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Music that's real -- and not just about rock stars

August 07, 2003|Robert Lloyd | Special to The Times

"Keeping Time: New Music From America's Roots" is a jewel of a documentary miniseries from the Sundance Channel -- not so much a thematic stretch for the movie-centric cable network as an acknowledgment that independent film and independent music swim in the same slightly-left-of-mainstream cultural soup.

It was the success of "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" and its deep-country soundtrack, after all, that helped make a star (relatively speaking) of latter-day old-time country singer Gillian Welch and spread the name of bluegrass legend Ralph Stanley. Both are featured in the opening episode of "Keeping Time," premiering at 7:30 tonight and continuing for the next three Thursdays.

"Roots music" is an imprecise term (all music has roots, after all), usually hitched to the overlapping fields of blues, folk, country and gospel; here it seems to mean anything that looks back more than two decades for strength and inspiration.

Series creators Gillian Grisman and Alicia Sams -- who also made the film "Grateful Dawg," about the friendship between Jerry Garcia and Grisman's father, mandolinist David Grisman -- cast a net wide enough to encompass septuagenarian blues singer T-Model Ford, the Hasidic free jazz of Andy Statman, the "indie vaudeville" of the Trachtenburg Family Slide Show Players, the punk-intense swamp rock of the Black Keys, alt-country torch singer Kelly Hogan, the gospel steel guitar of Robert Randolph, the "traditional southeastern music" of the Native American trio Ulali and a handful of singer-songwriters no rootsier than James Taylor.

The best installment -- "Buy This Record," airing Aug. 21 -- focuses on independent labels like Chicago's Bloodshot and Fat Possum, based in Oxford, Miss. (Others concern spirituality, songwriting and -- in an installment devoted almost entirely to the neoprogressive emo-bluegrass of the Disney-cute Nickel Creek -- the necessity of change within tradition.) In well-edited, visually acute short order, it limns a surprisingly thorough portrait of the lives of fringe musicians and of the devotees who help make that music possible and sometimes successful.

Still, the subject is barely scratched -- that there's nothing representing the Mexican American tradition is a woeful omission -- and four installments seems a hundred too few. But with musical television largely defined by "American Idol," the limited playlists of MTV and VH1, and public television fund-raisers steeped in boomer nostalgia, it's no small joy to find cameras turned toward music as it's played in the trenches.

"Keeping Time" is just the sort of thing to make a kid want to grow up to be a musician instead of just a pop star. More, please.


'Keeping Time'

Where: Sundance Channel

When: 7:30 tonight, continuing Thursdays through Aug. 28

Production credits: Director, Gillian Grisman; producer, Alicia Sams; executive producer, Adam Pincus

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