Most people who stick to listening to pop music radio, such as Q101 or the MIX 101.9 FM, have a stereotypical view of bluegrass music, thinking it's just annoying, old-fashioned banjo pickin' by people who look like Minnie Pearl.
But Illinois' own Alison Krauss, who seems to pick up Grammys every year for her work in the form, has done much to both modernize and popularize bluegrass music over the past decade.
Some of her work, and the ear-opening work of many other modern bluegrass artists, is collected on the new set Bluegrass Number 1's, from Rounder Records, an 18-song disc that is packaged with a bonus CD of eight additional tracks.
While, yes, bluegrass usually involves a banjo, that instrument is not always up-front in the mix. Quite often, the combination of fiddles, banjos and other classic Americana instruments and strong songwriting and harmonies create some achingly beautiful compositions, such as Laurie Lewis' "Who Will Watch the Home Place?" which appears in the CD.
Speaking of classic roots-twangin' Americana, one of the last things American icon Johnny Cash did was to send in the track selection for his album Life, which has just been released by Columbia's Legacy arm. Life is a companion piece to his themed box set released in 2000, Love, God, Murder, which featured liner notes by June Carter Cash, Bono and Quentin Tarantino.
Four days after he E-mailed the songs he wanted to appear on Life to his manager in September 2003, Johnny Cash was gone. Life includes an uplifting mix of Cash recordings.
46664: Part 1 African Prayer
46664: Part 2 Long Walk to Freedom
46664: Part 3 Amandla
Nov. 29, 2003, in Cape Town, South Africa, more than 30 artists performed before a crowd of 40,000 to launch the Nelson Mandela "46664" global initiative to fight AIDS (46664 was Mandela's prison number). Spearheaded by Eurythmics' Dave Stewart, the concert included speeches by Mandela and Bob Geldof, and featured a number of collaborative performances, with the members of Queen backing up singers on many tracks.
Warner has broken the concert up into three separate CDs, featuring 43 tracks. It's like listening to a giant, eclectic world music party to plug these discs into your CD player. But while it's entertaining just to listen to the live performances, 46664: The Event, the two-DVD set that includes all of the music and the video of the concert, is an even better buy. Not only does the video look great, but seeing the concert explains some of the short gaps and event-specific comments the artists make on the audio-only discs. It also allows a glimpse at Oprah, who was on hand sitting near Nelson Mandela.
The music throughout is largely celebratory, with healthy doses of exotic African rhythms. Disc one opens with Beyonce performing her “Crazy in Love” and Bob Geldof singing Bob Marley’s “Redemption Song.” Cat Stevens, who these days calls himself Yusuf Islam, pairs with Peter Gabriel and a choir to perform dirgelike version of his hit “Wild World” while Gabriel, Youssou N’Dour and South African pop artist Angelique Kidjo combined to offer a vibrant rendering of “In Your Eyes” before Gabriel takes centerstage to perform an emotional rendition of his homage “Biko.” Also included are songs from Paul Oakenfold, Baaba Maal Baayo, Queen and a duet by Bono and Beyonce with help from The Edge and Dave Stewart.
Disc two leads off with Bono, The Edge, Stewart and N’Dour and Abdel Wright singing the Joe Strummer classic “Long Walk To Freedom” before Mandela’s speech. That’s followed by a collage of Queen songs (including “The Show Must Go On”) and Kidjo’s uplifting worldbeat hit “Afrika.” South African star Johnny Clegg sings a couple numbers, as do Ladysmith Black Mambazo, and The Corrs turn up to pair with various artists on four tracks, including a duet with Queen’s Brian May on “Is This The World We Created?”
The third CD opens with the Eurythmics performing “Here Comes The Rain Again” and “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)” as well as pairing with N’Dour on his “7 Seconds.” Geldof turns up again to sing Nick Lowe’s “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding” (popularized by Elvis Costello). Bono and The Edge offer U2’s hit “One” with a brief nod at “Unchained Melody” before Bono joins Queen, Anastacia, Stewart and more to sing a new collaborative song in “Amandla.” Queen continues with guests Zucchero, Anastacia and more to sing a medly of “Bohemian Rhapsody/I Want It All/I Want to Break Free/Radio Ga Ga,” and “We Will Rock You” and “We Are The Champions.”
Overall, it's an uplifting series of songs and performances, which give hope that the human spirit can still rise above both national politics and personal selfishness to join together to defeat common enemies such as AIDS. As it has in many such major benefit concerts over the decades, music continues to be the thread that binds us all together — epitomized here by Jimmy Cliff and Johnny Clegg's choir-backed performance of "People," where they raise the roof singing "people, let's get together, and show our power all over the world." The melding of cultural rhythms with world-class pop music on these discs is uplifting to hear. And the DVD version of the show that allows you to feel like you were part of the crowd is definitely worth a viewing.