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2005 Saw Album Sales Slump but Roots Artists Rocked On

2005 was a year that saw things go from bad to worse for the music industry. Album sales continued to decline. Soundscan, the company that tracks sales of music CDs and DVDs, reported that sales of music CDs were down almost 7seven percent from 2004. Album sales in 2004 totaled 480 million. Sales through late-October 2005 were only 447 million.

That sales slump doesn't mean there wasn't great music released in 2005. You just had to listen a little harder to find it. VOA's Katherine Cole reports on the best roots music releases of the year.

Tim O'Brien fans had two reasons to cheer in 2005. The singer-songwriter simultaneously released two albums, Cornbread Nation and the Grammy-nominated Fiddlers Green. The latter is where you'll find Tim's take on the Gordon Lightfoot song, "Early Morning Rain."

Although releasing two albums at once is unconventional, that's just what Grammy nominee Tim O'Brien did in September 2005. Fiddlers Green is the more traditional of the two, with Cornbread Nation having a more electric sound. Both are full of wonderful words and music, and are good examples of what's made 2005 an exceptionally good year for roots music.

This year saw the return of Robbie Fulks. A decade ago, he burst on the scene as one of the brighter lights in alternative-country music, writing clever, sometimes dark, songs with a twang. Georgia Hard is Robbie Fulks' first release in four years. It features 15 songs about all things country: Hard times, cheating lovers, alcohol, and the open road. The album opens with "Where There's A Road," a song that, in a fairer world, would be sitting atop the country music charts.

While Robbie Fulks' Georgia Hard features new songs that flash back to the golden years of country music, Jimmie Dale Gilmore's latest is full of old time classics. Gilmore's seventh solo release, the Grammy nominated "Come On Back," was recorded as a tribute to his late father, Brian Gilmore. According to his son, the senior Gilmore "accorded one class of people an exalted level of esteem that bordered on reverence" -- musicians and songwriters. Brian Gilmore was an amateur guitarist who loved the great country songs of the 1940s and '50s, songs Jimmie Dale describes as "simple, well-crafted, unpretentious little gems from a wonderfully creative period in American commercial music." A perfect example is Ernest Tubb's "Walking The Floor Over You."

And it wasn't only the men who were releasing great roots music in 2005. The year brought strong outings from female singer-songwriters including Abigail Washburn, Uncle Earl, Mary Gauthier, and Kathleen Edwards. Eliza Gilkyson released Paradise Hotel as a follow-up to her Grammy-nominated 2004 release, Land of Milk and Honey. One standout track on Paradise Hotel is "Jedidiah 1777," based on the letters of her ancestor, Brigadier General Jedidiah Huntington, who fought with George Washington in the United States Revolutionary War.

2005 was also the year that two longtime musicmakers, Ry Cooder and Tom Russell, stretched the boundaries with albums that were more audio documentaries than traditional singer-songwriter fare. While the albums are quite different, both tell the story of the "lost" Los Angeles, California, where both men grew up.

Subtitled "Charles Bukowski And A Ballad of Lost America," Tom Russell says "Hotwalker" is a look back at his childhood and the influences that sparked him into becoming a writer, and a songwriter.

"The poetry of the Beats: [Alan] Ginsburg, [Lawrence] Ferlinghetti, and the writing of [Jack] Kerouac," he noted. "The comedy of the great Lenny Bruce. The outsider-ness and the poetry and prose of Charles Bukowski. And some of the folk [music] people like Dave Van Ronk, and [Bob] Dylan, and Ramblin' Jack, and Ian and Sylvia I grew up with. And Bakersfield music. And this whole feeling of that I got from listening to these people in the '50s and the '60s. Why don't I get that feeling any more without harboring nostalgia. I don't see it as nostalgia, I see it as a scene shift of some kind."

Tom Russell's Grapevine tells the story of migrant farm workers, part of the history of "his" Los Angeles chronicled on the 2005 release Hotwalker.

Hotwalker uses archived recordings of some of Tom Russell's influences, and new songs like "Grapevine" to tell the story of the Los Angeles that inspired him to become a writer.

Ry Cooder's Grammy-nominated Chavez Ravine is about a Mexican-American part of Los Angeles that was bulldozed off the map after being fought over by real estate developers, city planners, and the government. On the album, Cooder sets out to portray the flavor of this long lost part of town, and the culture and chaos of the post-World War II Los Angeles.

It took Ry Cooder three years to record Chavez Ravine, and the wait was worth it. This is probably the most ambitious of Ry Cooder's 25 albums, and well deserving of the Grammy nomination it received.