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'Down from the Mountain'

'Mountain' jam: 'O Brother' concert delivers more of that hot hillbilly sound

Friday, September 07, 2001

By Scott Mervis, Weekend Editor, Post-Gazette

Old Ralph Stanley probably would have bet his banjo against ya if you told him that old-time mountain music would be revived by George Clooney and a couple of Hollywood boys named Coen.

    Movie Review


RATING: Unrated, but nothing offensive.

STARRING: John Hartford, Emmylou Harris.

DIRECTORS: Nick Doob, Chris Hegedus and D.A. Pennebaker

CRITIC'S CALL: 3 stars.


Against all odds, the hillbilly soundtrack to the Coen brothers' film "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" has sold more than 2 million copies and is hanging out with Blink-182 and Destiny's Child near the Top 10 of the album charts.

And look out below, here comes the soundtrack to "Down from the Mountain," a companion piece that captures the "O Brother" musicians in a benefit concert at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville on May 24, 2000.

Before they even knew the surprising market for this music, filmmakers Nick Doob, Chris Hegedus and D.A. Pennebaker were there to document the show, preparations and backstage chatter.

We get to see Emmylou Harris rehearsing with Gillian Welch and Allison Krauss, while obsessively checking her electronic device that tracks baseball scores around the country ("God gave us baseball," she says). Executive producer T-Bone Burnett telling the gospel quintet the Fairfield Four that they're so good, they're going to stop the show after the first song (he's just about right). A pair of blues ringers -- Chris Thomas King and Colin Linden -- going for the neck with their slides. And Stanley saying of mountain music, "I don't think you can get this sound unless it's born in you."

Best of all, "Down from the Mountain" is a final testament to the brave spirit and formidable talent of John Hartford, who died of cancer in June. Hartford, acting as master of ceremonies for the concert, looks frail and shaky, but still steals the show with his mournful fiddle, his reading of "Big Rock Candy Mountain" and his way of driving the other musicians with the intensity of his eyes. He's also the comedian of the bunch, at one point saying that "dum-diddy-dum-diddy-rump-be-dum-dum -- I just don't sing that on general principle."

The mix of country, blues and bluegrass masters cover the highlights of "O Brother" (though "Man of Constant Sorrow," the movie's most animated track is curiously missing), while expanding on the theme enough to create another soundtrack's worth of music. Harris does a gorgeous "Green Pastures," Welch and David Rawlings make a country song out "I Want to Sing That Rock and Roll" and the King-Linden team changes the pace with a blues-drenched "John Law Burned Down the Liquor Store."

The musicians are so good, that for a concert full of depressing songs about sadness and death, it's all pretty upliftin'.

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