The Unbroken Circle, a tribute to the songs of the Carter Family.

Also nominated for a Grammy is Eliza s Land of Milk and Honey. One of its highlights is "Peace Call," a song discovered in a long-out-of-print Woody Guthrie songbook. The track features Mary-Chapin Carpenter, Patty Griffin and Iris DeMent trading verses with Eliza Gilkyson.

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