Music » Music Features

The Odyssey

From Bristol to O Brother, American roots music comes down from the mountain.

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The Down From the Mountain Tour, a package show spawned by the success of the Coen brothers film O Brother, Where Art Thou?, is coming to the DeSoto Civic Center on Wednesday, August 7th. Country songbird Emmylou Harris will be performing, as will bluegrass torchbearer Ricky Skaggs. But the unquestionable star of this tour is Dr. Ralph Stanley. After more than half a century of being a living legend, he's finally a celebrity -- a bona fide household word.

"When we were recording [the soundtrack], I didn't have any idea that it would be so successful," says Stanley. "But I'm sure proud of it. This old-time music was never put out where people could hear it. It was put out but not to where millions of listeners could hear it. And when they finally heard it, I think they enjoyed it."

That is an understatement based on O Brother's incredible success. According to Stanley, crowds have doubled at his festival appearances, and the Down From the Mountain Tour sells out everywhere it goes.

"I'm holding my old audience," Stanley says, "and there are just so many new people coming out."

While Stanley's point concerning the availability of mountain music, traditional gospel, and blues is well taken, it's not entirely true. Exactly 75 years ago, Ralph Peer, a city slicker from up New York way, set up his makeshift recording studio for the Victor Talking Machine Company in a small city called Bristol on the Tennessee/Virginia border, just a stone's throw from the Carolinas and within easy traveling distance from northern Georgia. He started spreading the word throughout the region that he was looking for talent. Anybody with a fiddle, banjo, or old-timey song could swing on by and "sing into a can." In fact, the crude recording studio depicted in O Brother looks positively state-of-the-art compared to descriptions of Peer's operation. A tubercular railroad brakeman named Jimmie Rodgers showed up to yodel a number or two for Peer, as did a harmony trio from Poor Valley called the Carter Family. Those recording sessions in Bristol represent the big bang of the country-music industry, and the genres it spawned -- music that reflected the wholesome values prized by middle America and that cataloged tragedies all too familiar -- would flourish as popular forms throughout the Great Depression and WWII. But by 1950, jazzy urban pop and the slick honky-tonk sounds coming out of Nashville were ascendant. When Elvis made the scene only a few years later, the old-time music of those Bristol sessions would be all but forgotten. Besides, the era of the radio and recording star was long gone. It didn't take MTV to kill it, only TV. Rock-and-roll, and all the sexy young things that made it, belonged to the television generation. The music would be a secondary consideration thereafter.

"Most people see music these days," says Chris Thomas King, the innovative New Orleans blues musician who not only contributed to the O Brother soundtrack but played the film's Robert Johnson-like character who sold his soul to the devil in exchange for musical genius. "Music is more visual than it used to be. It used to be you could smoke a joint and use your imagination when you listened to Hendrix, or whatever your musical taste was. These days, you don't really get to do that. It's all a bunch of scantily clad girls dancing to some electronic music. Radio stations don't play this kind of music -- roots music in its purest form. There are generations that have never heard this kind of music before. People haven't seen a young blues musician performing the Delta blues. We didn't even see Muddy Waters do this. We didn't see Howlin' Wolf do it. By the time we saw these guys, they were 65 years old and on their last legs, so to speak. There's no film of these guys back when they were in their 20s, when they were in their heyday. So for a young guy like myself to bring something like that to the screen, I think it's exciting. Because you just don't see that every day."

King, whose own brand of the blues has gotten him banned from blues clubs around the country because he incorporates contemporary themes and hip-hop beats into his music, is too familiar with the importance of image. He knows that if you don't fit the preconceived notion that people have of what a blues musician looks and sounds like, you don't have much of a fighting chance. He's also aware that the roots revival born of O Brother's success is more than partly the result of the Coens' unique brand of filmmaking.

"The Coen brothers weren't trying to make a music video," King says. "They were trying to make a great movie. But what they ended up doing was creating a visual for this kind of music that it hasn't had before. Nobody has filmed the crossroads and the Delta so beautifully. So people got the chance to not only hear this music but to see it as well."

The Down From the Mountain Tour

Ricky Skaggs, The Del McCoury Band, Alison Krauss, Dan Tyminski, Jerry Douglas, Emmylou Harris,

Ralph Stanley, Patty Loveless, Norman & Nancy Blake, Chris Thomas King, The Whites, The Nashville Bluegrass Band, MC Rodney Crowell,

and musical director Bob Neuwirth

The DeSoto Civic Center

Wednesday, August 7th, 7:30 p.m.

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