On her Grammy Award-winning 1999 album Press On, roots music icon June Carter Cash begins by singing "Diamonds in the Rough", an obscure song in the legendary Carter Family's extensive catalogue.
Her delivery is rough, ragged and beautiful, matched perfectly to the song's themes of grit and determination.
Throughout her lengthy career, Cash never pretended to be a songbird. Instead, she was an interpreter, her leathery voice allowing her access to the emotional heart of a lyric. Country — and later, Americana — music made room for her unconventional talent, and when she died in 2003, she was mourned not only by traditional country fans, but also by a legion of younger musicians and listeners spanning musical genres.
Columnist Larry Webster misses the point about both Cash's career and the current state of bluegrass music, a genre he seems to want to preserve in a creative vacuum, only reserved for select musicians who pass his strict litmus test.
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In many ways, Cash's place at the table of roots music foreshadowed the more inclusive direction that the music industry would eventually take. Today, a new breed of musicians is paying tribute to traditional forms of music, not by merely replicating the sounds and lyrics of days gone by, but by approaching their craft with great respect and fresh ideas.
Bluegrass musicians such as Béla Fleck, Abigail Washburn, Nickel Creek, the Carolina Chocolate Drops and Dale Ann Bradley are among those leading the way in this endeavor, and listeners young and old alike are taking note, craving songs that meld creative innovation with a deep musical heritage.
Evolution has always been the lifeblood of roots music and its songwriters and musicians.
American roots music itself was a product of such change, descended from British and Celtic ballads and African slave songs, and exchanged between blacks and whites at the height of Jim Crow in medicine shows, on the railroads and in the coal mines. As music historians Bill Malone and David Stricklin observe, "If one looks for purity in the music of the South, one searches in vain."
Without experimentation, we would not have country music, blues, jazz, rock or hip-hop.
We would not have the songs of Loretta Lynn, Robert Johnson, Nina Simone, the Beatles or Meshell Ndegeocello. In fact, we would not have bluegrass either, which traces its roots and rhythms to country, blues, jazz, gospel and old-time string band music. There would be no Bill Monroe, no Flatt and Scruggs, no Osborne Brothers. No Hazel and Alice, no Ricky Skaggs, no Alison Krauss.
True artists and music fans realize that evolution is not something to be feared or decried, but embraced — a sign that traditional music is being studied and appreciated by listeners and musicians from Nashville to Brooklyn.
To close her album, June Carter Cash selected another Carter Family song, this one more famous, one that she had sung since her childhood performing on the radio: "Will the Circle Be Unbroken." Unlike the original, her version is slow, more desolate, informed by a deep grief.
Today, that musical circle endures, unbroken — and expansive.