Winter's Bone: Music From the Motion Picture Performed Live Last Night at Mesa Arts Center, 6-8-2011

Winter's Bone- Music from the Film Performed Live
Mesa Arts Center
June 8, 2011
Americana is a funny genre. It's not fair to call every dude or lady in cowboy boots a poser -- and, seriously, in 2011 the word poser sounds awfully outdated -- but it does seem that the acoustic guitar-wielding troubadour stance is one easily adopted by musicians who want their songs to seem world-weary, worn in, and real. I think authentic is the word I'm reaching for.

Authenticity is a tricky thing. It doesn't come from being old, necessarily, or being from the sticks, or from any number of other external qualifiers; it comes from having heart, real heart, and from singing your songs with the kind of conviction that can't be faked.

The musicians of Blackberry Winter, who performed music from the motion picture Winter's Bone last night at Mesa Arts Center, are most certainly authentic.

They are up there in years, too, and legitimately from "the sticks" -- the Ozark Mountains, specifically --  but their power and mastery of the American folk-form has a lot less to do with these qualifications than it does their honest-to-God earnestness, the astonishingly genuine approach to singing songs about, inspired by, and actually of the mountain range they call home.

Winter's Bone is not a cheery film. It's a dark, bleak film. It's brutal and unflinching, drawn from Daniel Woodrell's book of the same name. Woodrell, like the musicians who make up Blackberry Winter (singer Marideth Sisco, bassist/vocalist Tedi May, Bo Brown on dorbo, mandolin, guitar and vocals, banjoist/singer Van Colbert, washboard/percussionist Linda Stoffel, and guitarist Dennis Crider), comes from the Ozarks, and his take on the place is not that of an outsider. Ree Dolly, the young protagonist of the film, is thrust into an awful situation; with the bank closing in on her home, she has to present her fugitive father to the authorities.

Her resulting quest reveals a festering underbelly of violence and meth in the Ozark Hills. So, yeah, as I said earlier, it's not one to put on for the kids.

Yet, despite the darkness of the film, it is beautiful. Director Debra Granick doesn't paint the people of the Ozarks as freaks, and brings to light the fierce resourcefulness of the people in Wodrell's world. The music of the film does much to illustrate this strange beauty.

Removed from the movie, the music of Blackberry Winter stood on its own, both recalling the themes of the film and allowing the artists to move into more lighthearted areas. Sisco opened with "Missouri Waltz," the haunting song that opens the soundtrack. Unaccompanied, her voice filled the Piper Repertory, a kind of soothing, weary sound. The crowd hushed immediately.

Over the next two hours, the six piece band shared songs from the soundtrack, folk standards (and songs not so "standard"), songs from the group's upcoming album, and jokes, stories and Ozark slang like "pert' near" and banjo pronounced as "banjer."

"We're so tickled to be here," Sisco said to the audience. "We feel so blessed to be here."

Sisco explained the particulars of the group's performance: Crider finger picked the guitar, because the group "wasn't Appalachian" and "can't afford picks," while Colbert employed a two finger claw style picking on the banjo.

The insights were nice, but the songs were strong enough to not need them. "Fair and Tender Ladies" and "High on the Mountain" from the soundtrack were given beautiful readings, and the group explored a wide range of songs by other artists. Sisco voiced the plight of the Ozark meth problem (a problem everywhere, she noted) with Buffy Sainte-Marie's "Co'dine." It was a harrowing moment, with the song detailing the pains of addiction. Colbert did a fiery version of "Days of '49," and Sisco led the band through a darkly funny take on June Carter's "Big Yellow Peaches," a "nonsense song and a murder ballad," as she described it.

Leading into Tom Waits' "A House Where No Body Lives," Sisco explained how a friend of hers once explained that Sisco sang "folk songs," and that the Waits song was a "blues song." Sisco didn't see much of a difference, and honestly, who could care? The song was deeply moving. Sisco's voice couldn't be more different than Waits' raspy growl, but it made for a wonderful contrast.

Songs from the group's upcoming record were just as impressive. "Use It Up," about a father who was "green" when it just meant the pastures, shared the joys of responsibly managing limited resources, and "Motherland" recounted the dregs of living in cities, with endless walls of concrete. The group had hoped to have the album ready in time for tour, but noted that it would be available on CD Baby and iTunes "any day now."

The group closed out their evening with a hushed reading of "Farther Along" from the Winter's Bone soundtrack. "It's located on page 127 of your hymnal," Brown joked. It's no wonder their next set takes place at a church in Austin.

I don't think the members of Blackberry Winter spend much time considering what's "authentic" or otherwise, but that's why the band's performance was so stunning. There's a real freedom to simply doing what comes naturally, and Blackberry Winter's performance was honest, unpretentious and wonderful.

Set List:

"Missouri Waltz"
"High on the Mountain"
"Palace Grand"
"Over the Mountain"
"Use It Up"
"Big Yellow Peaches"
"Sing It Straight From the Heart"
"Your Long Journey"
"Back in the Hills"
"Pretty Bird"
"Fair and Tender Ladies"
"House Where Nobody Lives"
"Broken Glass"
"There is a Time"
"Small Town" *
"Days of 49"
"Rain and Snow"
"Who Will Watch the Home Place"
"These Ozark Hills"
"Farther Along"

*Not entirely sure the name of this song.

Critic's Notebook:

Last Night:
Blackberry Winter at Mesa Arts Center

The Crowd: Older; the kind of folks who have been into Americana for a long time and probably have a story or two worth sharing with younger folks into the genre.

Better Than: Committing suicide to the O Brother Where Art Thou soundtrack.

Overheard: "You guys should have hit Tucson; lots of college kids and old hippies who would be into this."

Random Notebook Dump: Nothing of interest, but the world "beautiful" is periodically scrawled on several pages.

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Jason P. Woodbury is a music and pop-culture writer based in Phoenix. He is a regular contributor to the music blog Aquarium Drunkard and co-host of the Transmissions podcast.