Casting its documentary net even wider than Ken Burns's Jazz series, American Roots sets its
sights on more of the nation's quintessential styles and musical pioneers - affording context and
continuity for viewers turned on by the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack. In this four-hour,
soul-stirring gumbo, just about every root gets its due, including bluegrass (Ralph Stanley, Bill
Monroe); blues (B. B. King, Charley Patton, Howlin' Wolf, Muddy Waters, Robert Johnson);
country (Jimmie Rodgers, the Carter Family, Hank Williams); gospel (Mahalia Jackson, Thomas A.
Dorsey); folk (Leadbelly, Woody Guthrie, Mississippi John Hurt); Cajun and zydeco (Clifton
Chenier); Tejano (Valerio Longoria, accordion master Flaco Jimenez); and Native American (Floyd
"Red Crow" Westerman).
Celebrating these musicians and their contributions are current artists such as Bonnie Raitt, Robbie
Robertson, and Ricky Skaggs (who also plays the neo-traditional series theme song). At times, the
project threatens to buckle under the weight of its task. But producer-director Jim Brown -- whose
previous work includes the passionate The Weavers: Wasn't That a Time! -- and coproducer-editor
Sam Pollard are deft masters of subtle excavation. American Roots benefits from the duo's
command of history and resources, and their willingness to connect the past (as Greil Marcus wrote
of Harry Smith, "the old, weird America") to current artists participating in the roots revival
To cure the excerpt fever that often befalls epic
documentaries, the two-disc DVD version of the
series also allows the viewer to eye some half dozen performances in their entirety. This, in the end,
helps American Roots to pack the force of a revelation.