New Acts Scale Heights on Great High Mountain Tour

Sierra and Cody Hull, Reeltime Travelers, Olabelle Win Favor

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — The old names may have drawn the crowd, but it was the new ones that sparked the fireworks at the debut show of the Great High Mountain tour Wednesday (May 5) at Thompson-Boling Arena in Knoxville.

Olabelle. The Reeltime Travelers. Sierra and Cody Hull. Keep these acts in mind. You’ll be hearing more from them.

With only one day of joint rehearsal, the show still ran smoothly. Unlike its predecessor, the Down From the Mountain tour, Great High Mountain does not use a master of ceremonies. After Buck White of the Whites welcomed the crowd and brought on the first performers, each act simply introduced the next. Approximately 4,000 people attended the Knoxville concert.

The six-member group Olabelle opened with “Before This Time,” a wild vocal ride whipped on by tambourine, drums and handclaps. It was the perfect icebreaker and lead-in to Norman and Nancy Blake’s more sedate set that started with the endearing hobo tune, “Big Rock Candy Mountain.” Blake confided to the audience that he had gotten his start in music 51 years earlier at Knoxville radio station WNOX. The duo continued — he on guitar, she on mandolin — with “You Are My Sunshine.” It quickly turned into a spontaneous singalong. For their final number, the Blakes did “I Ain’t Got Time,” which, Norman explained, originated with another duo once prominent on Knoxville radio — James Roberts and Martha Carson, the Barn Dance Sweethearts.

The Cox Family — Evelyn, Suzanne and Sidney — came on next. Their vocal harmonies were dazzling, as they ranged from the lively “Will There Be Any Stars in My Crown” to the dolorous “I Am Weary (Let Me Rest).” Oddly enough, a couple — both women –found the latter song danceable and were soon swirling in the aisle until a security guard cut in and sent them back to their seats.

This tour fuses music from the O Brother, Where Art Thou? and Cold Mountain films, as well as other songs in this antique vein. The ad hoc trio of Tim Eriksen, Dirk Powell and Riley Baugus gave the evening’s first samplings from Cold Mountain via “I Wish My Baby Was Born” and “The Cuckoo.” Their blend of high-pitched vocals, clawhammer banjo and sawing fiddle rolled back the years to a time when just getting by was America’s top reality show.

The Reeltime Travelers — a three-man, two-woman string band — got the audience’s blood circulating again with “Little Bird of Heaven,” a song co-written by group member Martha Scanlan. But the crowd leaped to its feet for the first time in the show when fiddler Heidi Andrade sashayed over to a wooden platform and began clogging — not in a cutesy, flirtatious way but like someone determinedly stamping out the fires of Hell. As the band kept playing, she left the platform and returned to her fiddle to drive home the medley of “Old Joe Clark” and “Breakin’ Up Christmas.” The band concluded with its Cold Mountain contribution, “Like a Songbird That Has Fallen.”

The Nashville Bluegrass Band began its set with “Po’ Lazarus,” a splendid vocal showcase but one that is increasingly tedious to sit through. Fortunately, they snapped any nodding heads back up with the infectious “Sittin’ on Top of the World.” “Garfield’s Blackberry Blossom,” the last selection, was a high-spirited and happy reminder of what an extraordinary and irreplaceable fiddler Stuart Duncan is.

Sister and brother Sierra and Cody Hull — she’s 12, he’s 15 — had just two songs with which to make their mark. They made it about 10 seconds into their first one when the first wave of applause washed over them. With Sierra on mandolin and Cody flatpicking his guitar, they rollercoasted through “Salt Creek” and went airborne with “Another Night.” Sierra has already gained national attention with her appearance on a PBS bluegrass special and is reportedly nearing a deal with Rounder Records.

The luminous Alison Krauss was the show’s workhorse, featured in 10 songs with — and without — her band, Union Station. Krauss, who got a standing ovation the first time she walked on stage, closed out the first half of the show with a trio of tunes: “I’ll Remember You Love in My Prayers” and “I Am a Man of Constant Sorrow,” both of which featured Union Station member Dan Tyminski on lead vocals, and “Bury Me Beneath the Willow,” which spotlighted her own ethereal pipes.

There were so many gospel songs in the last half of the show that it bordered on the preachy. Krauss set the tone with “Down to the Valley to Pray,” an O Brother artifact. She continued with “A Living Prayer” and “Jesus, Hold My Hand” in a vocal trio with Suzanne Cox and Cheryl White. Later on, the Whites — father Buck and daughters Sharon and Cheryl — evangelized with “There’s a Higher Power,” the title prompting Sharon to observe, “It’s the truth, by golly.” Krauss also trotted out another sacred number with “When God Dips His Love in My Heart,” an ensemble effort with Suzanne and Evelyn Cox and her own band members, Barry Bales and Ron Block. Then there were the ponderous closing hymns. Too much, O, Lord, too much.

Olabelle returned for three songs from their first album. Strongest among these were the pulsing “John the Revelator” and a low-key cover of the Carter Family’s “Storms Are on the Ocean.” Group members Amy Helm and Fiona McBain remained on stage to assist Krauss with another O Brother favorite, “Didn’t Leave Nobody But the Baby.” Always a joy to hear, the Whites were radiant with “Keep on the Sunny Side.” Musically, their only clinker was “Making Believe.” While delicately done, it sounded jarringly modern in the concert’s general old-time context.

Krauss brought Stanley on with a flourish. “We’d like to bring out the man,” she intoned grandly. “If I can’t have Ralph Stanley, I’d like to be shot in the head right now.” No such extreme was necessary. Sans his Clinch Mountain Boys, Stanley came on with a backup band made up of Norman Blake, Stuart Duncan, Dennis Crouch and Mike Compton. He opened with “John Henry,” a selection from his self-titled DMZ/Columbia album. Then he did “O, Death,” the a cappella highlight of the O Brother soundtrack. While it is hard to imagine a more dismal song, the crowd loved it. Now ready for business, Stanley took off his coat, handed it to a band member and picked up his ornate banjo. Since the patriarch rarely plays an instrument these days, that gesture elicited a cheer. “I’ve been know to play a five-string banjo a little bit,” he purred. “Would you like to hear a little clawhammer?” So saying, he swept into a frenzied take of “Shout Little Luly,” which, he told the crowd later, was the first song he ever learned on the banjo.

As he did on the Down From the Mountain tour, Stanley invited the entire cast to join him for the official finale numbers, “Angel Band” and “Amazing Grace.” Alas, he again chose to present “Amazing Grace” by “lining it out.” This device originated in churches where there were not enough hymnals to go around or where the members couldn’t read. It involves shouting out a line of a song and then letting the congregation sing it until the song is completed. The song has become such a clich√© that you want shortcuts — not hearing the words twice. Nonetheless, it earned an encore.

When the cast came back on stage, they were accompanied by members of the Sacred Harp Singers of Sand Mountain, Ala. Eriksen, a sacred harp enthusiast, led the group through “I’m Going Home” and “Am I Born to Die,” both from Cold Mountain. Unfortunately, because the show was either running long or becoming excessively somber, the crowd had dwindled away. At a backstage postmortem, the show’s producers were already talking about altering the lineup to provide a more upbeat ending. In spite of its few defects, all of which are mendable, the show was a magnificent slice of early Americana — and the most joyful history lesson imaginable.

Set List:

OLABELLE
“Before This Time”

NORMAN and NANCY BLAKE
“Big Rock Candy Mountain”
“You Are My Sunshine”
“I Ain’t Got Time”

THE COX FAMILY
“Will There Be Any Stars in My Crown”
“I Am Weary”
“I’m a Stranger Here”

TIM ERIKSEN, DIRK POWELL, RILEY BAUGUS
“I Wish My Baby Was Born”
“The Cuckoo”

REELTIME TRAVELERS
“Little Bird of Heaven”
“Old Joe Clark”/”Breakin’ Up Christmas”
“Like a Songbird That Has Fallen”

NASHVILLE BLUEGRASS BAND
“Po’ Lazarus”
“Sittin’ on Top of the World”
“In the Jail House Now”
“Garfield’s Blackberry Blossom”

SIERRA and CODY HULL
“Salt Creek”
“Another Night”

ALISON KRAUSS & UNION STATION WITH JERRY DOUGLAS
“I’ll Remember You Love in My Prayers”
“Bury Me Beneath the Willow”
“I Am a Man of Constant Sorrow”

Intermission

ALISON KRAUSS & UNION STATION
“Down to the River to Pray”

ALISON KRAUSS & UNION STATION WITH JERRY DOUGLAS
“A Living Prayer”

ALISON KRAUSS, SUZANNE COX, CHERYL WHITE
“Jesus, Hold My Hand”

TIM ERIKSEN, DIRK POWELL, RILEY BAUGUS
“Wayfaring Stranger”
“Am I Born to Die”

OLABELLE
“Gone Today”
“Storms Are on the Ocean”
“John the Revelator”

ALISON KRAUSS, AMY HELM, FIONA McBAIN
“Didn’t Leave Nobody but the Baby”

THE WHITES WITH JERRY DOUGLAS
“Keep on the Sunny Side”
“Making Believe”
“Sandyland”
“There’s a Higher Power”

ALISON KRAUSS and DAN TYMINSKI
“You Will Be My Ain True Love”

ALISON KRAUSS AND CHERYL WHITE
“The Scarlet Tide”

ALISON KRAUSS, SUZANNE COX, EVELYN COX, BARRY BALES, RON BLOCK
“When God Dips His Love in My Heart”

RALPH STANLEY WITH STUART DUNCAN, NORMAN BLAKE, DENNIS CROUCH, MIKE COMPTON
“John Henry”

RALPH STANLEY
“O, Death”

RALPH STANLEY WITH STUART DUNCAN, NORMAN BLAKE, DENNIS CROUCH, MIKE COMPTON
“Shout Little Luly”

RALPH STANLEY and CAST
“Angel Band”
“Amazing Grace”

CAST AND SACRED HARP SINGERS FROM SAND MOUNTAIN, ALA.
“I’m Going Home”
“Am I Born to Die”