O Brother, Where Art Thou? was released just over ten years ago. The movie- and more so, the soundtrack recording- gave bluegrass music a possibly unprecedented ‘bump’- arguably more than even Bonnie and Clyde and Deliverance did a generation previously. This despite the lack of ‘true’ bluegrass on the album: excepting the Soggy Bottom Boy and Ralph Stanley/Stanley Brothers tracks, most of the music has only a passing resemblance to bluegrass and would perhaps be better described as old-time country music, or as I prefer to call it within its context, acoustiblue.
For those of us who listen to, write about, and present bluegrass music, the O Brother impact was obvious and immediate. All of a sudden, bluegrass was hip. People were interested in the music, seeking it out in record numbers. Every magazine ran a feature on Alison Krauss, Emmylou Harris, or Gillian Welch- more often, all three. Ralph Stanley was everywhere. Copycat compilations popped up- some terrific, most rather dodgy. Down from the Mountain hit the road, and in general, bluegrass concert and festival attendance appeared to climb- at least in my part of the world. Everything was pretty darn good for a while there.
Of course, the O Brother bubble only lasted until the next media cycle started. Other fads took its place and we here in Red Deer started to notice declining concert attendance even as the quality of the presented performances remained strong and even improved. We anticipated it happening, and despite concerted efforts, couldn’t find a way to combat it.
Like those who squander the riches of an oil boom or a high-flying economy, we crossed our fingers, hoping for the next O Brother to come along, promising all the while to be better prepared this time. For a few weeks there was hope that the Cold Mountain soundtrack might help things out a bit, continue the momentum, but that didn’t happen. The film and accompanying soundtrack failed to provide a similar bump, notwithstanding the great talent that it gathered- Tim O’Brien, Riley Baugus, Alison Krauss, Dirk Powell and such- but in the end the album just wasn’t that interesting, paling in comparison to the album Songs from the Mountain, previously released by O’Brien, Powell, and John Herrmann.
Which brings me to Winter’s Bone. For the most part, it is unanimous- it is a great movie with wonderful performances that capture the character and people of the modern Ozarks. It is well deserving of one of ten (really, ten?!) best picture Oscar nominations, as is the lead actress Jennifer Lawrence and the down-right scary John Hawkes as Teardrop.
I heard of the movie when the ‘pre-release’ buzz started this past summer. I searched out the Daniel Woodrell novel and found it entirely engrossing, and rented the movie the first time I saw it on a local shelf. I watched the movie the one time more than a month ago- and wasn’t taking notes- but thoroughly enjoyed it. I didn’t really notice the music in the movie until the scene where Ree interrupts a kitchen picking party- the voice I now know as Marideth Sisco’s sliced through me- am I remembering correctly that she was singing “High on a Mountain”?- and I started paying a little closer attention to the soundtrack. Later that evening, I downloaded Winter’s Bone’s soundtrack.
The album has followed me from home to truck to highway to office for the past month, and I’ve enjoyed its less-than-polished music as much- and probably more than- as I did the O Brother soundtrack. Where that album- masterful creation that it was with terrific and timeless performances by favourite Americana artists- in retrospect seems contrived (and how could it not be, given the cinematic thread?) and polished bringing together those that, in most cases, wouldn’t otherwise perform together in the studio, Winter’s Bone sounds more natural, more organic. The soundtrack’s compilers obviously worked just as intently as T. Bone’s crew did with O Brother. But the resulting atmosphere is as different as the movies are. Winter’s Bone is a brutal movie, although not quite as hard-hitting as Woodrell’s novel, and deserves a soundtrack just as sparse and honest.
Little is to be found about the Winter’s Bone soundtrack. Outside of Stephen M. Deusner’s discussion with Marideth Sisco on The 9513 Blog (http://tinyurl.com/4nr8rf8) I haven’t encountered much that is giving the soundtrack its due. While one wouldn’t expect the soundtrack to an art-house movie to give the same boost to bluegrass and traditional music as O Brother did, it would have been nice. This is a wonderful album, more tied to the music bluegrass lovers would appreciate than even the O Brother soundtrack was.
In Deusner’s piece, the point is clearly made by Sisco that the Ozarks are a tough place to live, and the music of the area reflects that through sad ballads, songs that have been ‘tinkered’ with by singers such as Sisco through the centuries. Blackberry Winter, a regional Ozark band according to Sisco, turn in brilliant performances, as does Sisco- in her words, “that old lady singing songs.” Traditional songs including “Rain and Snow” and “Fair and Tender Ladies” are revised to fit the plot of the movie, allowing the soundtrack recording to delve into places- such as the motivations of Jessup Dolly- that the movie doesn’t fully explore. Billy Ward’s “Man on the Run” and John Hawkes’ “Bred and Buttered” (utilizing one of Ree’s favoured expressions) provide additional narrative through song. White River Music Co.’s “Out of Sight” provides a timely honky-tonk interlude that stands on its own as a darn good trucking song.
In my opinion, it is a brilliant soundtrack, one that adds to the memory of film it accompanies. When I listen to it, select scenes from the movie flicker back to me and I appreciate it- the book, the movie, and the soundtrack- all the more with every listen. Again, like O Brother, the music isn’t exactly bluegrass. But, it is close enough to be appreciated by those who love the music. Unfortunately, for those of us waiting for the next O Brother bluegrass bump, we’ll have to find it elsewhere. I’ve read about an upcoming Bill Monroe film that might do it. Again, fingers are crossed.
But- until then- do yourself a favour and seek out Winter’s Bone: Music from the Motion Picture and take a read of the piece on the 9513 as it will add to your appreciation of the process undertaken to make this music so real, so tied to the images and story captured in the movie.