Americana music, a hybrid of country, folk and bluegrass, 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 festivals in towns large and small.
But despite a rabid legion of fans, and albums that receive much critical acclaim, rarely does American Roots music emerge at the top of the sales charts. That does not mean there weren't notable CDs released, however.
Blues About You Baby, from Delbert McClinton's Room To Breathe, does a good job of answering the question "What is Americana music?" But Room To Breathe isn't just one of the year's best Roots releases. Critics are calling it one of Texas-born McClinton's best CDs ever, and are predicting it will be nominated when Grammy Award time rolls around.
Unfortunately, the Grammys have no Roots trophy, so you'll likely see Delbert nominated in the Blues category. His most previous CD, Nothing Personal, took home the Best Contemporary Blues Album award in 2001.
The year started off strongly with January's release of Hooray For The Moon, the third solo CD from Jon Dee Graham.
Best known for his stint as a member of the acclaimed '80s roots-rock band The True Believers, Jon Dee Graham is part of the Austin, Texas, music community. An accomplished writer, guitarist and longtime sideman for artists including John Doe and Michelle Shocked, Graham quit the music business entirely in the mid-1990s. Luckily for us, Kelly Willis lured him out of retirement and back into performing, which led to his embarking on a solo career when he was in his late 30s. That's an advanced age to launch a solo career, but during a 2002 visit to VOA, Jon pointed out a few advantages to his late start.
"Coming to it, as you so politely put it, 'at an advanced age,' I don't bring with me a lot of the illusions or delusions that I had when I was 20," he said. "Having played behind a lot of people who were fairly successful, I've seen how things work. I also think that the stuff I have to write about is going to be interesting to intelligent people because I started writing about it after I had some actual experience in this world. And also, I don't have to worry so much about clothes and things like that."
Kelly Willis has yet to win a Grammy, but has taken home a number of Austin Music Awards. Her August release Easy will likely provide a few more. Although she first gained notice as a country singer out of Nashville, on her sixth release, Kelly's current sound is primarily acoustic. In addition to several new originals, Easy also features material from the songbooks of husband Bruce Robison, Marcia Ball and Paul Brady. Kelly Willis also chose to record the late Kirsty MacColl's Don't Play The Cowboy With Me Sonny Jim on this CD.
No look back at the year in Roots music could be complete without a mention of the return of The Flatlanders.
The Flatlanders, consisting of acclaimed songwriter's Joe Ely, Butch Hancock and Jimmie Dale Gilmore, finally released their second album this year, a mere 30 years after their debut.
Joe Ely explains what made the guys decide that now was the time for Now Again.
"Well, now it's now again. It's always been the right time, it's just never happened," he said. "In between this record and the last record, together we've released probably 50 records. It's just never quite happened this way." The Flatlanders CD, Now Again, was the number one album on the Americana Roots music chart in 2002 for a record 15 weeks. With that kind of success, it's unlikely fans will have to wait another 30 years for the next CD.
2002 will also be remembered as the year Linda Thompson returned to music. Her self-imposed exile in 1985 came in response to two issues: her divorce from guitarist and songwriter Richard Thompson, and a rare anxiety-based syndrome called hysterical dysphonia, the singer's equivalent of stage fright.
Her CD, Fashionably Late, opens with an original song Dear Mary. On it, Linda is joined by son Teddy, daughter Camilla and ex-husband Richard, a reunion that surprised most critics and fans. Fashionably Late is showing up on many critics "Best of 2002" lists and will likely be the recipient of several Grammy nominations.
Part of VOA's Yearend Series