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American Roots Music Sound Continues to Evolve in 2011

The Civil Wars' album,
The Civil Wars' album, "Barton Hollow"
Katherine Cole

In the “old days,” folk singers sang folk songs, rockers were always loud, and bluegrass never mixed with the blues or jazz. But today, you’ll find all kinds of American roots music living under the umbrella of “Americana.”

One of the big “buzz bands” of the year was The Civil Wars. Joy Williams and John Paul White may sound like they’ve been making music together for years. But in reality, the two paired during a songwriting camp not too long ago. They come from totally different parts of the country: Joy is a westerner, from Santa Cruz, California, while John Paul is from Muscle Shoals, Alabama, in the southern United States. But when they met at songwriting camp, the two realized they had a very special chemistry. It wasn’t romantic - both are married to other people. In fact, both Joy and John Paul have said in interviews that they believe their onstage partnership works so well because they aren’t a couple - singing songs about love or a “heartbreak tune” night after night would be too difficult!

The Civil Wars released their debut CD “Barton Hollow” at the start of 2011. It kicked off what turned out to be a very good year for fans of American roots music, whether they preferred the smooth sound of the Civil Wars, Abigail Washburn’s blend of American and Chinese folk traditions or anything in between - like the stark, gritty songs that Rod Picott wrote for his critically acclaimed “Welding Burns.”

Bluegrass artists also offered plenty of stellar releases in 2011, both traditional, modern, and unexpected. Actor and writer Steve Martin has incorporated the banjo into his work from the earliest days of his comedy career and is finally being respected as a premiere picker.

This year, Steve Martin and the Steep Canyon Rangers released the follow up to the 2009 Grammy-winning best bluegrass CD “The Crow.” “Rare Bird Alert” has also been nominated for that honor, and is one reason Steve and the band took home the International Bluegrass Music Association’s “Entertainer of the Year” award this year.

This was also a standout year for The Gibson Brothers. The upper New York state-based band had the number one album on "Bluegrass Unlimited" magazine’s Top 10 chart for about eight months. “Help My Brother” also claimed the top spot on the Pop Matters website’s “Best of Bluegrass 2011” list, and was also the International Bluegrass Music Association’s pick for Album of the Year.

One of the final releases of 2011 was also one of the year’s most eagerly awaited. “This One’s For Him,” is a double-disc tribute to acclaimed Texas singer-songwriter Guy Clark. Featuring performances by top roots stars including: Rodney Crowell, Joe Ely, Patty Griffin, Ray Wylie Hubbard, and James McMurtry, who chose to sing “Cold Dog Soup,” it will surely be a topic of conversation well into the new year.

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