The O Brother Where Art Thou soundtrack is the best selling collection of Appalachian music ever issued. Yet, while the song selections are very good and the performances and production are top-notch, it is not all that representative of the true Appalachia that I — and eight generations before me — grew up in. Had it been, I doubt that it would’ve sold as well. The Appalachians is a companion to the Public Television series of the same name scheduled to air in mid-late April on Southeastern PBS affiliates, so profit is not the main motive here.
The stories that spring from Appalachia are rich, deep and sometimes much scarier than Marilyn Manson ever was. This, coupled with the fact that listening to too much of any one of these artists in the same sitting might either get on your nerves or else transform you in some way that you aren’t quite ready for, makes the argument that a collection is the best way to listen to this sort of music.
I would normally say of hillbilly music: “this is not for everybody.” However, this mix is diverse enough in genres and styles to have something for just about everybody’s taste, and it’s very well-crafted, going from tales of the origins and struggles of the original settlers through more recent history with the arrival of coal and electricity and all that came with it. At this point, all the pictures of the struggles have been painted; and just when you’re about to get tired from listening to the struggle, you’re taken to the church, where the spirit is refreshed so the struggle can continue for another week — or another listen.
Appalachians are often portrayed as simple people. I beg to differ. Appalachia is a land of contrasts, excess and constant struggle. In many ways, their roots were often more akin to those of the slaves with whom they initially found themselves working side-by-side to pay off their debt for passage to this land of milk and honey. Their struggle was not just physical, though. There’s also a spiritual struggle in the daily lives of the Appalachian people. There’s Jesus, and then there’s all that other stuff that the Devil offers up. Imbibing is either looked upon with disdain or it’s done at full throttle — sometimes by the same person. It’s the same kind of environment that has given us the best in stories throughout our times — if not throughout history.
This collection is perhaps the most representative of the region and heritage of any I’ve heard. The usual suspects are included here, with appearances by Jimmie Rodgers, The Carter Family, Jean Richie, Grandpa Jones and The Osborne Brothers. There are also some great sides covered by somewhat lesser-known new and older artists, such as Blind Alfred Reed, The Alabama Scared Harp Singing Convention, Jeff Black, Rose Bell and Jason Ringenberg of Jason and The Scorchers.
Oddly, Appalachia was the first frontier for the pioneers, but this deep and relatively undiluted — yet diverse — culture that gave birth to country, rock and roll and even reggae has only started to get the recognition it deserves. Better late than never, I reckon.