Just one day before the Great High Mountain tour opens in Knoxville, Tenn., the cast held its first — and only — joint practice session Tuesday (May 4) in a gym-size rehearsal hall near downtown Nashville. There are 32 performers involved, including headliners Alison Krauss & Union Station and Ralph Stanley.
Record producer T Bone Burnett, who presided over the O Brother, Where Art Thou? and Cold Mountain soundtracks, is masterminding the tour that features the kind of old-time acoustic music used in both films. Others in the cast are the Nashville Bluegrass Band, Norman and Nancy Blake, the Cox Family, the Whites, Dirk Powell, Riley Baugus, Olabelle, the Reeltime Travelers, Sierra and Cody Hull and Tim Eriksen, a specialist in sacred harp or shape-note singing. Local sacred harp groups will perform at various stops on the circuit.
Looking more like visitors to a family reunion than participants in a high-dollar entertainment venture, the cast members and crew sprawled at a scattering of round tables, chatting and munching on catered goodies, while one act after another took to the stage to run through a song or two, largely unnoticed. Some musicians moseyed around the floor, tuning their instruments, waving to friends or talking on cell phones. Laptop computers glowed in every direction.
The lineup of talent and choice of songs appeared to change with every passing hour. Krauss ran through “I’ll Remember You Love in My Prayers” with her band and then joined the Cox Family for “When God Dips His Love in My Heart.” Neither song appeared on the set list handed out earlier. Of course, when there’s enough talent in the room to stock the faculty at the Juilliard School of Music, spontaneity isn’t all that scary.
At. 4:30 p.m., Burnett assembled the cast and said, “Let’s figure out the show.” Out went Stanley for the opening slot, and in came Buck White of the Whites to introduce the show and announce its new opening act, the group Olabelle. Burnett then explained how each act would bring the next one on stage. He decided that Krauss and her band would close out the first half of the show with “I Am a Man of Constant Sorrow” and that Stanley would lead the cast in “Angel Band” and “Amazing Grace” for the show’s finale, just as he had done on the similarly themed Down From The Mountain tour in 2002. “It’s extraordinary that this is even happening,” Burnett beamed as the meeting broke up.
Stanley and Burnett met briefly with reporters while the rest of the troupe sat down for dinner. Still vigorous at 77, Stanley repeatedly credited “the Lord” with giving him stamina and keeping his high, forlorn voice in shape. Asked if he currently had any budding Ricky Skaggses or Keith Whitleys in his band, he replied, somewhat sadly, “I believe every man in my band is satisfied where they are.” Skaggs and Whitley both worked with Stanley when they were teenagers. He spurned the notion that success should lure him from his remote mountain home in Virginia. “I can get all I want to get and still stay there,” he said emphatically. He did admit that he would like to scale back his performing to 50 to 75 shows a year instead of the 100 to 200 he usually does.
Burnett reported that he had just concluded recording 21 songs in eight days for the soundtrack to the upcoming Johnny Cash film biography, Walk the Line, starring Joaquin Phoenix as the fabled singer. He noted the movie covers Cash’s life only until 1968 (when he was 36). “It’s very much the punk side of Johnny Cash,” he explained. “Johnny Cash was like James Dean.” He said he saw no prospects of launching a tour built around Cash’s songs.
As to the Great High Mountain tour, with its 40 songs, Burnett observed, “The beautiful thing about this show is [that there's] this profound voice after profound voice … an explosion after an explosion. … It’s a miraculous thing.” He praised the musical freedom manifested in the show. “There’s not a click track, not a drum part, to dictate things.” Among Burnett’s upcoming plans is a project with jazz singer Cassandra Wilson. He also plans to record another album of his own songs.
After dinner, Eriksen arranged the cast in a loose square beside the stage and led them through the basics of sacred harp singing. Although many were evidently tired, their voices sounded as spirited and resolute as if they were bathed in spotlights.