Defining Roots Music in the 21st Century
“Roots” music is one of those labels that seems to be thrown around in the music industry like a wild card. Every song is made up of the same root of musical notes and rhythms, right? Well, it’s more than that. Roots music is based in a few core genres, most notably blues, country, folk, and early rhythm and blues. With that label in mind, let’s look at some folks really getting it right in the 21st century, preserving some of the most beautiful and captivating musical traditions in the world today.
Naomi Wachira – Self Titled
-The first thing you’ll hear in Wachira’s music is a soulful voice that delivers each line as if it really matters. Then you’ll notice a beautiful acoustic backing that feels perfectly blues folk. The second track “Sacred Love” might be the best summary of roots music I’ve heard in years; the song frankly could have been written in the 40s, but it still feels new and fresh. Although “Anywhere” isn’t typically of the album as a whole, it might just be my favorite; it feels warm and welcoming. This album is one that captures the soul and essence of the human experience without the gimmicks of contemporary music. You get the sense Wachira and her band could entertain fans from the 40s to the present with equal fanfare and applause.
Nathaniel Talbot – Swamp Rose and Honeysuckle Vine
-If there’s honeysuckle in the title, it’s a pretty good chance it’s going to be a roots album. This album by Nathaniel Talbot is a lot of things, but most importantly it’s an acoustic-rooted album with songs that dance around folk, Appalachian, and even bluegrass music. Even the themes are earthy and ethereal, focusing on love and life, work and the natural world. Talbot’s vocal quality is crystal clear, reminding me a bit of a high-register Randy Travis. It all comes together for an album that drips with authenticity, begging for us to sit up straight and give it a listen. This album is perfect for sipping cherry wine on the back porch, or just in the background while working through a piece of classic American literature. “River Song” may be the class of the album for its guitar work alone. Give them all a spin.
Skillet Licorice – Self Titled
-Just so that you don’t start thinking that roots has to have words, Skillet Licorice is a beautiful old time string album. The guitar and fiddle work on this album will have you picturing sights from the 1930s, even though it’s a modern recording. Although my ear is trained enough to hear what’s good, I can’t always explain what makes these compositions work so well. From the toe-tapping string work of “All I Got’s Gone” to the bluesy rag of “Babe,” the album sports a delicious assortment of different classic styles. This is a fantastic album to accompany a dinner party of lively discussion blending nicely into dancing. Seriously, match your hipster beard with some exquisite Americana music; it’s the perfect combination. Make sure you have some left in your drink before you click play on “Honeymoon Waltz,” ‘cuz friend you’re gonna need it (and feel it).
Dori Freeman – Self Titled
-One might call this album pure roots country. You can hear it in Freeman’s vocal, not just because she sings lyrics like “darlin’,” but in the actual tone of her voice. It’s lonesome and contoured. She’s got just a touch of that Dolly Parton twang, with a nice sweet finish like a good stiff drink. The opener “You Say” is the quintessential roots country song. It could have been recorded in 1950, but it’s brand new. Several of the tracks either provide minimalist instrumentation (as little as just a guitar) or standard honkytonk set up (rhythm guitar, bass, drums, and steel guitar). These classic country styles transport listeners back several decades in an instant. But this is “roots” music because it stays true to the sonic language of country music, using traditional instrumentation, chord progressions, and themes in the music.
There are obviously others writing this kind of music, but it’s important for us to support good music as we find it. Continue to support and share this kind of real music in an effort to fight against the over-produced garbage that dominates the airwaves. Consider also sharing this playlist with others who like this kind of music.