This three-CD set might not be the essential guide to American roots music; how could even a 30-CD box be the be-all and end-all of that wide category? But for either a novice looking to sample some important artists in the field from pre-World War II days all the way up to the 21st century, or for a general listener just looking to have a very varied compilation of such sounds around the house, it's a reasonable collection. The package is divided into discs covering "legends," "pioneers" (who in reality are close in stature and recognition to the "legends"), and "contemporaries" whose tracks were mostly done in the decade or so prior to this anthology's 2006 release. The 42 tracks present selections that are largely both high-quality and representative recordings by many major figures in American folk, blues, country, zydeco, Tex-Mex, and roots rock. No one disputes the importance of the Carter Family, Robert Johnson, Woody Guthrie, Hank Williams, Johnny Cash, John Lee Hooker, Dolly Parton, and Howlin' Wolf, and many of the other names (such as Jimmy Reed, Lydia Mendoza, Clifton Chenier, Elmore James, and the Flying Burrito Brothers) are only a little less important than those giants.
If some of the listeners to this set are indeed just familiarizing themselves with vintage American roots music, to their credit the compilers also include strong material by names who might not be known to some of them. The great country harmonizers the Stanley Brothers, old-time musician Dock Boggs, blueswoman Big Mama Thornton, blues harmonica player Charlie Musselwhite, "sacred steel" player Aubrey Ghent, and alt-country pioneer Jimmie Dale Gilmore are all here, for example. The songs by the bigger names are generally not among their most famous, and while just a few (Johnny Cash's "Folsom Prison Blues," Hank Williams' "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry") were famous classics, there are also obscure surprises like Hazel Dickens & Alice Gerrard's close-harmony folk gem "The One I Love Is Gone" and Freddy Fender's Spanish-language cover of Ray Charles' "What'd I Say" ("Vamos a Bailar"). The "contemporaries" disc can't help but sound weaker, if only because time has not yet enshrined the performers and material with a similar classic status. Still, several names familiar to the post-'90 alternative roots music scene put in appearances (Gillian Welch, Lucinda Williams, Ryan Adams), and room is made for some more idiosyncratic choices by the likes of the Meat Puppets, Nathaniel Mayer (who does a stark bluesy cover of John Lennon's "I Found Out"), and Chris Hillman (with a folkier take on "Eight Miles High" than the psychedelic version done by his old band the Byrds). Unfortunately, the packaging is on the slim side, with a few notes about each song that unfortunately don't always include the original recording and release dates.