Winter's Bone, the 2010 film adapted from Daniel Woodrell's 2006 book of the same name, tells the story of Ree Dolly, who must navigate the treacherous, meth-ruined landscape of the Ozark Mountains in Missouri, in search of her erstwhile father, Jessup. The bank is closing in on the home she tends there, with her catatonic mother and two young siblings, and she has to present her father (or at least his remains) to the authorities to appease them and save her home.
Director Debra Granik's vision of the Ozarks is fraught with peril, but paints the people there — farmers, meth dealers, and users — in an honest, nearly sympathetic light.
The film's soundtrack echoes Dolly's struggle. The score comes courtesy of Dickon Hinchliffe, formerly of English band Tindersticks, and the official soundtrack, Winter's Bone (Music from the Motion Picture), features songs by a cast of Ozark natives, including Marideth Sisco, a former teacher, radio host, and author performing traditional Ozark Mountain songs.
Sisco and some friends — Dennis Crider, Bo Brown, Van Colbert, Rick Reding, Billy Ward, Tedi May, and Linda Stoffel — have hosted a weekly music night for the past 25 years. Granik approached the group after author Woodrell, who lives nearby, suggested she listen to them while scouting locations.
"They wanted to hear some Ozark Mountain singing," Sisco says from her home in the Ozarks, slightly distracted by hurricane reports coming out of Joplin. "[Woodrell] said, 'I think I know where there's some.'"
Granik asked them whether they would be interested in doing some music for the movie.
"[I said] I'd be happy to record them. She said, 'No, we've written a scene in the movie for you,' and I said, 'Oh, dear.'"
The soundtrack has earned nearly as much acclaim as the film, suggesting there's a wider audience for the traditional folk sounds the group created. Sisco and friends decided it would be a good idea to take "the band" on tour, unofficially dubbing the whole thing "The Amazing Geriatric Hillbilly Tour."
"People who know us say, 'Well, this is really wonderful, but aren't you too old for this?'" Sisco laughs. "We say, 'Well, yeah,' but when are we going to get asked again?"
Sisco's own view of the Ozarks differs from Woodrell's, and the tenderness she feels for the people there comes across in the film's music, especially her solo take on "Missouri Waltz," in which she's accompanied only by insects chirping and the wind rustling.
"I don't know that [Woodrell's perspective is] materially wrong," Sisco says. "[But] I tend to have a kinder view of most of these folks. He's a little . . . I don't think he likes these folks very much. And that's his business; that's his prerogative. As far as the happenings in the hills, I think that's portrayed accurately. I don't have any qualms with that."
The "happenings" Sisco speaks of refer mostly to the meth trade the film devotes a considerable amount of time exploring.
"Nobody thinks meth is a good thing, [but] whether it's the moonshine from a long time ago or the marijuana in between or the meth now, if you're poor enough, what you call that is 'economic development.' You have to make it somehow. That, unfortunately, is a way that opened up."
Despite the crime, she says, the people of the Ozarks are "never far from the bottom line: making something out of nothing." The pride that comes from doing so comes across in each song, the sound of both troubles and the strength to create joyful art.
"What happened in the Ozarks was that people who couldn't even get along with each other well enough in Appalachia came out west trying to find the new frontier, and they got here to the Ozarks and they stopped. They dug in their heels and said, 'We're not going any farther. This looks like home; we're going to make it sacred.' And they did," Sisco says. "Whatever hard times you had . . . Even those who leave here only make it long enough to make enough money to come home."