And they sat quietly. The whole house, full. Nearly silent, applauding often, rapt through 28 songs, except when Ralph Stanley took the stage and then they all stood, and when it was all over they stood for that, too, and were not then easily quieted.
Onstage were neither drums nor amplifiers, simply a collection of vintage microphones cunningly arrayed, two black-clad men bearing cameras, and a well-orchestrated parade of musicians.
To wit, and in various combinations: John Hartford, the Fairfield Four, Alison Krauss & Union Station, the Nashville Bluegrass Band, Emmylou Harris, Gillian Welch and David Rawlings, Chris Thomas King and Colin Linden, the Cox Family, the Peasall Sisters, the Whites, and Ralph Stanley.
O, Brother Where Art Thou is the title of the next film from the brothers Coen (Fargo, Blood Simple), publicized as an epic loosely based on Homer’s Odyssey, set in 1930s Mississippi. The celluloid that will explain exactly how those things belong in the same sentence is meant to premiere in October. Along with the film will appear the inevitable soundtrack (on Mercury), produced by T Bone Burnett. Eventually, D.A. Pennebaker’s unobtrusive documentary of the evening will screen as well.
The joy was the music, of course. Actress Holly Hunter read a brief and somewhat stiff introductions at the show’s beginning and halfway point, but Hartford proved a delightfully wry, Chaplinesque master of ceremonies (and, without saying, a fine fiddler).
Artists from the soundtrack had been invited to play their song from the film, and one other that fit the evening, although the results were both more and less ordered than that. Burnett did an extraordinary job pacing the show. The venerable Fairfield Four opened the evening with a predictably glorious reading of “Po Lazarus”, and the first half was closed by the Peasall Sisters, the oldest of whom might have been ten, singing “In The Highways”; chipmunks with angel wings. Contrast and symmetry in one gesture.
One supposes the Coen Brothers asked for old-time music, but what they got came with no dust. Alan O’Bryant of the Nashville Bluegrass Band managed to make Gov. Jimmie Davis’ “You Are My Sunshine” sound of its time without forcing the mannerisms. Hartford prodded vocals from Gillian Welch on “Indian War Whoop”, teasing her, bringing her closer to the microphone as if he were a snake charmer. “That’s enough,” he said with a glint, and she stepped back, smiling.
Harris, Welch and Krauss next circled a microphone to sing Welch’s “Nobody But The Baby”, a song she introduced as part field holler, part lullaby; it is, and more. (And if anybody was wondering how best to follow up Trio II…) Welch and partner David Rawlings later offered “I Wanna Sing That Rock And Roll”, another spectacular song that proved to be a gospel number.
Late in the evening, Ralph Stanley stood alone in a spotlight to offer an a cappella reading of “O Death”. He began with such force and emotion that for a moment it seemed overwhelming; he is, after all, far from being the young man of the lyrics. Perhaps he touched something too closely during those opening lines, for he did not approach that majesty again, and it was clearly not a song he sang often.
Actor Tim Nelson camped up “In The Jailhouse Now” and made pleasantly amusing stage business of the fact that O’Bryant, who stepped up to handle the yodeling, showed him for the four-flusher he was. And the King-Linden duo’s pair of blues songs were, alas, more technique than triumph.
But no matter, for the evening itself was a triumph. The songs and performers fit naturally together, and though they came from old places, there was nothing of the museum in their presentation. Indeed, that was the evening’s chief joy, that this music — distant kin to what rides the radio — was yet so alive and vibrant.
Special mention should be made of bassist Barry Bales and mandolinist/guitarist Mike Compton, who did much of the work of a house band. Both moved effortlessly through discrete styles, making explicit the connection of blues to bluegrass (for example), and reminding one once again that the excellence of Nashville’s supporting musicians is far too often taken for granted.