For sheer volume, the 25th anniversary box set, The Real Music Box, issued in 1995 by the amazing Massachusetts label, Rounder, is pretty tough to beat for value, as it includes four double-disc sets on Louisiana-based, blues, folk and bluegrass music, plus a bonus disc with a wide variety of material on it.
However, the 40th anniversary four-disc compilation, The Rounder Records Story, is highlighted here because, though it offers less music, it does provide overviews by each of the four decades, including, of course, material from the latter half of the 1990s and the 2000s, giving a different kind of range of the prodigious and diverse output of this exemplary record label.
The other attraction to this set is that, by going through the four decades, the music is intermingled, so that a bluegrass piece is followed by a zydeco tune, which then is followed by a blues song and so on. That kind of sequencing is more jarring and gives something of a different sense of adventure to the listener than music organized around a genre (this is, by no means, a big knock on The Real Music Box, which is a real pleasure to listen to, as well.)
Starting from a song from its first artist, bluegrass legend George Pegram, up through material by Robert Plant and Alison Krauss, and from the Holy Modal Rounders to Rush, and from Buckwheat Zydeco to George Thorogood, the music may be highly differentiated in sound, but there is one characteristic that spans the whole set. That is the absolute devotion of the founders of Rounder to present American "roots" music in all of its diversity and quality. Well, not quite all American--there is a song from African kora master, Alhaji Bai Konte and another from the great Jamaican reggae outfit, Culture (the albums from which these songs came were favorites of this blogger back in the early 90s, but were on cassette--CD versions are hard to come by.)
It's hard to pick out highlights, but there are some standouts, including the amazing but troubled piano James Booker and his "Classified"; the amazing The Three Pickers of Earl Scruggs, Doc Watson and Ricky Skaggs in a stirring live "Roll in My Sweet Baby's Arms"; teen sensation Mar O'Connor's "Tom and Jerry" from the mid-70s; a great "Down to the Wire" by Son Volt; the intricate lyrics of Bill Morrissey in "Birches"; Plant and Krauss's "Please Read the Letter"; anything Krauss, actually; Thorogood's popular version of "Who Do You Love"; "La Porte Dans Arriere" by D.L. Menard and the Louisiana Aces; Bela Fleck's banjo workout, "Whitewater"; the strange, but really pleasurable "Tipitina" by Professor Longhair; Charles Brown's "A Virus Called the Blues"; Linda Thompson's beautiful "Versatile Heart"; Tish Hinojosa's plaintive protest song, "Something in the Rain"; and the aforementioned Alhaji Bai Konte's "Jula Jekere" and Culture's "Babylon's Big Dog."
Again, though, there are dozens of great songs in this set of 87 tracks, but the biggest takeaway from this set for this listener was the material relating to bluegrass and Cajun and other Louisiana-based music. This is simply because these arenas of music were not familiar at all, as opposed to the blues, rock, folk and other forms represented. The quality of the performances by so many violinists, banjoists, horn players and singers is uniformly excellent and opened this blogger's eyes to large swaths of American music that had, regrettably, been unheard before.
So, kudos to Rounder for 45 years of great work and for issuing box sets that really give a nice cross-section of the immense music the label has issued over the near quarter century since its very modest start in 1970.