Kris Kristofferson narrates this definitive 4 episode PBS documentary series looking at the history of America’s popular music; from blues, bluegrass, Cajun through to country and gospel. Features clips of musicians such as Jimmie Rodgers, The Carter Family, Muddy Waters, BB King, Bob Wills, Hank Williams, Bill Monroe, Earl Scruggs, Mahalia Jackson, Clifton Chenier and Woody Guthrie.
With the documentary American Roots Music and its spinoffs (including a book and CD collection), producers Jim Brown and Sam Pollard clearly were influenced by the popularity of the 2000 film O Brother, Where Art Thou? and its music. You won’t be seeing Eminem and Mariah Carey here, or even Duke Ellington and Ray Charles, but rather a comprehensive, if flawed, four-part documentary examining the various cultural and ethnic folk traditions that blended together to create the rich, multi- flavored brew that is American music.
Narrated by Kris Kristofferson, each of the four parts is a little less than an hour long. Episode One offers a brief overview before detailing topics like the spread of music via Victrolas and radio, the early days of country music and the Grand Ole Opry, the rise of black gospel music, and seminal blues musicians like Son House, Mamie Smith, and Robert Johnson. Episode Two deals with western music (Gene Autry, Bob Wills), Bill Monroe and bluegrass, Hank Williams, Woody Guthrie, and more blues (Leadbelly, Sonny Boy Williamson, B.B. King). Episode Three, perhaps the best of the lot, takes on urban blues (Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf), black spirituals, and the early ’60s folk boom, while Episode Four studies Cajun, zydeco and Tex-Mex styles, along with Native American music and more.
The style is standard documentary, with interviews and photos interspersed with new and old live footage. The producers tout the presence of “rare performances” by Guthrie, Waters, Monroe, Clifton Chenier, and many others, and they’re fascinating. But for whatever reason (lack of time or maybe lack of faith in viewers’ attention spans) none is presented in its entirety. It’s a drawback that is remedied to some extent by the addition of six bonus clips (three on each DVD) that are complete, including wonderful vintage films of Western Swing master Bob Wills and the remarkable gospel singer/guitarist Sister Rosetta Tharpe. –Sam Graham