The black roots of American pop music are nowhere more visible than they are at the base of the country idiom. This entertaining three-CD set artfully reflects that relationship with an array of performances by black musicians from De-Ford Bailey in the 1920s to Huddie Ledbetter in the 1940s to today's Charley Pride and Cleve Francis.
Some of the choices can hardly be disputed: Ledbetter's classic "Midnight Special" and "Rock Island Line," for instance, or the James Cole String Band's picaresque 1928 recording "Bill Cheatem" ("I know a man/ Name of Cheatem/ Bought some peanuts/ and let me eat 'em"). And it's fun to hear such familiar tunes as "Corinne Corinna" (in a 1928 recording by Charlie McCoy and Bo Chatmon) and "It Makes No Difference Now" by the Supremes (Diana Ross and Gene Autry singing the same tune?) or the old Engelbert Humperdinck hit "Release Me" sung by Esther Phillips. The collection also cleverly shows the cross-pollination of white musicians influencing black. Joe Hinton, for example, muses poignantly on Willie Nelson's classic "Funny How Time Slips Away," and Joe Tex finds the wit in Roger Miller's "Half a Mind." Whether listened to from a historical perspective or a nostalgic one, this is an exemplary set of its kind. (Warner Bros.)