Since American Roots music is difficult to define, it might be easier to just let you listen to some of the year's best … like Robert Plant's Band of Joy. His latest album finds the 61-year old singer mixing old time country and bluegrass sounds with the blues on songs like Richard and Linda Thompson's "House of Cards."
Band of Joy earned Plant two Grammy nominations. It sits atop many critics' countdown of the best albums of 2010, thanks to great songs, great singing, and great playing by musicians including Patty Griffin, Darrell Scott, and co-producer Buddy Miller.
Patty and Darrell also released fine roots CDs this year. Recorded inside Nashville's Downtown Presbyterian Church, Downtown Church is a record that Patty Griffin says explores her feelings about religion and faith. It's home to two new original songs, and traditional gospel tunes like "Move Up."
Patty Griffin's Downtown Church is another that's popping up on many Top 10 lists of the year's best Roots albums.
American Roots music is the mix of rock, country, gospel, folk, bluegrass, and the blues with other homegrown styles that set the stage for today's rock and pop and soul. Some Roots music, like a few songs by Patty Griffin and Robert Plant songs, are performed by bands. But Grammy winner Tim O'Brien's 13th solo record Chicken and Egg shows it doesn't have to be that way. This highly-praised Roots release is home to songs mixing bluegrass, folks, rockabilly, and celtic traditions. One of the tracks, "The Sun Jumped Up" finds Tim putting a new melody to lyrics written by folk music icon Woody Guthrie.
Chicken and Egg is Tim O'Brien's newest CD, and it doesn't stray from what we've come to expect from this stellar singer-songwriter-instrumentalist. Also releasing strong singer-songwriter CDs this year were Ray Wylie Hubbard, Kevin Welch, Elvis Costello, and Elizabeth Cook. Bands including The Punch Brothers, and The Incredible String Dusters were also busy this year.
Another 2010 release that is sure to be remembered is You Are Not Alone by Mavis Staples, 71. It comes 50 years into a career that started with the family band The Staple Singers. Over the years, the group became more than just a band - they became a national voice for the United States civil rights movement. Produced by Wilco's Jeff Tweedy, You Are Not Alone is the singer's 13th album. It is a mix of traditional songs, and interpretations of tunes by some of America's finest songwriters, including such Randy Newman and John Fogerty, along with Mavis' late father, Pops Staples.
One of the last releases of 2010 gives us a taste of what's to come in 2011. In late November, Paul Simon gave us "Getting Ready for Christmas Day." The song chugs along on a base made up of bluesy acoustic guitar, hand claps and foot stomps, with samples of 1940s preacher-slash-gospel singer-slash political activist, the Reverend J.M. Gates. Titled So Beautiful or So What, The new Paul Simon album is due next spring, and early reports say it's his best work in 20 years.