Mountain Music

August 20, 2002 at 12:00 AM EST


SINGING: Shady grove, pretty little Miss. Shady grove my darling

JEFFREY BROWN: A hot summer night in the hills of east Tennessee, the latest stop for the “Down from the Mountain” national tour, part of the most remarkable phenomenon in the recording business in recent years. The tour builds on the new popularity of old-time bluegrass and American roots music, acoustic, string-based, born in the mountains of Appalachia and the rural South, and featured in the film, “O Brother, Where Art Thou.”

SINGING: One evening as the sun went down in a jungle fire was burning

JEFFREY BROWN: A Depression era tale of three escaped convicts on the run.

SPOKESMAN: And the Grammy goes to –

JEFFREY BROWN: The film’s sound track sold more than seven million copies worldwide.

SPOKESPERSON: O Brother, Where Are Thou?

JEFFREY BROWN: In February, it was the surprise winner for best album of year beating out current pop mega stars.

SINGING: He’s in the jail house now — he’s in the jailhouse now

JEFFREY BROWN: All this for music that receives little commercial airplay and usually draws audiences in the hundreds. (singing) Now it’s heard in arenas and stadiums like the one we visited in Sevierville, Tennessee, just east of Knoxville, by crowds numbering in the thousands.

ALISON KRAUSS: We’ve walked into some of these places and gone, “Who’s playing here tonight?” It’s been a bit of a shock to see this kind of — these numbers of people coming out to see this music.

JEFFREY BROWN: Alison Krause and the other members of the group Union Station are leaders of a new generation performing this music.

SINGING: So He will know where I am sleeping — and perhaps you’ll weep for me

JEFFREY BROWN: They warmed up for the evening’s concert and talked to us on stage.

JERRY DOUGLAS: It’s a roots music. Especially in hard times for the country, or anything like that, people go back to what’s basic and what they know is true. And this music can give it to you.

ALISON KRAUSS: We always loved it, but it was one of those secrets, like Cajun music and Cape Breton fiddle music, traditional blues that people don’t get on the radio. It’s not on TV all the time. And when you have the opportunity to hear this music in such a wonderful way like they did the soundtrack for the movie, people get to see it in its true light. It’s not in a getaway scene. You get to really hear the music, and it’s such a wonderful thing for this style of music.

JEFFREY BROWN: You think it’s reached the stage of cool?

DAN TYMINSKY: Definitely. We were all geeks before. Now we’re all cool, except for her.

ALISON KRAUSS: Except for me. I’m definitely still a geek.

SINGING: I am a man of constant sorrow.

JEFFREY BROWN: In the film, “O, Brother,” actor George Clooney sings what becomes a hit song, “Man of Constant Sorrow.” But filmmaker dubbed Dan Timinsky of Union Station’s voice over Clooney’s famous face. Timinsky’s wife had a ready response.

DAN TYMINSKY: She was a big George Clooney fan before all this came about, and when I explained I would be the voice coming out of his body, she said, “Dan, that’s my fantasy!”


JEFFREY BROWN: Another young performer on the tour is Chris Thomas King of Baton Rouge.

CHRIS THOMAS KING: People are gonna pay attention to me now.

ACTOR: Sure, hop in.

JEFFREY BROWN: King himself acted in “O, Brother,” playing the part of a roving blues guitarist. He joins up with Clooney and his partners to play in a tiny radio station. In Clinton, Tennessee, recently, King’s touring bus pulled up to and dwarfed what has to be the smallest radio station in America today, 200-watt WDVX. In an era of top 40 pop programming, it’s stations like this where bluegrass, blues, and other less commercial music is heard. WDVX even has an international following via the Internet.

DJ: We welcome, Chris Thomas King.

JEFFREY BROWN: In very cramped quarters, station founder Tony Lawson was having Chris Thomas King and bass player Anthony Hardesty in for a live on-air talk and performance of music from “O, Brother.”

JEFFREY BROWN: Afterwards, I asked King how his Louisiana blues fits in with Appalachian bluegrass.

CHRIS THOMAS KING: The roots of the music of bluegrass and the roots of blues are all so intertwined, and some of the standards of bluegrass and country music are also some of the standards of blues, the roots of blues. And artists have been crossing these musics for a long time.

JEFFREY BROWN: And bringing new people to the music, king thinks, is the point of “O, Brother” and the current tour.

CHRIS THOMAS KING: I hope that people, as they discover this roots music, see there’s no tie or suit you have to wear. You don’t have to wear this– even though this is a cool Stetson hat I have on– you don’t have to wear a Stetson hat to play the blues. And so I hope the message that goes out is that it’s an all- inclusive thing. And the music on that soundtrack is who we are as Americans, I think.

JEFFREY BROWN: In fact, as King says, the music at the Down from the Mountain concert is a mix of many traditions. The banjo was originally brought over on slave ships from Africa. The fiddle is a part of the British Isle’s tradition.

SINGING: Lay down your soul at Jesus’ feet. The darkest hour is just before the dawn.

JEFFREY BROWN: And, of course, the gospel music heard throughout the old South in white and black churches. One major country and bluegrass star who grew up with all this music is Ricky Skaggs. We met up with him and his group Kentucky Thunder as they warmed for the concert in a locker room underneath the stadium.

RICKY SKAGGS: 90 percent of this whole tour is gospel music, and no one is offended by it. This is the most politically incorrect tour there is to be cool. It’s people music. It’s music for the people, it’s of the people, by the people. It’s for common people that love this music, and now other people are beginning to be common. We’re seeing the Mercedes and Jaguar crowd coming to this music, and they want it, because this music says something. It has something to say. There’s a lot of music out there today that doesn’t say anything. It just makes a bunch of roaring noise. And this music is played from the heart. It’s played from a pure place. It’s like getting a fresh drink of water when you’re really thirsty.

JEFFREY BROWN: And then, Ricky Skaggs showed us what he means.

(playing and singing)

JEFFREY BROWN: While the grownups prepared to go on, upstairs the children played their own games. This being summer, many of the musicians have brought along their kids, so the tour has the feel of a very large family reunion.

LITTLE GIRL: I can’t do that.

JEFFREY BROWN: The one that is on the move constantly, traveling in a caravan of buses, the patriarch of this family and its music, is Ralph Stanley.

RALPH STANLEY SINGING: O, Death — wont you spare me over til another year…

JEFFREY BROWN: The haunting voice singing the dirge “O, Death” has been a Stanley trademark since he began performing with his brother Carter in the 1940s. The Stanley brothers became old- time music legends, and after Carter died in 1966, Ralph carried on. It wasn’t always easy.

RALPH STANLEY: I went to a few places to play a show, and if I hadn’t have had a crowd, I couldn’t have bought gas to get back home.

JEFFREY BROWN: Couldn’t have bought gas to get home?

RALPH STANLEY: Right. That’s sort of lean days. Now a lot of the young musicians you see today that’s riding in these air-conditioned buses, I don’t know how long they would have lasted. But I’ve been through it all.

RALPH STANLEY: I helped sing this song on oh, brother where art thou? It was the last song in the movie.

JEFFREY BROWN: Today, with the success of “O, Brother,” Ralph Stanley has achieved new fame. He won his first Grammy Award this year, at age 75.

RALPH STANLEY: My latest sun is sinking fast my race is nearly run.

JEFFREY BROWN: Fittingly it is he is his who leads the musicians of the Down from the Mountain tour in a closing number — an old Stanley brothers classic.