Old time music very much alive

By Don McAlavy: Freedom Columnist

Old-Time music is very much alive. But you won’t hear it on “country” radio. There is another Nashville, with a kind of music so distant from what the city’s commercial center cranks out as to be from a different planet.

It thrives in the community’s nooks and crannies like a cluster of quietly smiling mountain wildflowers in the shadow of those cultivated hothouse blooms that flaunt their colors on radio stations from coast to coast.

The soundtrack for “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” — indeed the film itself — celebrates this gentle music.

Writer/Directors Joel and Ethan Coen call it “folk music.” Eric Fellner, the film’s producer, calls it “bluegrass music.” Terms such as “roots” and “Southern vernacular” are bandied about to describe it.

But what this seemingly ethnic south is, is “country music.” Or at least it was before the infidels of Music Row expropriated that term to describe water-down pop/rock with greeting-card lyrics.

This original country sound first flowered during the Depression, the era that frames “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” It was fertilized by blues, gospel, string-band hoe-downs, Appalachian balladry, work songs and vaudeville hokum.

Its practitioners were small-time entertainers, who led itinerant lives as they traveled from one schoolhouse show to the next, from one radio “barn dance” to the next, from one makeshift recording studio to another.

Despite the hard economic times, record companies and radio stations discovered an enormous hunger for the homey sounds of The Carter Family, the rowdy blues of Jimmie Rodgers, the saucy humor of Uncle Dave Macon, the dazzling fiddle of Arthur Smith and the scintillating blues moans of countless slide guitarists, harmonica men and jug-band songsters.

That hunger for emotional truth gave us our multi-million dollar music industry.

The razzmatazz of western swing, the whipped-dog whine of honky-tonk music, the creamy crooning of singing cowboys, the itchy-pants yelp of rockabilly and the suburban gleam of The Nashville Sound seemed to drown out the innocence of this rustic, acoustic kind of country.

But it has survived.

Now called “old time music,” this style thrives at the more than 500 bluegrass festivals, fiddle contests and folk gatherings that are staged every year in America. It is recorded or performed by young people virtually every night in Music City, U.S.A.

You won’t hear it on “Country Radio. And it flies beneath the commercial radar of most record shops.

So, for those whose musical tastes are shaped by the great, gray behemoth that is the modern entertainment business, this music does sound obscure. Even exotic.

It was that sound the Coen Brothers and record producer T. Bone Burnett came in search on a scouting trip to Tennessee’s capital city in the spring of 1999. With the help of Denise Stiff and Gillian Welch they found a troupe of people eager to recreate the ethos of the 1930s.