Various Artists

American Roots: The Essential Album

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The extraordinary success of the soundtrack O Brother, Where Art Thou? heightened interest in roots music in general, and paved the way for compilations such as these in particular. This two-CD, 34-track set does own up to the path blazed by the film soundtrack in its brief sleeve note, and in fact includes a few songs also heard on O Brother, Where Art Thou? (though mostly in different versions). With its wide chronological span, extending from the '20s to the early '00s, and a broad stylistic focus that includes folk, bluegrass, down-home blues, and early country music, it's not a collection for specialists, particularly as most of the performers are well-known. But someone whose appetite for roots music has recently been whetted -- by watching O Brother, Where Art Thou?, say -- will find this a pretty good sampler, or a way to begin expanding into the immense library of 20th century American folk music. There are some very famous classics here in Woody Guthrie's "This Land Is Your Land," the Carter Family's "Keep on the Sunnyside," Eric Weissberg & Steve Mandell's "Dueling Banjos," Gene Autry's "You Are My Sunshine," Bill Monroe's "Blue Moon of Kentucky," Bob Dylan's "Girl from the North Country," and Lester Flatt & Earl Scruggs' "Foggy Mountain Breakdown." Just as crucially, though, there are plenty of quality cuts by artists who aren't enormously familiar to the pop audience, like the Delmore Brothers (whose "Freight Train Boogie" is a highlight), Mississippi John Hurt, Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee, the Louvin Brothers, Eva Cassidy, and Hazel Dickens. To its credit, this anthology is also more flexible and includes roots-based tracks that more purist-minded compilers probably would have ignored by the likes of Emmylou Harris, Hank Williams, Jr., the Charlie Daniels Band, and Poco. The annotation includes relevant comments about each track, but doesn't quite reveal the original release dates for all of the material.