They came dressed in their Sunday best on a Friday night at the Chicago Theatre except for guitarist Buddy Miller, who looked like he just climbed off a tractor after plowing the back 40. They sang about death with stolid acceptance, and praised God with a glimmer in their voices, as if in that moment they were glimpsing their journey into the hereafter. The voices were by turns charming, radiant and bloodied, from the innocence of the Peasall Sisters to the harrowing moan of Ralph Stanley.
The occasion was the Down from the Mountain tour, the first step in the commercial expansion of the "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" franchise, with its multimillion-selling soundtrack of old-timey country tunes. As cash-in tours go, this was one for the ages: a cross-section of virtuoso bluegrass musicians, mountain-soul singers and the occasional country-pop star reinvestigating her roots (Patty Loveless) that spanned three generations.
The event, organized by "O Brother" filmmakers Joel and Ethan Coen and producer T Bone Burnett, was more an all-star advertisement for a quintessentially American art form than an in-depth exploration of it.
But this evening was less about satisfying bluegrass aficionados than tempting newcomers, welcoming them into an exotic world where, as Emmylou Harris wryly stated, the Three Tenors aren't Carreras, Domingo and Pavarotti, but Duffey, Louvin and Monroe (the Country Gentlemen's John Duffey, the Louvin Brothers' Ira Louvin and bluegrass patriarch Bill Monroe).
Del McCoury belongs in that august company. His quintet performed a rousing rendition of Richard Thompson's "1952 Vincent Black Lightning" and then hollered, "All Aboard," with McCoury's voice leaping out of the firestorm of stringed instruments like an otherworldly shepherd leading his flock out of the wilderness.
Harris herself remains a singer of heart-breaking prowess, a queenlike presence on a stage where there was no place to hide any musical shortcomings. She, Loveless and Rhonda Vincent huddled around a single microphone to sing "Didn't Leave Nobody But the Baby" with haunting authority, a lullaby transformed into a mourning song. Loveless later demonstrated her daughter-of-a-coal miner roots on "You'll Never Leave Harlan Alive" as she hummed along during the instrumental passages; the music made explicit its connection to the mournful drone of Celtic fiddles and Scottish bagpipes from previous centuries.
That timeless air has always been present in the voice of Ralph Stanley, ever since he began harmonizing with his late brother Carter a half-century ago. He returned the uptempo "O Brother" hit "I Am a Man of Constant Sorrow" to its more stately Stanley Brothers incarnation, prayed for deliverance in "Angel Band," flanked by Harris and Loveless, and reprised his shattering a cappella version of "O Death." But it was with "Pretty Polly," a duet with Loveless, that the full force of Stanley's conviction became apparent.
There was nothing high, lonesome or mournful about his tone. Instead, he embodied the protagonist in an ancient murder ballad. His voice was sharp, scolding, vengeful, and it's why this music cuts so deep: There'd be no need for redemption songs if the temptation to do wrong weren't so overpowering. In the best of mountain-soul, as in life itself, there's no shortage of fallible characters longing for a better world.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times