what is roots music?
That's a good question! Roots is the latest term for a genre that has previously been known as Americana and alt-country. The word roots refers to forms of music that lie at the “root” of contemporary North American pop and rock, most notably country, blues, folk, and bluegrass.
In the 1990s, classic country music was brought back by artists like Uncle Tupelo, Neko Case, and Whiskeytown, who added elements of rock, punk, and jazz, both modernizing the genre and returning it to its beginnings. Since then, genres have been freely mixed in roots, but it’s always got some recognizable features: personal lyrics; instruments like fiddle, steel guitar, and banjo; sparse arrangements; and accessible singers whose voices recall early country and blues singers.
Many say Uncle Tupelo’s album, No Depression, one that bridges generations and styles, is the beginning of roots music. The band’s renditions of early country classics are infused with a modern rock sound that many linked to the burgeoning alt-rock scene led by Nirvana and Pearl Jam. Here’s an example of one of those songs:
Soon after, inspired by the edgier sound Uncle Tupelo used, other artists emerged. The Jayhawks, Blue Rodeo, and Whiskeytown were all part of a new movement.
Paralleling the explosion of new country, a wave of country music that centered around spectacular stage shows and pop arrangements (think Garth Brooks and Shania Twain), this new music earned the title Americana. It was music that drew on all the early forms of American music.
And since classic country artists like Loretta Lynn, Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, George Jones, and Merle Haggard were being dropped from radio playlists in favour of new country acts, they were able to find a new home – and audience – in Americana.
In 2000, Americana, now starting to be called by the broader title “roots”, reached a mainstream peak when the soundtrack to O Brother Where Art Thou was released. Featuring songs by roots artists such as Emmylou Harris, Gillian Welch, Alison Krauss, and The Stanley Brothers, it ended up reaching platinum status multiple times, starting a new craze for the genre. Since then, it has only grown in popularity, perhaps most obvious in the recent explosion of roots-pop acts like The Lumineers and Mumford and Sons.
Here in Alberta, roots artists have been at the forefront of the musical community for decades. In the 1990s, the scene started to pick up, led by songwriters such as Tim Williams, Tom Phillips, Jane Hawley, Steve Pineo, Billy Cowsill, and Steve Coffey. Many of these acts continue to be a core part of our local scene, playing at all the venues hosting Wide Cut Weekend.