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For fans and scholars alike, the music of the Carter Family has long served as a kind of gold standard of American roots music. A trio from Appalachian Virginia, the Carters began recording in 1927. Their deft playing and close-harmony singing made them a huge commercial success, and their songs, cutting across a variety of categories — blues, parlor pop and folk balladry among them — remain the core of a classic country and bluegrass repertory. Many of the young roots-music and alt-country fans who listen to Gillian Welch and Wilco are also fervent admirers of the Carter Family catalog.
So the arrival of "The Unbroken Circle: The Musical Heritage of the Carter Family" (Dualtone), a well-deserved tribute album that features high-profile country and folk artists, is not surprising. Even just two or three of its covers of Carter Family songs will, for many listeners, justify the price of the disc. Nonetheless, the album has some telling weaknesses that stem from longheld misconceptions about the Carter Family's music.
But what's striking about many of the other singers on the album is how old they sound, too. Performances by Emmylou Harris, John Prine, Willie Nelson, George Jones, Kris Kristofferson, Del McCoury and others are uneven, varying in originality and verve. More important, though, none of these artists is under 40. Most are over 50 (though Ms. Harris is joined by children on her track). These are musicians who, in the 1970's, began the search for tradition and authenticity that continues to mark the roots revival today.
I'm much more wary of these tribute albums these days, I wonder why they so often don't work. Are they done on the fly and artists don't have the opportunity to cook up a decent version? Of course the reviewer could always be dead wrong ...
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