From old-time fiddlers to Tuvan throat singers, from blues to hindustani music to Pow Wow drumming, roots music covers a lot of ground.
In general, roots music has been passed down aurally. It's a collection of lyrics and melodies and musical styles which have been handed down from one generation to the next by listening. It's sitting at your grandfather's knee as he plays the accordion. It's listening to your mother hum Arkansas Traveler as she mixes up cornbread. It's joining in behind the brass band in the second line.
Roots music is folk music, but not those awful coffeehouse, singer-songwriter, angst-ridden songs performed by hippie wanna-bes. Roots music is real folk music. Music for the folks.
Roots music is world music.
Musicians use roots music in a veritable plethora of ways. Some strive to perpetuate a tradition intact the way The Freight Hoppers played old-time music the old-timey way or the way Brian Conway performs Irish traditional music as it has been played in Sligo for decades. Others use roots as a building block for something new. Bill Monroe borrowed from old-time and Sacred Harp singing when he defined bluegrass. Zydeco took traditional Cajun tunes and combined them with blues.
Rock bands have been keen to take pieces of roots music and meld them into their repertoire. Not only has this energized rock musicians, but it has directed rock and roll fans back to what came before. Grateful Dead fans find The Dixie Cups and Merle Haggard. Followers of Los Lobos are treated to the music of Willie Dixon. Steve Earle points listeners to The Flying Burrito Brothers who in turn point to George Jones and The Louvin Brothers.
Roots music represents the best of the past. It's been incorporated by the best of the present. From bhangra to salsa, from flamenco to klezmer, roots music offers something for everyone. If you haven't already begun the journey, it's about time you did.