River of Song is a companion double-CD set to a four-part 1999 PBS television series of the various styles of music found along the Mississippi River, from northern Minnesota to the river's mouth in Louisiana. It has 36 complete performances that the documentary makers recorded as part of the project, encompassing Delta blues (Robert Lockwood, Jr.), Native American powwows, Cajun (D.L. Menard) and zydeco (Geno Delafose), New Orleans soul (Irma Thomas), rockabilly (Sonny Burgess), singer/songwriter folk (Greg Brown), bluegrass, gospel, polka, jazz, and less expected things like traditional Swedish, Laotian, and norteño music. There's even alternative rock, via Babes in Toyland (whose selection is frankly ill-fitting), Soul Asylum, and the Bottle Rockets. This might be better seen on film than heard all at once: it covers a full smorgasbord of American music in one go, and although in concept that might be appealing, remember that when you actually eat at smorgasbords, you don't try to sample every last damn dish in the course of one meal. The most unusual items are the Skal Club Spelmanslag's "Red-Headed Swede," with its eerie musical saw; Sonny Burgess' "T for Texas," on which he sounds far more like a genuine soul man than a cult rockabilly singer; and the Memphis Horns and Ann Peebles' "St. Louis Blues," done without a rhythm section. Little Milton, Henry Butler, Levon Helm, James Cotton, Fontella Bass, and John Hartford are some of the other recognizable names contributing to the album. If you're interested, the project also generated a book with the same title as the CD, written by Elijah Wald and John Junkerman, and published by St. Martin's Press.
AllMusic Review by Richie Unterberger
Track Listing - Disc 1
Track Listing - Disc 2