A Touch of Heaven
by Gary North
In Christian evangelical circles, a mountaintop experience is a deep religious experience that occurs at a group retreat of some kind. Attendees are warned not to expect life "in the valley" to match it. They're right; it doesn't.
But what if you had the whole thing on videotape....?
I ask this because you can now buy a copy of "Down from the Mountain."
"Down from the Mountain" is the title of the video of a performance at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville, which used to be the home of the Grand Old Opry. It was held on May 24, 2000. I have not been to every American traditional music festival in history, but I don't expect ever to see anything that matches this event. I can only imagine what being there in person must have been. In the camera's scanning of the crowd, you can briefly see at one point that Billy Bob Thornton was having a terrific time.
O Brother, Who Would Have Guessed?
This concert assembled the still-living musical performers of "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" That movie, had it avoided needless profanity — fortunately in the mouth of a politician — would qualify as one of the great movies in Hollywood history. How the Coen brothers figured out that they could make a hit movie by setting Homer's Odyssey in rural Alabama sometime around 1935, I cannot imagine.
The soundtrack of the movie has sold a staggering three million copies, making it the best-selling soundtrack of 2001, and the second-best-selling country album of the year. It did this without benefit of much air time on country music radio stations because, horror of horrors, it really was country music — the unamplified music of the rural South in the mid-1930's. It's authentic, or so close to it that you hardly notice traces of modernity: a little 1950's.
(The main exception to this authenticity is the flawless dobro guitar work of Jerry Douglas, who uses an instrumental style that was developed in the 1950's by Burkett "Uncle Josh" Graves. There is actually a scene in the movie where you can see the group — the Whites — playing on the back of a pickup truck, and you can hear the dobro, only there's no dobro visible. But who cares? Just don't do what I did — laugh out loud in the theater — which annoyed my wife so much that she asked, "What's so funny?" You had to have been there.)
The unexpected financial success of the movie, not to mention the soundtrack, points to the power of consumers in a free market, as well as the uncertainty of entrepreneurship — and the high economic rewards for those entrepreneurs who guess correctly what consumers will be willing to pay for. Here is a case in point. I walked out of the movie theater, walked immediately to a video rental/CD-ROM store three doors away, and went looking for a copy of the soundtrack. I could not find it in the "soundtrack" section. I asked a clerk if they sold the CD. He pointed to a rack of CD's. The rack was entirely "O Brother" CD's. The Coens got me for $30 that day.
That was only the beginning.
On May 24, 2000, the musicians assembled at the Ryman for a charitable fund-raiser. It was videotaped by D. A. Pennebaker, who has been doing this sort of thing since the early 1960's. His 1967 documentary of a 1965 Bob Dylan tour, "Don't Look Back," is an underground classic.
On June 15, 2001, the film was shown on the last day of the Nashville Film Festival. I was visiting my daughter that weekend, and I spotted a reference to it that morning in the local newspaper. I went to buy tickets. Sorry: sold out. But they had scheduled a second, late-night showing. I went, and my wife — not what I would call a country-music buff — went with me. She was "pleasantly surprised." (Did you hear that? Pleasantly surprised! This event made country music history.) I came back to Nashville a week later. The movie was still showing. I went again. (Alone.) I came back a week after that. It was still showing. I went again.
It was that kind of movie.
The master of ceremonies was John Hartford, author of "Gentle on My Mind," which made Glen Campbell a pile of money over three decades ago. Hartford died of cancer about three days before the movie opened. As a young man, he had become a licensed riverboat pilot. He had worked on the Julia Belle Swain, which he made famous in several of his songs. He returned to pilot her occasionally after he returned from Hollywood, three decades ago. He went back home to collect and perform traditional music. He was the perfect man for M.C. He was greatly respected by the performers and beloved by the fans. On the lobby poster, the only visual image is a shadow of John in his familiar bowler hat. In Nashville, that image was all the poster needed.
The concert included songs that were not in the movie, but did not feature the one song from the soundtrack that had become a country music hit, "Man of Constant Sorrow," by the "Soggy Bottom Boys" — a parody of Flatt & Scruggs Foggy Mountain Boys and — I would like to think — the location in Washington, D.C. of the U.S. State Department: Foggy Bottom. The substitutes made up for it. Emmylou Harris's rendition of "Green Pastures" is the most moving single traditional music performance I have ever heard. On a big screen, it was incomparable. The back-up dobro by Jerry Douglas is spectacular, as usual. (Douglas has appeared as a studio musician on more than 1,000 recordings. He has won six Grammies. This, on an instrument that was unknown to the general public two decades ago. I remember driving 90 miles each way in 1960 to hear Flatt & Scruggs, but mainly to find out what made that wailing guitar sound on their albums. It was Josh Graves' dobro.)
Then there is Chris Thomas King, who played the blues guitarist, Tommy Johnson, in the movie. He was not faking it on-screen. He appears with Canadian slide guitarist Colin Linden, who plays a dobro vertically, blues-style. They do a silly song written by King, "John Law Burned Down the Liquor Store." Ignore the lyrics. You want to know what fast-paced blues slide guitar is all about? Watch these two masters!
Lost Highway Records has released a CD of "Down from the Mountain." I got a copy for Christmas. I am told that my video is en route from Amazon. They'd better not be lying. The show is now touring the U.S. Will I go? Only if it gets within 500 miles. Each way.
There is still a market for really good entertainment in the United States. There is also a market for traditional American music. They call it "roots" music these days. Even without air play, word gets out. Word of mouth is the best advertising. It's just hard to organize it in advance.
December 29, 2001
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