NEW YORK TIMES MUSIC REVIEW;
In Praise of the Lord and Fear of
the Reaper, With a Twang
By JON PARELES
Published: May 29, 2004, Saturday
The Great High Mountain Tour had enough songs about
death to rival a Metallica concert and praised the Lord nearly
as often as a church choir when it came to the Beacon
Theater on Thursday night.
The Great High Mountain Tour owes its existence to a soundtrack
auteur: T Bone Burnett,
who produced the music for ''O Brother, Where Art Thou?'' and ''Cold Mountain.'' It's a
sequel to the Down from the Mountain tour that followed ''O Brother,'' and it included songs
and musical performers from both films.
But the tour is less a tie-in than a cultural campaign for the
preservation of rural Southern
music: fiddles, mandolins, banjos, clog-dancers, hymn-singers, even a yodeler. It was a
revue that moved as briskly as a Grand Ole Opry broadcast. In the first half, long-running
groups performed; in the second, group members gathered and recombined to demonstrate
the continuity of the music. Musicians introduced one another in a fine assortment of local
The tour's stars, the bluegrass patriarch Ralph Stanley and the
folky band Alison Krauss and
Union Station, appeared on the ''O Brother'' soundtrack. At 77, Mr. Stanley still has a voice
that is unmatched for its desolate tension and reverent terror. His vocal lines, breaking
suddenly or curling bitterly up or down, are riveting and often chilling. He had to be the final
performer; after him, anyone else would sound trivial.
Ms. Krauss sang in creamy, mournful tones while joking between
songs about the bleak
lyrics; Union Station includes Dan Tyminski, who sang the ''O Brother'' theme, ''I Am a Man
of Constant Sorrow.'' The tour was also a showcase for superb musicians working with less
fanfare to maintain rural Southern styles. There was close-harmony country from the
father-and-daughters group the Whites and from the Cox Family; cozy old-time music from
Norman and Nancy Blake; stark songs and breakneck picking from the old-timey trio of
Dirk Powell, Riley Baugus and Tim Eriksen (whose craggy singing had a streak of Mr.
Stanley in it) and from the Reeltime Travelers, whose fiddler, Heidi Andrade, did some
clog-dancing on a theatrically dusty platform.
There were flashes of instrumental prowess from a 12-year-old
mandolin virtuoso, Sierra
Hull, in a duo with her older brother Cody, 15, and from Jerry Douglas, the longtime Dobro
master of Nashville. Gospel was never far away; the Nashville Bluegrass Band started its
segment with unaccompanied five-part harmony singing. The tone was set by the opener, a
group of Shape Note (or Sacred Harp) singers, continuing a rural church tradition -- with
open harmonies in blaring, nasal voices -- that dates back more than two centuries.
Inevitably the performers touted authenticity, a vexed notion.
The concert's lineup brought
together Mr. Stanley, who forged a tradition; traditionalist bands that hold on to particular
styles, and groups like Union Station and Ollabelle who play acoustic instruments but bring
new styles to old songs. Nearly all of the concert was devoted to just one aspect of rural
music: the somber, devout, mortality-haunted side.
This was an idealized rural music, one that constantly faced tests
of faith and determination
and very rarely joshed or partied. But the concert illuminated its rural existentialism like
sunlight through a stained-glass window.
Published: 05 - 29 - 2004 , Late Edition - Final , Section B ,
Column 1 , Page 7