As the liner notes to The Rough Guide freely admit, the Appalachians stretch across a full eighteen states along the Eastern United States. That’s a lot of territory - and a lot of potential styles to cover. The Rough Guide series seems to used this sort of thing, though, having released introductions to the music of areas ranging from the Alps to the Himalayas.
An initial inclination might be to dismiss this collection as yet another O Brother Where Art Thou? clone. While the timing certainly doesn’t hurt, The Rough Guide to the Music of the Appalachians is a bit more specific than the Coen Brothers’ collection of Depression-era Americana. The Appalachians still have pockets where the language isn’t that far removed from Elizabethan English, and where musical styles still swear close allegiance to their worldly, archaic roots. The Deliverance inspired view of the mountain range and its people is a bit over the top, but for a long time, parts of the Appalachians were relatively untouched by the modern world.
From that isolation sprung a curious blend of music, often rooted in a simple old-time religion, but also expanding to cover more human-inspired themes like poverty, love, alcoholism, and murder. For the most part, that hasn’t changed. Sure, there’s the whole newgrass thing (often focusing on instrumentals that are more concerned with dexterity than with evoking anything like a coal mine or a hitched up team of plow mules), but modern-day practitioners like Ricky Skaggs, Del McCoury, and Ralph Stanley are staying pretty close to a musical template that sprang from disparate sources like Scots ballads and African guitar picking styles.
The Rouch Guide to the Music of the Appalachians makes its job a bit easier by focusing on living artists, and by giving only passing nods to the hybrid styles that have developed in recent years. For the most part, this is high lonesome music, and while bluegrass naturally stakes a strong claim to many of the songs included here, gospel, straight-up country, and plain old pickin’-and-grinnin’ are also featured prominently. Rarely do they seem like different styles, though; there always seem to be common threads or sounds running through the songs that the Rough Guide highlights. The flash and fire of 16-year old banjo prodigy Jeremy Stephens, for example, becomes linked to the more stately style of bluegrass patriarch Ralph Stanley, when you realize that Stephens is covering Stanley’s own “Hard Times”.
That kind of cross pollination shows up in other areas, too. Alison Krauss, for example, shows up on Tom Adams’ “Box Elder Beetles” and The Cox Family’s “Another Lonesome Morning”. Larry Sparks got his start with the Stanley Brothers, while Peter Rowan and Del McCoury both apprenticed as members of Bill Monroe’s Blue Grass Boys. Tony Rice is not only a member of the Tony Rice Unit, but also has a history with David Grisman and the all-star studded Bluegrass Album Band. Tom Adams played with Rhonda Vincent and Blue Highway, who also show up on the disc.
Claire Lynch kicks things off with “God Spoke His Name”, a showcase for the kind of golden harmonies that you typically associate with bluegrass-tinged hymns. The arrangement’s fairly modern, and the pop hook in the chorus is a little surprising, but it’s a good indicator of the ways that bluegrass has often managed to keep its roots while borrowing from other styles around it (this is a touchy subject in the bluegrass world, as the frequently lambasted Nickel Creek can attest). Following is the Laurel Canyon Ramblers with “Happy I’ll Be”. It’s a gentle segue to this from Lynch’s cut, with the addition of a high lonesome vocalist to make things soar even more. The gospel element is hip-deep on The Rough Guide, not least in Ralph Stanley’s “Two Coats” and Larry Sparks’ “The Old Church Yard”, and the tent revival vibe of Bluegrass Album Band’s “River of Death”. These songs are full of a straightforward devoutness, and full of joy; still, they retain an earthbound graininess that a lot of contemporary Christian music is lacking these days. Maybe it’s the presence of graveyards and death in this brand of Christian music, but there’s something that feels very real about it, as if the singers’ joy is only strengthened by the hard circumstances of life.
Some of those circumstances are explored in the secular tracks. Rhonda Vincent tears through “My Sweet Love Ain’t Around”, Joe Thompson shuffles through “Old Corn Liquor”, and Dock Boggs spends a few minutes in “Wise County Jail”. Peter Rowan’s “Wild Geese Cry Again” relates the tale of a bittersweet homecoming, and the Cox Family’s “Another Lonesome Morning” would fit right in on an Alison Krauss record (Krauss and Dan Tyminski guest on the song). So the Rough Guide does a pretty good job of balancing the various worlds that Appalachian music can occupy.
These branches of music have always been known for stellar musicianship, and that’s certainly in no short supply here. Folks like Peter Rowan, Tony Rice, Rafe Stefanini, Jeremy Stephens, and others are acknowledged masters of their instruments, and they get a chance to show it here. Thankfully, the Rough Guide doesn’t pick its tracks just for the sake of speed. While Stephens is impressive, regardless of his age, there’s a sense of tone and awareness that don’t make it feel that different from the more subdued cuts on the album. Stefanini’s another suprise. Italian born, the fiddler sounds like he grew up on a porch somewhere in the hills of North Carolina. The Tony Rice Unit cut, “Jerusalem Ridge” strays a little too close to jam band territory for these ears, but there’s no denying that Rice knows his way around an instrument.
As a starting point, the Rough Guide acts as a perfectly fine introduction to the music of the Appalachians. The disc presents a good bit of variety, and doesn’t rely on the same old chestnuts that you always hear from many of these artists. It should work as a good springboard for checking out many of these artists in more detail.