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Diverse selection of old-time music
on 1 July 2005
The music here, like the film it provides the soundtrack for, is presumably intended to take us back to the thirties. Several songs from that era are featured along with traditional material that would have been popular then. Recorded mainly with state-of-the-art technology (except for some old recordings that are included and re-mastered), the sound quality is far superior to anything available in the thirties. Several different types of music can be found here - blues, gospel, country and folk - mainly performed by contemporary artists with a deep respect for tradition. I'll just pick out some of them although there are many excellent songs here.
Even Alison Krauss sticks firmly with tradition here - she often brings contemporary influences into her music these days but not here. Alison can be heard here on Down to the river to pray (as a solo singer), I'll fly away (providing harmony vocals for lead singer Gillian Welch) and Didn't leave nobody but the baby (joining Gillian and Emmylou in three-part harmony).
The inclusion of two Carter Stanley songs on a soundtrack such as this is predictable but welcome, with the Whites performing a superb version of the oft-recorded Keep on the sunny side, while the Peasall children (Hannah singing lead with Sarah and Leah providing harmony vocals) are in great form on In the highways. Children's recordings rarely impress me but this track does.
One song here that surprised me (though perhaps it shouldn't have) is Big rock candy mountain. It can be found on plenty of albums of children's songs, when it is invariably presented as an up-tempo song that children can (if they wish) sing along to. Here we get the original 1928 recording by Harry McLintock, who sings it at a more measured, reflective pace, showing that there is more to this song than I originally thought. I still prefer it as an up-tempo song generally but I'm glad I heard this version. I wonder what the Peasall sisters would have done with this song.
The Coen brothers clearly hoped that this soundtrack would provide a resurgence of interest in traditional music. While this soundtrack was a big commercial success, it seems that the majority of people who bought it (and continue to buy it) regard it as something of a novelty. Nashville record labels signed some traditional singers (Elizabeth Cook, though not featured here, is one that comes to mind) but they didn't get enough airplay on American country radio, so such artists were dropped and Nashville returned to its contemporary format. I'm sure that this soundtrack helped to win some new fans for traditional music, but not as many as the Coen brothers would like.