Ricky Skaggs (Skaggs Family)

Country musicians don't come any rootsier than Skaggs, and the best thing about his reverence for his bluegrass forebears is how entertainingly he demonstrates it. This followup to his unfortunately titled 1997 CD Bluegrass Rules! includes a dozen bluegrass tracks that perk along jauntily, with Skaggs playing mandolin in front of his Kentucky Thunder band, and Bobby Hicks, a veteran of the late Bill Monroe's Blue Grass Boys, sawing away happily on his fiddle.

A drawback of bluegrass is the tendency of songs to sound the same, but Skaggs, a 44-year-old Kentucky native, wisely mixes an array of bluegrass classics ("Pig in the Pen," "Carolina Mountain Home," "Mighty Dark to Travel") with new tunes written by himself and others. That gives a refreshing new twist to these old, hill-country tones.

Bottom Line: Invigorating celebration of bluegrass music's timelessness

Various Artists (Putumayo World Music)

Album of the week

It is common knowledge that American blues had its roots in the rhythms of Africa. Now comes this fascinating compilation celebrating that musical kinship with songs from both modern American and West African performers. As these 12 tracks nicely demonstrate, their shared heritage emerges in the rhythmically similar songs of praise and mourning found on both continents. Alongside contributions by well-known American bluesmen such as John Lee Hooker, Taj Mahal and the late Muddy Waters are tunes by less well-known but utterly original characters: Jessie Mae Hemphill, a part Choctaw guitar-playing singer and songwriter (now retired) who performed in leopard-skin body suits; Mali pop star Rokia Traoré, the well-traveled daughter of a Mali diplomat; and Eric Bibb, 1960s folksinger Leon Bibb's son, whose "Don't Ever Let Nobody Drag Your Spirit Down" is one of the album's many highlights. Then there is Mali's blind husband-wife team of Amadou and Mariam, whose entrancing vocals could enliven any American pop record.

Bottom Line: Illuminates the musical links between two far-flung worlds

Britney Spears (Jive)

This is, after all, an era in which TV series such as 90210 and Dawson's Creek dwell on the supposedly supersophisticated sex lives of teenagers. So it shouldn't be a shock that Spears, who is just 17, would release a debut album with such a suggestive title and such in-a-rush-to-grow-up tunes as "Born to Make You Happy" and "From the Bottom of My Broken Heart." These songs, which would seem inappropriately mature even if they were better written, serve Spears less well than the more teenlike "Soda Pop" and "E-Mail My Heart."

The Louisiana-born Spears attended New York City's Professional Performing Arts School and is an alumna of TV's The Mickey Mouse Club. But though she is peppy and enthusiastic, she is an unpolished singer. Even in today's pop culture, where attitude is often used to compensate for talent deficiencies, Spears could use more voice training.

Bottom Line: Not quite precocious enough

>Clarence Clemons

Bruce Springsteen's plans to tour with his old E Street Band for the first time in a decade was happy news for saxman Clarence Clemons, 57—although it may cost him some camera time. Living on Singer Island, Fla., for the past two years, Clemons has been working with his own group, the Band of Faith, but also acting occasionally on TV (Viper, Nash Bridges) and film (Blues Brothers 2000).

Was it tough adapting to acting?

No. You just carry the same energy from one genre to another. I love cooking. Cooking's one of my favorite things to do, so I use that same creative energy in cooking, acting, singing—whatever I'm doing.

When did you learn that the E Street Band might be touring again?

Bruce called me up in November, and we hung out for a few days here in Florida. He played with my band at one of the clubs, and we had such a great time, we had flashbacks of the old days.

Will you be up to four-hour shows again?

I was never up to it. Before we go out, everyone's going to be in the gym getting back in shape.

  • Contributors:
  • Ralph Novak,
  • Steve Dougherty,
  • Marisa Sandora.