While not exactly bar-fight fodder, the question "What is roots music?" can still spark lively discussions. The Carrboro ArtsCenter's American Roots Series—which begins its fifth season under the passionate oversight of Tess Mangum Ocaña Friday—suggests that the answer requires a big tent. Sprawling even, as in it needs to be able to shelter blues, bluegrass, Cajun, folk, gospel, honky-tonk, old-time, rhythm & blues, the rustic end of the singer-songwriter spectrum, Sacred Steel, swing and zydeco—not to mention hopped-up hybrids of two or more of the above.
And don't forget soul music. The centerpieces of the last two Roots Series were shows featuring soul singers, one truly legendary and the other making a strong case for the title 45 years after first hitting the road. In 2006, it was Mavis Staples demonstrating roots music's breadth with soaring versions of "Will the Circle Be Unbroken," "The Weight" and "I'll Take You There." Last year was Bettye LaVette's turn to testify, with a show-stopping take on John Prine's "Souvenirs," her grandest cross-genre moment and certainly one for The ArtsCenter ages.
Ruthie Foster gets my vote for this year's crown jewel. Foster, both Texas-born and based, spins a lively but unforced mix of blues, gospel, folk, and—that's right—soul that makes her something of a poster artist for the series. And from Nappy Brown and Holly Near to Billy Joe Shaver and series regular Leon Russell, she'll be surrounded by plenty of others who'll offer their own articulate answers to that big roots question.