Various Artists – The Art of Old-Time Mountain Music

Various Artists
The Art of Old-Time Mountain Music

Although it may not have had the ripple effect that some had hoped for (and others, at least country music radio station programmers, feared), the unprecedented success of the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack truly had to count as one of the oddest events in the history of popular music. With country music radio having never been more bankrupt of talent, who could have possibly predicted that such an oft-ridiculed and verifiably hickish music could find such a truly immense audience? How could hat-wearing hacks like Tim McGraw and Toby Keith be bumped from the top of the charts by something so distinctively country, something so real? Who would have thought that the banjo would have the status of a novelty instrument lifted off of it to the point where it could be seen rightfully as the tool of an extremely talented artist? And although it wasn’t packed with the most representative excerpts from the genre, as the chosen artists were modern artists who were entirely more polished than the actual folk artists who performed and lived with the music, the fact that true old-time music – the music that trickled down through the traditions of the old world into the secluded regions of the rural and mountainous South – was literally selling in the millions to people who never would have given the music the time of day only a few months before. No doubt, it must have seemed strange for the good folks at Rounder Records, the label that has done more to preserve in sound the musical culture of the world than almost anyone outside of Smithsonian/Folkways. As such, The Art of Old-Time Mountain Music, part of Rounder’s Heritage Series should pique the interest of anyone who can’t get enough of the real stuff.
First of all, it’s important to note that no one disc could ever provide a comprehensive view of the music that falls under the umbrella of “Old-Time Music,” and this collection is no exception to that. With hundreds of genres and sub-genres separated by slight differences in intonations and differing shades of tonal texture, there are nearly as many forms of Appalachian folk music as there are performers, which is in effect to say that every good folk artist is distinctive and largely beyond easy categorization. That fact is on display through the set’s 28 tracks.
From the amazingly undulating piano arrangement of “Old Molly Hare,” done with such a fluidity of playing by Haywood Blevins that it sounds like a hammered dulcimer, the true color of obscure artistry is the uniting thread underlying the album’s mix and match of eras and styles. Of equal interest is Joe & Odell Thompson’s “Black Eyed Daisy,” a fairly rare example of African-American square dance music, and Dorothy Rorick’s eerie a cappella rendition of the classic “The House Carpenter.” Uncle Dave Macon and Sam McGee’s “Go, On, Nora Lee” makes an appearance and is a fairly good example of his hoop-and-hollar banjo style, but similar songs are literally scattered through his recorded catalogue. And just for the O Brother crowd is a rendition of the song for which Ralph Stanley won a Grammy, with another a cappella variant of the startling “Oh Death” performed balefully by Lloyd Chandler, here titled “A Conversation with Death.”
Still, some selections are somewhat baffling. Glenn Ohrlin’s “The High Toned Dance” is a humorously and expertly rendered cowboy ballad but has little or nothing in common with most “mountain” music. Similar is Fields Ward’s “Bury Me Not on the Lone Prairie,” an appropriately bittersweet ballad from the Ozarks. It’s also a bit odd that contemporary artists Bruce Molsky and Big Hoedown are dropped in amongst artists mostly born in the first two decades of the 20th century, although the example that they provide of the difference between the nasally old-time vocal style and the more modernly polished style is worthwhile. Further, although it’s difficult to quibble with any of the selections of fiddle tunes, the set is weighed a bit too heavily in their favor, disproportionately giving them preference over all of the other styles of Appalachian folk performance.
Most likely, authentic mountain music has had its day in the sun and will fade back into the possession of the audience that had supported it since for as long as it has been performed commercially, leaving the O Brother discs to turn up at yard sales and used CD bins. Still, it’s great that a few more people are being exposed to the genuine music of the rural South, as years of lukewarm country-pop poseurs has tainted our collective memory of just what the music and the culture represented. And despite falling short of reaching a truly unreachable goal and featuring a few too many fiddle tunes, you couldn’t find a more authentic collection of mountain music on the market.