The country’s appetite for Southern mountain culture remains forever keen, it seems: Charles Frazier’s Pulitzer Prize-winning work, Cold Mountain (Atlantic Monthly Press, 1997) proved itself a golden anomaly by becoming a stunning commercial success — a rare feat for a literary novel.
And yet, when Tim O’Brien and Dirk Powell — themselves highly respected emissaries of Appalachian folkways — approached record labels about creating a musical companion to the celebrated book, response was tepid at best.
“People didn’t realize what the worth [of such a project] was,” O’Brien stated quietly in a recent phone interview. “But we knew what the worth was.”
As well they should: O’Brien, a West Virginia native, has played old-time music for 25 years; the multiple-Grammy nominee is also the only performer to enjoy three consecutive number-one albums on the Americana charts. Powell, meanwhile, is a renaissance traditionalist who’s stretched his Eastern Kentucky roots with blessed results: Between stints with the acoustic Cajun band Balfa Toujours, Powell pens material for movies and for bands such as 10,000 Maniacs and The Critton Hollow String Band — when he’s not immersed in his frequent solo world tours, that is.
In creating a Cold Mountain tribute album, the two naturally included claw-hammer banjo notable John Herrmann, whose standout style has influenced pickers since the early ’70s. But first, they had to build a home for their pet project. In a pleasing burst of mountain-style autonomy, O’Brien and Powell founded Howdy Skies Records, and in due time, Songs from the Mountain was lovingly delivered to the world.
It seems that O’Brien and Powell (old friends who are ardent admirers of Cold Mountain) had unwittingly nursed parallel visions of recording the many tunes introduced in the novel; a reunion at a Folk Alliance conference in Memphis led to dinner and the fateful mutual confession that birthed Songs. And it turned out that Frazier — a WNC native who now lives in Raleigh — had long known of both musicians. In fact, the author was teaching at the University of Colorado in the late ’70s when O’Brien came to fame in the Boulder-based bluegrass band Hot Rize.
“He was a fan of ours before we did this,” confirms O’Brien — which naturally helped in obtaining the rights to make the record. The musicians’ merchandising choices further reflect this mutual admiration: The CD and book are sold almost exclusively as a set.
What O’Brien cherished most about the novel is its dense, but deftly webbed, strands of purpose. Inman, a badly injured, mountain-born soldier, is trying to find his way home at the close of the Civil War. Ada is his undeclared love, a Charleston-bred young woman whose wealthy, eccentric father transplants himself and his daughter to a wild mountain hollow and then dies in short order, leaving her to grapple with a decaying farm and the unsettling remoteness of mountain life.
“I loved the thematic richness of the book, [Frazier’s] remarkable weaving of different themes. There are parallels to Homer’s Odyssey and also the Zen Buddhist idea that getting somewhere is just as important as being there; that the journey itself is the object of life,” O’Brien muses. “At one point in the book, Ruby [a mountain girl who arrives to help Ada and becomes a permanent fixture on the farm] says how silly it is to want to be somewhere other than where you are — which is a Zen thing, too. All these different aspects come together.”
Of course, the book’s frequent mention of old-time songs also scored considerable points with the musicians: “He wrote it so that [even] non-playing persons can understand what it’s like to play,” O’Brien points out with awe.
Stobrod — arguably the book’s most memorable character — is Ruby’s father, a whiskey-addled fiddler who joins up with the just-plain-addled Pangle, a drifter of indeterminate age colored thusly: “The man had a big round head which sat unbalanced on him like God was being witty about making the insides of it so small. Though he was nearly thirty according to Stobrod, people still called him a boy because his thoughts could not wrap around the least puzzle. To him, the world had no order of succession, no causation, no precedent. Everything he saw was new-minted, and thus every day was a parade of wonders. … He had no talent in the world but his recently discovered ability to play the banjo, unless one counted as talent the fact that he was gentle and kind and looked on everything that passed before him with soft wide eyes.”
The two meet while the war-shy Stobrod is dodging Teague’s Confederate Home Guard in a mountain cave, and are soon welded by circumstance: “Stobrod would get a figure of notes going and it would come round again and again and after a time it would work a spell on Pangle’s mind. … Stobrod had given the banjo to the Pangle boy and showed him what little he knew of its working. … The boy, apparently out of stunning natural talent and a heartfelt desire to provide fitting accompaniment to Stobrod’s fiddle, had shown little more difficulty in discovering how to play it than one would in learning to beat a drum. He and Pangle had done not much since the raid but make music. … They slept only when they were too drunk to play, and they had not traveled to the cave mouth frequently enough even to keep track of when day or night occurred. As a result, however, the Pangle boy now knew Stobrod’s entire repertoire and they had become a duo.”
Songs from the Mountain keenly matches the book’s mood: Both works are slow, deep and expertly reined-in; comprehension blooms best between the lines. The CD’s first cut is a rueful medley that begins with an original Powell piece and concludes with “Bonaparte’s Retreat,” the song that Stobrod and Pangle play before being executed by the Guard (this scene is based on a true story). Other tunes — such as “The Drunkard’s Hiccups” and “Skillet Good and Greasy” — were re-appropriated by O’Brien and Powell from the book’s dialogue.
“Inman thinks to himself, ‘If I could sprout wings and fly,’ and that’s a line from ‘Drunkard’s Hiccups.’ … Charles Frazier used old music as a way to get back in time, make the story more authentic,” explains O’Brien. “He was concerned with every detail — the flora, fauna and all the historical stuff.”
And while the trio took care to render the traditional songs with just as stoic an accuracy, O’Brien believes that keeping old-time music relevant “is no great effort. It stays alive because of its very worth. It’s honest, real, a link to our past and part of our cultural memory. Our country is not that old and, therefore, our music is not that old … [but] you can’t really find out where you’re going until you know where you’ve been.”