Sometimes a concert can get downright surreal. That was the case when Down from the Mountain—a celebration of the music from the Coen Brothers film O Brother Where Art Thou?—rolled into Atlanta’s Chastain Park. O Brother is set in the Depression-era deep South, and depicts choreographed Klansmen, one-eyed hicks, suspenders-wearing politicians, and sirens who can turn men into horny toads in a very loose take on Homer’s The Odyssey. Its soundtrack boasts a rich variety of bluegrass, country, and other vintage American music, and the music from O Brother has caused quite a sensation, garnering Grammys and almost universal accolades. The traveling show is a rotating cast of bluegrass veterans performing both music from the soundtrack and relevant material from their own deep catalogs.
In most cases, from the murder ballads to upbeat fare like “Big Rock Candy Mountain”, this is music largely born of hardship. Chastain Park Ampitheatre, on the other hand, is located in a fairly wealthy neighborhood of a fairly wealthy city. It’s a gorgeous outdoor complex that allows, even encourages, patrons to bring in food and drink, and to set up entire picnic parties while the music plays. Sometimes it’s as much of a social event as a concert, and it’s reportedly driven several artists to on-stage tirades. The night that Down from the Mountain came to town, certain disparities were just too vivid to ignore.
Picture if you will, groups pulling from their coolers not beer and sandwiches, but peeled shrimp, gourmet cheeses, expensive wines, pate, linen tablecloths, and candelabras (including, I swear to God, a silver and crystal one). Money was on casual display; what better setting to listen to songs about the Great Depression and dying in coalmines? At times, it honestly felt like Ralph Stanley, Del McCoury, and the rest of the Down from the Mountain crew were playing for a royal court (the crowd fanning itself in the humid, 90-degree heat only added to the illusion). Thankfully, darkness came before this writer’s dormant anti-consumption genes could fully activate, and I have to admit that once the sun went down, the abundance of candles looked super cool.
Within the music itself, though, certain things became readily apparent:
1) Emmylou Harris can make any song she sings on ten, maybe twenty times better;
2) If she sticks to her traditional roots, Patty Loveless may shortly rule this genre; and
3) No matter how many times you hear it, Ralph Stanley singing “O Death” never gets old.
MC’d by Rodney Crowell (who had the best seat in the house—a plush armchair on one side of the stage), the show cast brief spotlights on some of traditional music’s most talented acts. Bands constantly shared their members with other bands, and someone was always walking out to provide backing vocals. The “house” band, The Nashville Bluegrass Band, was often joined by members of Union Station, the Whites, or folks like dobro player Jerry Douglas. Before long, a chatty crowd stuffed on gourmet food was silenced by the sheer power of some songs and offering several standing ovations.
Emmylou Harris provided a strong presence, performing her own set with Kate & Anna McGarrigle for several songs, including “Talk to Me of Mendocino” and “Goin’ Back to Harlan”. Harris would stroll back on stage for several more songs, including “Didn’t Leave Nobody But the Baby” (with Alison Krauss and Patty Loveless), Crowell’s rendition of “Feet on the Ground”, and Norman & Nancy Blake’s take on the Carter Family’s “Fair and Tender Ladies”. Already recognized as a leading light in Americana for the way she championed Gram Parsons, her presence provided a consistent thread that ran through much of the show, emphasizing the common core that many of these songs share.
Modern bluesman Chris Thomas King was absolutely stunning, backed by only his acoustic guitar an upright bass, delivering smoking versions of “Hard Time Killing Floor Blues” and “John Law Burned Down the Liquor Sto’”. His set was brilliant and too short, a theme that would rear its head again and again through the night as roots luminaries flared brightly and quickly one after the other. The Del McCoury Band provided their inspired version of Richard Thompson’s “1952 Vincent Black Lightning”, a hushed take of “Get Down on Your Knees and Pray” (a spiritual song that’s spooky even in the bright light of day), and a spirited romp through “All Aboard.”
A grinning Ricky Skaggs asked the crowd how they were enjoying their bologna sandwiches before his band launched into a lively set consisting of “Uncle Pen”, “Children Go Where I Send Thee” (with the Whites), and a ferocious instrumental that pulled a whooping crowd to their feet. Patty Loveless literally stole the show with a rambunctious rendition of “Shady Grove” and the transcendent, banjo-flecked sadness of “You’ll Never Leave Harlan Alive”. Her set, recalling the dire circumstances behind much of this joyous music, was the perfect lead-in for Dr. Ralph Stanley.
Stanley’s role as the genre’s patriarch, of course, was the presence that hovered over the entire night. Stanley led off his set with the chilling “O Death”, bathed in white backlighting that made him look like a reaper ready to lead the crowd into the light. He followed that with the brand new tune “Girl from the Greenbriar Shore”. Loveless joined him for “Pretty Polly”, wailing away at the lyrics of a young girl about to be killed by her lover. Stanley closed with “I Am a Man of Constant Sorrow” (Dan Tyminski had also done his more uptempo Soggy Bottom Boys version earlier in the evening). I’d seen Stanley at a show about six months previously, when he was apparently under the weather, and it was good to see him in such fine form this night. He even did an energetic dance with Loveless during an especially lively instrumental break.
The night closed with the entire cast coming out for “Angel Band” before Stanley asked the crowd to join hands and sing along with him in a call-and-response version of “Amazing Grace”. Stanley sang the words in his trademark odd cadence, and the crowd responded with the more familiar traditional tempo, making for an interesting combination of smooth and ragged. Finishing the show that way may strike some people as a little cornball, but old-time religion’s been a cornerstone of bluegrass since Day One, and it provided a perfect ending to the night.