Bluegrass Breakout 

The Down From the Mountain tour brings rural music to the masses.

Patty Loveless's earthy mountain music embodies the renegade spirit of the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack.
  • Patty Loveless's earthy mountain music embodies the renegade spirit of the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack.

No one seems to drive a wedge between film critics like the Coen brothers. O Brother, Where Art Thou? -- the big score last year for the quirky siblings, Joel and Ethan -- has been labeled disjointed, pandering, cliché-ridden, and lowbrow by those reviewers not enamored of the Coens' unorthodox irreverence.

But even the harshest reviews of O Brother could manage nothing but good things to say about the soundtrack -- a smorgasbord of musical styles popular in Depression-era Mississippi, the setting for the film. Some went so far as to say the movie was an excuse for the music.

And it wasn't only movie buffs who took notice. The soundtrack grabbed Album of the Year at both the Grammy and CMA awards, and O Brother's traditional classic "A Man of Constant Sorrow," as sung by Union Station member Dan Tyminski, with backing vocals from Harley Allen and Pat Enright, also collected Song of the Year at the CMAs.

Such accolades gladdened the hearts of country music purists, not merely for the songs themselves, but for the triumph of substance over style. No slick productions and heavy arrangements here. No belly-button-baring "divas," no matinee idols in skin-tight jeans, and not a thing that could possibly cross over to light rock or adult-contemporary radio. O Brother was, in the eyes of many, a refutation of all the record industry's whining about how sales are lagging these days because of Internet piracy. Give us the good stuff, the traditionalists said, and we'll buy it.

And six million of them did.

To further build upon the disc's success (read: make money), a package tour was put together featuring a variety of artists associated with the project. Dubbed the Down From the Mountain tour, the show boasts throwbacks like Del McCoury, Alison Krauss, Emmylou Harris, and O Brother's greatest breakout, Ralph Stanley, the 74-year-old bluegrass legend who'd been playing banjo and singing professionally for over a half-century before finally getting a taste of the big time. The bill also includes such notables as Patty Loveless (the tour's only bankable commercial country star) and Ricky Skaggs, neither of whom played a role in the soundtrack to O Brother, Where Art Thou?

"Even though Ricky and I are not part of the soundtrack, we've been part of the music," Loveless says.

Indeed, Loveless is a natural choice to flesh out the Down From the Mountain tour. Her voice packs the same down-home punch as Stanley's, and her recent traditional country CD, Mountain Soul, drew hurrahs from those same critics who canonized O Brother. Moreover, Loveless spent the first 10 years of her life in Pike County, Kentucky, just over the rugged border from Stanley's home in Dickinson County, Virginia.

"I'm very proud to have shared the stage with him," Loveless says of Stanley. "My father would've been so proud. That's one regret I have, that my father didn't live to see me singing with Ralph Stanley."

Loveless's dad, a coal miner, died of black lung disease before Patty became a recording star.

Skaggs's presence is even more fitting than that of Loveless. Skaggs's wife is Sharon White, of the group the Whites, who contributed the Carter Family's "Keep on the Sunny Side" to the O Brother disc. Skaggs was also in Stanley's band for two years, starting when he was 17. He had been onstage with the late Bill Monroe at age six and performed on a television show hosted by Lester Flatt & Earl Scruggs a year later.

"I was a boy from the mountains who loved mountain music, learning it from mountain men," Skaggs says. "Me being in Ralph Stanley's band was like a physics student going out with Einstein for two years. I was learning with the master."

Like Loveless, Skaggs grew up in the foothills of eastern Kentucky. Cordell, Skaggs's hometown, is a hamlet in Lawrence County that can't even be found on a map because, Skaggs says, "the Cordell Post Office fell into the creek a few years ago." He says his inclusion in Down From the Mountain is the result of the promoters' desire to get more "hard bluegrass" on the bill.

"The time of O Brother actually predates bluegrass," Skaggs says. "They had traditional music covered. They wanted more straight bluegrass, so they got me and Del McCoury."

Followers of Loveless's career say there's little conflict in including her on the tour as well -- particularly on the heels of Mountain Soul, which she put out last summer, to universally positive reviews.

"If they're fans of Patty Loveless, they know I do music like this," she says. "Mountain Soul is not a bluegrass record. It's an old-time country record with acoustic instruments.

"I've been doing music on the edge [of traditional]. I've done a Ralph Stanley song ["I'll Never Grow Tired of You"] and a Claire Lynch song ["Some Morning Soon"]. I was raised on the music, and I have an understanding of the people who make it."

Down From the Mountain hopes to continue the understanding -- and appreciation -- of old-time rural music, kicked off by a hit CD as improbable as any Coen brothers plot line.


More by Steve Byrne


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