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Various Artists | Down From The Mountain (Lost Highway)
As I write, fingerpickin' hillbillies all over the Deep South are rubbing their hands together at the news that the platinum-selling success of the Coen Brothers' 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' soundtrack has sparked a resurgence of Buena Vista-like proportions in the traditional American music scene. More popular than the film itself, and with fairly good reason, the 'O Brother' album blended jaunty backwoods bluegrass, cane-sweet harmonising and mournful country melody, with modern production techniques smoothing down those harsh and uncommercial rough edges which mar the old field recordings. With this unprecedented success in mind, producers T- Bone Burnett and Bob Neuwirth unleash 'Down From The Mountain', a concert recording aimed squarely at the coffee tables of Middle America. May 24th of last year found many of the soundtrack album's brightest stars - Alison Krauss and Union Station, Emmylou Harris, The Cox Family, Gillian Welch, The Whites and Chris Thomas King -  gathered together at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville (where else?) to celebrate their new found financial security with a good ol' country hoe-down, and this immaculately produced and packaged CD is the inevitable result. Almost every song here is traditional; harmony vocals augmented by some fast picking and soaring fiddle, the lyrics mostly religious in theme, with a couple of outlaw tales thrown in for good measure. Alison Krauss and Union Station race through Wild Bill Jones, backed up by the bayou twang of Soggy Bottom Boy, Dan Tyminski, the singing voice of George Clooney in the film. Even Gillian Welch and David Rawlings fall victim to the good-time spirit, bashing out the largely dreadful I Want To Sing That Rock 'N' Roll, a song which eschews the crystal darkness of Welch's extraordinary solo work in favour of derivative gospel-tinged rockabilly. With Welch in uncharacteristically weak voice it's left to Rawlings' magnificent guitar histrionics to steal the show. Rawlings' talent also shines on Green Pastures, with vocals provided by the unquestioned Godmother of the scene, the evergreen Emmylou Harris. This record is a guaranteed seller; the unfortunate fact is that everyone involved seems all too aware of it. It smacks of a cash- in and, however proficient and creative the musicians involved might be, one cannot shake the feeling that they've toned down the darker and more interesting aspects of their work in an attempt to gratify the mainstream American record market.

Tom Huddleston
October 2001