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Various Artists - Down From the Mountain Print E-mail
Tuesday, 23 October 2001

Various Artists
Down from the Mountain
format: DVD-Video/CD
label: Artisan Entertainment
release year: 2001
performance: 8
sound 8
reviewed by: Richard Elen

ImageIf you enjoy traditional American music and/or if you enjoyed the music from the Coen Brothers movie “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” (whether you’d been into this kind of music before or not), then this is the DVD for you (there is also a CD, with a slightly different track listing).
This film tells the story of a special concert with music from and around T-Bone Burnett’s inspired selections from “O Brother,” put on by Burnett as a tribute to the music and musicians featured in the movie, the proceeds going to the Country Music Hall of Fame. Full to the brim with stunning blues, bluegrass, folk and traditional country performances of nearly all the tunes from the movie (it’s inexplicably missing “Man of Constant Sorrow,” but includes almost everything else, including the delightful “Highways and Hedges”), plus a few more, it’s an interesting commentary on how far the modern country music you hear on the radio has moved away from its roots: here they are.

There is in fact plenty of this traditional and traditional-style, music around, and it is enjoying another of its periodic resurgences in popularity (not simply because of the movie). Apart from obvious proponents such as Alison Krauss and Gillian Welch (who, despite being born in Beverly Hills, writes and performs songs with David Rawlings that sound as if they have come straight out of the Dust Bowl era), you still won’t hear a lot of this live unless you live around Nashville or elsewhere in the region.

The show takes place at the historic Ryman Auditorium (original home of the Grand Ole Opry) in downtown Nashville, and the film begins with a limo drive into town in the company of performer Ralph Stanley. If you know Music City, you’ll pick out some of the places on the way to the Ryman, including locations on Broadway and Second Avenue. It’s an excellent lead-in, followed by equally interesting scenes from the rehearsals and from conversations held in the bowels of the Auditorium where some of the artists are awaiting to call to the stage. We see and overhear some fascinating discussions, in which we gain a fascinating insight into some of the artists. Did you know that Emmylou Harris is a great baseball fan, for example, and carries a pager (or something) around with her that keeps her up-to-date on the current scores?

Performers include The Cox Family, Fairfield Four, John Hartford, Emmylou Harris, Chris Thomas King, Alison Krauss and Union Station, Colin Linden, The Peasall Sisters, Ralph Stanley, Gillian Welch and David Rawlings, and The Whites. You’ll also catch glimpses of Holly Hunter and Billy Bob Thornton.

The performances are miked for recording and for the house PA in the traditional way: there is seldom more than one high-quality microphone on stage. The performers stand around the mike, each stepping forward to sing or play a lead line. This requires an extraordinary amount of professionalism to work, but of course all these people are consummate artists and it all comes across as natural as natural can be; the sound is exactly what it should be for a performance of this type, and it’s great.

The quality of sound, music and performance is so high throughout the disc that it is impossible to single out anyone for particular praise. Many of the songs are traditional, and those that aren’t certainly sound as if they are. Master fiddler John Hartford, who sadly passed away just before the film’s premiere over a year ago, is MC, perfect for the job.

I have only the smallest criticisms of this disc. The performances themselves are interspersed with backstage footage of the artists who have yet to perform, and regrettably at least one of these cutaways cuts into the performance itself, which I could have done without. In addition, although the disc is divided into chapters, they are fairly arbitrary and seldom allow you to go to individual performances. But apart from these little niggles, this DVD is perfect – for traditional music enthusiasts and neophytes alike. Highly recommended.

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