They're headin' for the hills in Hollywood -- hillbillies, that is -- banjos, mandolins. Which is a way of saying that three soundtracks have arrived in record stores everywhere, a few short steps and a million miles from Eminem, all loaded with country music and all worth owning.
Of course, they've been there before -- after the era of the singing cowboys and the cavalry choruses in the Ford Westerns, I think first of Andy Griffith as Lonesome Rhodes in A Face in the Crowd -- exuberant, loud, sweaty -- wily like a weasel in a hen house and every bit as doomed. Bonnie and Clyde gave bluegrass music a new (post-Beverly Hillbillies) legitimacy with "Foggy Mountain Breakdown," while Johnny Cash was heard in the 1970 features I Walk the Line and Little Fauss and Big Halsy.
That same year, Karen Black managed to single-handedly sum up every condescending cliché regarding country fans in Five Easy Pieces: Jack Nicholson snarls at her and her Tammy Wynette record, "You play that thing one more time, I'm gonna melt it down into hairspray." Hank Williams whispered in the wind in 1971's The Last Picture Show. The following year, the clear ringing springwater tones of a banjo concealed the muddy depths in Deliverance. It hurts to imagine Jed Clampett as a poor mountaineer, gun in hand, happening upon Ned Beatty in the backwoods. Wee doggies, indeed!
1972 also saw the release of Payday, a fictionalized, embittered take on how Hank done it, which only served to show how radically our culture had changed in the eight years since George Hamilton played Williams Sr. in Your Cheatin' Heart.
And just to round it all out, eight years later, in 1980, Urban Cowboy gave the music the commercial bull ride of its life; in 1983, Tender Mercies once again restored some dignity to country, its music and its people, and the industry reciprocated by opening its doors to a wide variety of pop-country acts, retro-country acts and folk-country acts.
So here we are in the new century, and what are we hearing in these films and on their soundtracks? Stanley Brothers bluegrass, Carter Family gospel and George Jones honky-tonk. At the same time, these collections are introducing folks to a few new artists who combine and reconstruct some traditions just as they break others.
Take the soundtrack to the suspense/mystery The Gift, for example, Billy Bob Thornton's slightly fictionalized story of his own Arkansas mother, whose psychic abilities were actually strong enough to have brought her to the attention of Duke University. The CD introduces two tracks by Neko Case, a former punk drummer from the woodsy Northwest who's on her way to becoming the spokeswoman for the alt-country world. One of the cuts, "Furnace Room Lullaby," is the title track to her latest Bloodshot Records release, while the other, "Pretty Girls," is brand-new. Also featured is Willie Nelson on one wonderful solo original, "Great Divide," as is his daughter Amy Nelson, who fronts a song she wrote, "In Case We Die."
Merle Haggard contributes the title song off his new CD, If I Could Only Fly, and Hasil Adkins, Waylon Jennings and Lee Hazlewood all jump aboard. Climbing out of the primordial mists are a couple of possums -- well, one possum, anyway, George Jones, along with two Loretta Lynn cuts from her heyday in the late '60s and early '70s. In all, a very smart collection.
The soundtrack to You Can Count on Me is, in essence, an Artemis Records sampler. To be more precise, it's an E-Squared sampler by way of Artemis, which means that it's Steve Earle and his gang, coming over to sit and have a little dinner. The record contains five tracks from 1999's The Mountain, a bluegrass collaboration between Earle and the Del McCoury Band. Few folks didn't love that disc, and with good reason -- it's one of the finest country albums of the past few years -- soulful and sincere. As to whether anybody would want to hear the same tracks in another context is questionable -- in other words, if you already have The Mountain, the only reason you'd buy this disc is to hear a very fine bunch of tunes by Earle's labelmates and discoveries The V-Roys, Bap Kennedy, Marah, Cheri Knight, and a terrific unreleased version of the late Doug Sahm's "Mendocino" by 6 String Drag.
Finally, there's O Brother, Where Art Thou?, the soundtrack from the Coen Brothers' picture, which is as much a historical project as it is a collection of tunes. It's also a work of art brimming with authentic field hollers, gospel, blues, mountain music and more. It's a loving look at a crucial era in American culture and song using re-creations and original recordings.
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There's been a lot of blather here and there about the differences between pop music and folk, then and now, about country music and its various presentations. And there seem to be a lot of folk who rattle on about authenticity. While Jimmie Rodgers recorded with Louis Armstrong, so did Bing Crosby, and while Robert Johnson stood at the crossroads, Fred Astaire was "Putting On the Ritz." Which is my way of saying that it's all authentic -- even Shania Twain.
It may even be authentic to gloss over an unknowable era, like the Depression, with an informed but no less dreamy nostalgia. But I somehow doubt that a thousand Ken Burnses let loose with millions of feet of film, all nipping and trimming like Edward Scissorhands, can say any more about those times than this handful of simple songs.
The disc, produced by T-Bone Burnett, is pretty and perfect and reminds us of a time when a man picked up a new 78 rpm disc every so often with the groceries, and the family listened to both sides until they knew the two songs by heart. O Brother features the Whites performing "Keep on the Sunny Side," Ralph Stanley's bone-chilling "O Death," Alison Krauss and Gillian Welch gliding through "I'll Fly Away" (put that on your sin wagon, Dixie Chicks), and three equally perfect versions of "I Am a Man of Constant Sorrow." The soundtrack also includes possibly the saddest song ever written (along with Hank's "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry" and George Jones' "He Stopped Loving Her Today"), Governor Jimmie Davis' "You Are My Sunshine," executed with perfect up-tempo melancholy by Norman Blake.
In all, three very worthwhile collections that help recall, examine and define the very broad spectrum of country music.