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Writing on Roots

Attempting a mission statement

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Writing on Roots | PlayGround | Music Features

Take a moment to think, breath and read about folk music. What exactly is folk music? What do we talk about when we talk about roots? Tori Sparks – singer, writer, full-time artist – will take us on a journey through modern Americana. Stay tuned.

torisparks_020412_1333379911_5_.jpg Tori Sparks

My job is to write about folk, roots, blues, Americana, alt-country – those being my theoretical areas of expertise, after having released a bunch of records myself of the same genre(s). Claiming an area of musical expertise is a risky business. It’s the same idea as claiming to be a great cook. Once the words escape your lips, you’d better be able to concoct a pretty impressive soufflé, no?

Born in Chicago, and having lived in Nashville (a.k.a. “Music City”) for my whole adult life, I’ve having had the privilege to see, meet, and/or work with some of the most incredible musicians on the planet who play, basically, acoustic music.

My mom knows nothing about music as a “professional” and she still has a damn good ear for a tune. But the difference is that my experience earning my living as a musician has given me a vocabulary that allows me to talk shop, create controversy, and shine the spotlight on worthy artists who make acoustic-based music. So, whether you’re a roots music aficionado or are just making a pit stop on your journey through the genres, strap yourselves in, and away we go…

Wikipedia says: Roots music is a broad category of music including bluegrass, country music, gospel, old time music, jug bands, Appalachian folk, blues, Cajun and Native American music. The music is considered American either because it is native to the United States or because it developed there, out of foreign origins, to such a degree that it struck musicologists as something distinctly new. It is considered ‘roots music’ because it served as the basis of music later developed in the United States, including rock and roll, rhythm and blues, and jazz.”

Louis Armstrong said: “All music is folk music. I ain’t never heard no horse sing a song.” In other words, folk music is music made by folks.

"The Voice of the artist

is paramount. The lyrics,

the message, the tone,

are supposed to be

personal, and often

imperfect. The theme

are those universal

mind-benders that none

of us can seem to

figure out: love, loss,

God, politics..."

I like that. So why this obsession with gentrification? As long as you have an ear attached to each side of your head, you can typically discern for yourself: 1) Is it music? 2) Do I want to keep listening to this? 3) Does it matter if it’s Metallica or Mozart? However, because the music biz grew out of a model that revolves around radio, the people usually want to know “what kind of music is it?” Unfortunately, the response “good music” doesn’t always count, and too often, non-Top-40 type-stuff gets overlooked in favour of the latest Black Eye Peas “My Humps” type single. In other words, in order to give so-called “less commercial” genres an outlet, we - the small but mighty army of defenders of alternative musical styles - are here to represent what we call real music. Music that makes us feel something, be it BB King or the Beastie Boys. And in the case of this column, we want to concentrate on acoustic-based music, call it what you will.

I prefer to throw my lot in with Louis Armstrong over Wikipedia and say that there are no rules, per se, but here’s the basic idea à la Tori. Roots music: there’s typically a guitar or a piano in there somewhere. The artist or band usually composes his or her or their own stuff . . . or covers really old stuff (which then technically becomes a “standard”, not a cover, I guess). Think a million versions of “Summertime”. The Voice of the artist is paramount. The lyrics, the message, the tone, are supposed to be personal, and often imperfect. The theme are those universal mind-benders that none of us can seem to figure out: love, loss, God, politics . . . so If you feel like a bit of a voyeur, well, good. The band seems to be doing its job.

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