the albums that made me a roots rocker

the albums that made me a roots rocker
Holy shit what an album.

Holy shit what an album.

Before we get to Wildflowers, let me just say that Please Me Like You Want To could easily be the song that changed my world the most in terms of band dynamics. The way I look at groove stems very much from this song. I have never lost the maniacal need for simplicity which is so rich in this song. A drum machine could never sound like this.

This song from Ben Harper perfectly captures the peanut-butter-with-chocolate moment of discovery - you don't need a big ensemble to establish groove, drummers are everything, and a great song can always carry the arrangement. It is effortless.

I wept for my ex-girlfriend in an airport in Stockholm. I don't remember much why I was in Sweden, it was a family trip of some sort, but I remember just bawling in an airport full of light and windows to this song:

To this day, it breaks me up to listen that just a little bit. It proved to me the power of (as they say) 3 chords and the truth. And that's the soul of roots rock. It is all about connecting with real feelings. It is a therapy of sorts.

And then there is this.

Wildflowers went on to redefine the sound of Tom Petty and put the idea of sparseness as a production tool back in the spotlight and somehow Pitchfork only gave it 8.8 points out of 10. But it doesn't matter because that album lives on as we speak to evangelize the fusion of country and rock and folk with Petty's unique and massive ability to write hits.

You Don't Know How It Feels (released in 1994) has the obvious influence of Folk (with a Dylan-esque harmonica), Country (twangy guitar), Blues and Rock (Wurlitzer and drums) and became a massive hit; it also helped Wildflowers go on to become everyone's favorite Petty album. It is a cornerstone of the roots rock genre. It differentiates roots rock from what is now Americana; Petty has only minor hints of country whereas Americana is steeped in it.

Wildflowers is my main desert island disc without question. I like the occasional song by an Americana artist but what I really need is a roots rock channel. That's part of what my playlists are all about.

I feel very strongly that the roots rock movement became perhaps diluted with the influx of more soul and hip-hop influences in the late 90's, but although hip-hop only had a brief relationship with live musicians, and by extension, roots rock (Beastie Boys, The Pharcyde, The Roots) it was Soul that went on to become the 5th cornerstone of roots rock with bands like D'Angelo and Anthony Hamilton inheriting a respect for live feel from both the more recent roots rock movement and the previous era of live jazz.

Voodoo by D'Angelo is a total masterpiece of feel.

You could even make the argument that bands like G Love and Special Sauce and Soul Coughing set the stage for artists like D'Angelo and Hamilton with albums like the self-titled debut and Ruby Vroom (by G Love and Special Sauce, and Soul Coughing, respectively) which predate Voodoo by 6 years.

To get back to groove, another cornerstone of the roots rock genre is the interplay between bass and drums. Go back and listen to Voodoo again. I'll wait. It's amazing, right? Just 3 years later was this total bombshell:

Which is also all about the drums and bass with the added counterpoint from a string section and some decidedly countrified lead guitar. Now some would say that this is a dead genre now. We beg to differ.

Just like New York, roots rock is a state of mind.

Yeah, that's corny. It's corny by itself and then there's the Billy Joel reference. It's for effect.

I guess the only problem is that most artists basically start out as roots rockers and as they become more successful they gravitate to other genres that are both easier to sustain and more lucrative. We are the method actors of music. It sure is nice to buy a laptop and not pay a drummer. But the dank, Mo. The dank.

Take my friend Tyrone Wells. Nice chap. Talented. Great writer. He used to just gig with his acoustic guitar and it was totally roots. Now he plays with a band and it's just straight pop, mainly because he sells more records that way.  I don't think many people would trace him back to an influence like Nick Drake, and that's a shame.

You are not likely to be much of a pop writer if you don't schlep around as a roots musician for a while, but the market is not particularly worried about a long-term career for anyone and people have forgotten to give a shit. Every now and then someone is good for a song or two and we spit them out like dead popcorn. Sometimes a Wells comes along, is super talented and plays every card correctly; but have we missed out on the next Janis Joplin or the next U2 because we raised the barrier for entry so high in terms of personal brand management? Are we grooming everyone to not even hear nuance anymore because it's all getting compressed to hell? Excuse me while I polish my walking cane.


I still love the arc of a bruised and battered career, and there is no better example of that than Chris Whitley. That was a genius right there. Maybe he was the last fresh breath of roots rock that we'll ever get.

Music writer and podcaster.

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Creative Commons License