Down From the Mountain and Into the Spotlight

“I always like to play an intimate gathering,” drawled guitarist Norman Blake as he looked up into the towering bowl of faces at Rupp Arena Friday night (Jan. 25). On this point, he turned out to be more prescient than ironic. The first show of the “Down From the Mountain” tour, held in Lexington, Ky., was staged with such casual simplicity that fans might well have fooled themselves into believing they were clustered around a friend’s back porch.

Despite boasting such names as Patty Loveless , Emmylou Harris and Alison Krauss , it was truly a show without headliners. No one artist got significantly more stage time than the others, and their order of appearance seemed more random than tantalizing. It had the democratic air of a guitar pull.

Except for a few standing microphones, plus a lectern and an easy chair for the announcer, the uncurtained stage was bare. Performers walked on, sang, acknowledged the applause and walked off again. That was it. There was no setup lag between acts and virtually no chatter or self-promotional remarks from the cast members.

Host Bob Neuwirth ushered the artists on and off stage with admirable dispatch and sensitivity. Between chores, he sat in his chair listening along with the rest of the audience. Because the artists generally did no more than two songs in a row, the evening sped by. Counting a 20-minute intermission, the all-acoustic performance ran for almost 2½ hours and featured 29 songs.

The tour is the latest spinoff from the tenaciously successful soundtrack album, O Brother, Where Art Thou? By Feb. 20, when the series concludes in Berkeley, Calif., the troupe will have visited 16 U. S. cities and Toronto.

Most of the approximately 8,100 people in the Lexington audience were middle-age or older. But, like younger fans, they appeared to be totally familiar with the O Brother-linked music, bursting into applause on the first notes of certain songs and shouting out for others. Although Loveless and Ralph Stanley incited thunderous responses, no one came close to stealing the show. It wasn’t that kind of concert.

Neuwirth set the tone for the evening by declaring at the outset, “I love old-time acoustic country music!” He dedicated the show to the late John Hartford , who had emceed and performed at the Ryman Auditorium show in 2000 that came to serve as the template for the current series.

The majestic Fairfield Four opened with “Po’ Lazarus,” their volcanic voices and chain-gang stepping reverberating with the accumulated woes of the world. Blake followed with the whimsical hobo anthem, “Big Rock Candy Mountain.” His wife, Nancy, playing mandolin, joined him for “You Are My Sunshine.”

Krauss was suffering from a sore throat and thus relinquished her vocal duties to Dan Tyminski and the other members of her Union Station band. There was nothing wrong with her bowing arm, however, a point made clear as she breezed through “Kern County Breakdown.” Accompanying himself on guitar, Tyminski called out the Nashville Bluegrass Band ‘s Stuart Duncan and Pat Enright to sing harmony with him on his unlikely but enduring hit, “I Am a Man of Constant Sorrow.” As has lately become the custom, the crowd responded to this inconsolably mournful lament as if it were a hoedown.

Singer-songwriters Buddy and Julie Miller joined Harris on her first two numbers, “The Other Side of Life” and “Red Dirt Girl.” (Later, filling in for Krauss, Julie Miller accompanied Harris and Loveless in an a cappella rendering of “Nobody but the Baby.”)

Chris Thomas King, who played the musician Tommy Johnson in O Brother, told the audience that it was his character, not the legendary Robert Johnson, who had reputedly made a deal with the devil at the Mississippi crossroads. Playing a National guitar, King did “Hard Time Killing Floor Blues” and then tapped floating pickers Chris Sharp, Mike Compton and Dennis Crouch to back him on his own composition, “John Law Burned Down the Liquor Store.”

Rounding out the first half of the show, the three angelic-sounding Peasall Sisters pealed “I’ll Fly Away” as though that were a clear and present possibility.

Jerry Douglas , the incomparable Dobroist, popped up everywhere an extra jolt of emotion was called for. In addition to opening the second segment with a moody, languorous rendition of “When You and I Were Young, Maggie,” he also performed with Union Station, the Whites and Loveless.

In its set, the Nashville Bluegrass Band opted for blues over bluegrass, conjuring up the spirit of Jimmie Rodgers with “Gambling Barroom Blues” and the Mississippi Sheiks with “Sittin’ on Top of the World.” Guitarist Chris Sharp then came aboard to lead the audience in the evening’s most high-spirited singalong, “In the Jailhouse Now.”

Alluding proudly to her “Kentucky girl” roots, Loveless enchanted the crowd with two selections from her Mountain Soul album, “Pretty Little Miss” and the sepulchral “You’ll Never Leave Harlan Alive.”

Stanley capped off the concert. His keening voice strong, sure and heart-stopping, he began with the grim dialogue, “O Death.” This he followed with the folkish “The Girl From the Greenbriar Shore,” a selection, he said, from his forthcoming album. Loveless came back to the stage to harmonize with Stanley on his own reading of “I Am a Man of Constant Sorrow,” a song that is rapidly falling into the category of too-much-of-a-good-thing. As the crowd stood and applauded, the usually reserved Stanley regally blew them kisses.

The entire cast returned to the stage to end the show with “Angel Band.” If the Lexington audience is a barometer, the CMT-supported “Down From the Mountain” tour is going to be one of this season’s success stories.

Set list

Fairfield Four
“Po’ Lazarus”

Norman Blake
“Big Rock Candy Mountain”

Norman & Nancy Blake
“You Are My Sunshine”

Alison Krauss & Union Station Featuring Dan Tyminski
“I’ll Remember You, Love, in My Prayers”
“Kern County Breakdown”

Dan Tyminski With Stuart Duncan, Pat Enright
“I Am a Man of Constant Sorrow”

Emmylou Harris With Buddy & Julie Miller
“The Other Side of Life”
“Red Dirt Girl”

Chris Thomas King With Chris Sharp, Mike Compton, Dennis Crouch
“Hard Time Killing Floor Blues”
“John Law Burned Down the Liquor Store”

Emmylou Harris, Patty Loveless, Julie Miller
“Nobody but the Baby”

The Peasall Sisters With Chris Sharp, Mike Compton
“In the Highways”
“I’ll Fly Away”

Intermission

Jerry Douglas
“When You and I Were Young, Maggie”

Alison Krauss & Union Station Featuring Dan Tyminski
“Bright Sunny South”

Alison Krauss & Union Station
“Cluck Old Hen”

Nashville Bluegrass Band
“Gambling Barroom Blues”
“Sittin’ on Top of the World”

Chris Sharo With the Nashville Bluegrass Band
“In the Jailhouse Now”

The Whites With Jerry Douglas
“Sandy Land”
“Keep on the Sunny Side”

Patty Loveless With the Nashville Bluegrass Band, Jerry Douglas and Carmella Ramsey
“Pretty Little Miss”
“You’ll Never Leave Harlan Alive”

Fairfield Four
“Lonesome Valley”
“Four and Twenty Elders”

Ralph Stanley
“O Death”

Ralph Stanley With Stuart Duncan, Mike Compton, Dennis Crouch, Norman Blake
“The Girl From the Greenbriar Shore”

Ralph Stanley, Patty Loveless, Stuart Duncan, Mike Compton, Dennis Crouch, Norman Blake
“I Am a Man of Constant Sorrow”

The Entire Cast
“Angel Band”