Effectively covering the vast, ever-vibrant tapestry that is American vernacular music in just four hours is a nearly insurmountable challenge.
Effectively covering the vast, ever-vibrant tapestry that is American vernacular music in just four hours is a nearly insurmountable challenge. This documentary certainly isn't without its flaws, but American Roots Music valiantly essays the country's rich musical heritage from Native American sounds and the blues to country and bluegrass, zydeco and tejano, folk and gospel. Although it aired on PBS, American Roots Music is superior in its DVD-Video incarnation, as the two discs include six full-length bonus performances—including a wonderful vintage tape of Bob Wills & the Texas Playboys remaking the blues standard "Sitting on Top of the World" and footage of bluegrass sage Doc Watson shot especially for the film. Still, the possibilities of DVD-V aren't exploited here nearly as fully as, say, with the DVD set of Ken Burns' Jazz. But the production values are high, and Kris Kristofferson serves as the atmospherically laconic narrator. The film's faults lie in letting some commentators spin superlatives without filling in key details, even to a misleading degree (as when Bonnie Raitt, off the cuff, says that the blues "started with Son House"—what about his mentor, Charley Patton?). And some passages go on too long (such as that on Native American music) at the exclusion of some key roots revivalists (such as the Band). But it brims with priceless footage of Jimmie Rodgers, Bessie Smith, Hank Williams, the Staples Singers, Muddy Waters, Bob Dylan, and so many more. Recommended as a companion to the American Roots Music coffee-table book (Abrams) and four-CD boxed set (Palm).—BB