Nashville audiences are spoiled. It’s not uncommon for artists of the caliber of Ralph Stanley, Emmylou Harris, Alison Krauss, Gillian Welch, Jerry Douglas, the Fairfield Four or John Hartford to hold court at the historic Ryman Auditorium, the Mother Church of Country Music.
But Wednesday night’s Ryman show was special. A capacity audience saw the elite of bluegrass, gospel and folk music gather in unique configurations, sharing the spotlight for over two hours of exceptional music. Singers and musicians abandoned signature tunes in favor of traditional songs — some obscure — which many performed live for the first time.
The pretext of the concert was unique. Sponsored by Mercury Records as a fundraiser for the new Country Music Hall of Fame, it showcased artists and songs from an upcoming movie, O Brother, Where Art Thou? Set in Depression-era Mississippi and starring George Clooney, John Goodman, Holly Hunter and John Turturro, the film by brothers Joel and Ethan Coen places music at the center of its plot. Welch, Douglas, Ron Block, The Whites and the Fairfield Four all have roles in the film, due in October. Mercury will release an accompanying soundtrack in September.
Documentary specialist D.A. Pennebaker (Bob Dylan’s Don’t Look Back) captured the concert on film. Soundtrack producer T Bone Burnett also produced the concert. John Hartford served as emcee, played his fiddle and sang “Big Rock Candy Mountain.” Hartford’s wry humor must have appealed to the Coens, whose idiosyncratic films include Raising Arizona and Fargo. The brothers attended the show but never took the stage.
Hunter made brief welcoming remarks, but the singers and pickers were the stars of the night. The appreciative audience included a large Music Row contingent, among them Vince Gill, Amy Grant, Anita Cochran, Mark Collie, Robert Reynolds (of the Mavericks), Jim Lauderdale and Guy Clark.
All 28 numbers were either acoustic or a cappella, beginning with Nashville gospel treasures the Fairfield Four singing “Po Lazarus” with no instrumentation and concluding with mountain music patriarch Ralph Stanley performing “Angel Band” backed by the entire cast of singers and players.
Krauss delivered “Down to the River to Pray” accompanied by 31 members of the choir of the First Baptist Church of White House, Tenn. With Harris and Welch, she performed “Didn’t Leave Nobody But the Baby,” an a cappella number Welch adapted and expanded from an old lullaby and field holler. Welch sang “Green Pastures” with Harris. Later she blended vocals with Krauss on “I’ll Fly Away.”
Trading in and out of different ensembles, stellar players from the Nashville Bluegrass Band, the John Hartford String Band and Krauss’ Union Station provided most of the night’s music. Dobroist Douglas reunited with The Whites for two songs, including the Carter Family original “Keep on the Sunny Side.” Hartford mandolinist Mike Compton and Union Station bassist Barry Bales joined The Cox Family on “I Am Weary (Let Me Rest)” and “Stars in My Crown.”
Stanley, at 73 the most seasoned and revered member of the cast, received a standing ovation before singing a single note of his haunting a cappella reading of “O Death.” The lonesome modality of the song and Stanley’s timeless performance echoed the powerful cultural connections made between generations, genres, races and regions. The entire cast filed out for a final number, the gospel song “Angel Band,” about redemption and ascension into heaven. The Ryman’s vaunted acoustics sent choruses bouncing back and forth between audience and stage, so that all in attendance felt as if they were part of one great angel band.