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Roots Music Artists Enjoyed Stellar Year Despite Drop in Album Sales

This story is part of VOA's 2003 in Review series

2003 was a year that saw things go from bad to worse for the music industry. Album sales continued to decline, dropping 29 million, or more than five percent from the U.S. sales figures for 2002. Don't take that sales slump to mean there wasn't any great music released in 2003, however. 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.

The early-January release of Failer, featuring newcomer Kathleen Edwards, singing Six O'Clock News, kicked off what turned out to be an exceptionally good year for Roots music. Also called Americana music, this mix of blues, country, gospel, folk, bluegrass, zydeco and other homegrown forms is what set the stage for rock and pop and soul. Edwards' album featured the kind of strong songwriting and singing not often found on debut albums, and invoked many comparisons to the early recordings of Grammy winner Lucinda Williams. That's not to say Williams has stopped producing great albums: Her 2003 release, World Without Tears, was a powerful album full of songs about romantic disillusion and social issues. People Talkin' is just one of the outstanding tracks on World Without Tears.

Other icons of Americana music, including folk singer Emmylou Harris, bluegrass performer Alison Krauss and rocker Robert Earl Keen also released critically acclaimed Roots albums in 2003.

Those three performers have one other thing in common: They're selling lots of records, even though most American radio stations would never play their music.

Until he died in September, Johnny Cash, hadn't been heard on country radio stations for close to 20 years. But his recent albums, with their mix of folk, rock and country, were a mainstay of programs found on public, internet, satellite and the few commercial radio stations that program Americana music.

The lack of airplay on large stations doesn't seem to bother the smaller record labels releasing Americana Music. Why? Research studies show that Roots music programs tend to attract listeners who are not only looking for more sophisticated adult music, but are more likely to purchase CDs and attend concerts than the average consumer.

Thanks to those determined to search out his music, The Man Comes Around, Cash's fourth with producer Rick Rubin, became his first gold record since the mid-1970s, and has sold more than 665,000 copies in the year since it's release.

December saw the release of a boxed set of material Johnny Cash recorded with Rick Rubin. "Unearthed" is a five-CD set, with four of the discs containing previously-unreleased material. Three are filled wtih tracks that Cash and Rubin recorded for their American CD series, but chose not to release. Another is an entirely new gospel album, and the fifth is a compilation of tracks from the previously-released Cash-Rubin collaborations. 2003 also saw CD releases from Marty Stuart and Rodney Crowell, two former sons-in-law of Johnny Cash. With Fate's Right Hand, Crowell has released what critics are calling "his strongest songs ever." That's strong praise when you consider that these same critics called his last album The Houston Kid, "Crowell's career album."

Fate's Right Hand is almost like a mid-life crisis set to music. But these are not songs of going on wild spending sprees or wrecking marriages. Instead, songs like The Man In Me look inward and tackle the difficult question of "what do I have to offer this world?"

Other solid roots releases this year include the blues sounds of Train Home by Chris Smither, and Marcia Ball's So Many Rivers, as well as Sonny Landreth's Grammy-nominated release, The Road We're On.

There were also many fine singer-songwriter releases, including Tim O'Brien's Traveler, Darrell Scott's Theatre of the Unheard, and Streets of Sin, the 16th solo album from Joe Ely.

2003 was also a good year for the bluegrass side of Americana.

After a stab at country music, The Gibson Brothers returned to bluegrass with the March release of Bonafide. Their first CD in five years was well-received, both by fans and critics. And Live from Alison Krauss and Union Station continued that band's streak of gold records. Other bluegrass releases include Rhonda Vincent's One Step Ahead, Ricky Skaggs and Kentucky Thunder Live at the Charleston Music Hall, and Hold On, We're Strummin', an all-instrumental release by Sam and Dave … Sam Bush and David Grisman, that is. This release by two old friends features nine new original songs, covers of Jethro Burns and Ralph Stanley tunes, along with what must be the first bluegrass treatment of the Issac Hayes-penned soul classic, Hold On, I'm Comin.