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Toward a redefinition of roots music

At SXSW 2005, Otis Taylor questioned his own marketing limitations during a race and music panel. Taylor wondered why such musicians as Bob Dylan are considered singer-songwriters and yet Taylor -- as a Negro who sometimes also fuses aspects of the African-American tradition into his work -- is automatically called a "blues" act, even when crafting songs similar to Dylan's. Some recently received CDs by Southern artists -- some songwriters, others also interpreters -- brought this issue to mind again. The problem of definition really ought to be external to music, especially since the relative strength of these artists lies in the power of a song well sung.

James Luther Dickinson is amongst the elite group of producer-musicians beloved by the audio cognoscenti (aka rock snobs) but who barely register in the average person's consciousness. Even to the hip, this Memphis legend has been primarily celebrated as a producer -- of Big Star, the Replacements, et al. -- and until now had released only two solo albums in 34 years: Dixie Fried (1972) and Free Beer Tomorrow (2002).

Fortunately, the burgeoning success of his sons' band, the North Mississippi Allstars, has brought renewed attention to this master of roots music. As with his previous works, the palette of Dickinson's deep Southern aesthetic ranges wide on his third album. From samba ("Samba de Orfeo") and boogie ("Hadacol Boogie") to Memphis groove ("Love Bone") and country-rock ("Somewhere Down the Road"), Jungle Jim and the Voodoo Tiger (Memphis International;***1/2) is an amusing and well-versed romp through 20th-century genres that sprang from the Southland.

With Dickinson's wild growl intact, some songs on Jungle Jim -- like "Red Neck, Blue Collar" and "Truck Drivin' Man" -- might even lure the unsuspecting buyer looking for something from the current crop of "Redneck Revolution" artists. Best of all, Dickinson pays homage to the enduring Muscle Shoals Sound by covering that area's most lamented and underrated R&B great, the late Eddie Hinton, with "Can't Beat the Kid (Part 2)." The musicianship matches the quality of songs, as Alvin Youngblood Hart and Dickson offspring Luther and Cody guest.

Speaking of Big Star, Winston-Salem singer-songwriter Jeffrey Dean Foster's music sometimes recalls the highs of that band -- or particularly, Alex Chilton's solo efforts. However, the weaker passages on Foster's Million Star Hotel (Angel Skull;**1/2) invoke Wilco's ongoing stranglehold on roots rock -- reedy voice, digital glimmer, sub-Crazy Horse shuffle and all. Atmospherics a la Sparklehorse and Mercury Rev also surface.

As disc opener "Lily of the Highway" shows, these formulas are all well and good (and Foster's '80s band, the Right Profile, anticipated some of 'em); but what's next for Americana? It seems we've been stuck in middle-of-the-road mode for so long that one hopes some fearless artist will emerge from this scene with a radical move that troubles the roots cul-de-sac. That said, about half of Foster's tracks here are quite sparkle-pretty ("All I Do Is Dream," "Long Gone Sailor") or at least serviceable (the dreadfully titled "The Summer of the Son of Sam"). Returning to the Memphis mystique, "Little Priest" brings the Chilton-esque bite, and it's here where Foster's soul as an artist is the most indelible.

One guy who who has the opposite of the Wilco-style reedy, alt-country voice is John Rich, who has the heart and soul of an Eddie Hinton, although the jury's still out on what Rich does with it. However, as one half of Big & Rich -- aka the daring duo that bum-rushed Nashvegas -- this former Music Row automaton is to be feted for his continuing assault on country music's status quo and his proselytizing for more diversity in roots music. His solo debut, Underneath the Same Moon (BNA/Sony Legacy;**1/2), makes clear that the sort of mournful hopefulness in Foster's music is not Rich's area (its dreamy title notwithstanding). The title track's boombastic sentiment prevails; Rich was in Lonestar, after all. Still, the clear twang, blues slide, country gospel and Celtic flourishes are welcome, as Rich's self-produced disc attempts to reconcile chart-savvy and a broader definition of roots than the mainstream readily allows. Don't miss "New Jerusalem."

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