Bluegrass on 57th Street

O Brother, Where Art Thou? At Carnegie Hall.

Last week, Carnegie Hall saw one of its ultra-rare country-music concerts. All the musicians who performed on the platinum-selling soundtrack of the Coen brothers film O Brother, Where Art Thou? appeared and sang the “roots” movie music—most of it country and bluegrass—and many other numbers to a capacity audience that included celebrities, alt-country faddists, True Bluegrass Believers, and movie types. (A few sightings, if one must: John Turturro, John Goodman, Frances McDormand. My son was thrilled, however functionally, when Nature called him and Lou Reed at the same time.) And some very fast ticket-buyers—the show was advertised diminutively once in the New York Times weeks ago and sold out in 24 hours. The Great Plains in 1836 may not have seen as much scalping as occurred outside the hall last night.

The performers included: Emmylou Harris, Grammy-winner last year for Red Dirt Girl, her first studio CD in five years; Alison Krauss and Union Station, whose musicianship and stage presence make them the leading bluegrass act in the United States; Gillian Welch and David Rawlings, young, pure traditional singer/songwriters; the Cox Family, a Louisiana Cajun bluegrass band who will steal your heart with their ebullience; the Whites, another bluegrass family who are regulars on the Grand Ole Opry and whose patriarch, Buck White, tends to do joyful little clog-dancing steps as he enters and leaves a stage; and Jerry Douglas, genius dobro player, part of Alison Krauss’ band but a fiendishly accomplished artist on his own who appeared recombinantly as an accompanist for many of the other performers. Oh—and Ralph Stanley, the septuagenarian Dean of Bluegrass, about whom novelist and National Book Award Winner David Gates is writing a major profile for TheNew Yorker. Dr. Stanley, as he is called now (one guesses because of an honorary doctorate), sang, near the end of the show, an ancient a capella Appalachian shout called “O Death,” under a single spotlight, and, judging by the sepulchral silence that surrounded the lyrics’ high-lonesome dismay about mortality, it must have set cats walking across most of the audience’s graves. (“You’ve fixed my feet so I can’t walk/ You’ve locked my jaw so I can’t talk.”)

The movie soundtrack (click here to listen to a sample of each song) hit No. 1 on Billboard’s Country Chart a couple of months back and stuck there for a while with virtually no commercial airplay to help it along: a recording-industry singularity, especially with Nashville’s fierce pop-style marketing of hat-and-navel acts like Faith Hill, Garth Brooks, and the Dixie Chicks. As the Coen brothers said in their introduction to the Carnegie Hall stagebill, “Pop stations considered it too country, and country stations considered it too … country.” Some of the musicians involved have looked on this record and its success with a bit of distance as well as enjoyment—especially when it began to sport a sticker that says “The ultimate American roots music collection”—because it really is to a true exposure to traditional American country music what an ounce or two of broth is to a good zarzuela. It’s a Reader’s Digest compendium of only a few examples of a rich and complex American popular art form, and some of the cuts have a strange spin. “I Am a Man of Constant Sorrow,” a deeply despairing old-time lyric, receives a driving, almost rock interpretation by Dan Tyminski, a member of Union Station who is becoming an alt-country star in his own right. One of his O Brother colleagues commented to me, “The way Dan sings that song, it should be called at most ‘I Am a Man of Occasional Sorrow.’ ” And at the cast party after the show, a few of the performers allowed as how they were worried about their participation in the project dogging their footsteps for the rest of their careers. (Come on, Henry—do the Fonz!) Still, all involved realize that they’ve gotten a recognition boost from taking part in the soundtrack and that fewer highbrow types now ignorantly disparage what they do.

The concert itself consisted of a kind of battle between venue and menu. Though it’s true historically that some folk performers have warmed up the formal air of the place—perhaps most notably Pete Seeger and the Weavers—it is essentially a serious room, and it must be difficult to try to put down instant demotic roots there. (I saw the Irish folk group the Chieftains perform at Carnegie just as they were becoming well-known, and it didn’t work very well; the hall’s stateliness seemed at strong odds with the spontaneity and humble origins of the jigs and reels.) But the audience last week resolved to overcome the room’s reserve and cheer-led, however genteelly, from the start. The first 15 minutes were a little dicey, but then the balance tipped away from propriety and toward the determined warmth of the city’s welcome of these rustic musicians. Elvis Costello was an economical and funny emcee. But the shadow of the late John Hartford, the fiddler/riverboat pilot who presided over this same show at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville last year with un-excellable passion and humor and restraint, fell over Costello a little, particularly when, after the intermission, a brief film tribute to Hartford was shown on an overhead screen. The performance highlight may have been the Cox Family singing a fast bluegrass-gospel number called “Will There Be Any Stars in My Crown?” (click here to hear them play it with Alison Krauss). Krauss, as vocal soloist, accompanist, and fiddler, has, for all her mischief and allure, matured into a modest and dignified stage presence. Gillian Welch and David Rawlings are impressive perfectionists. The roar that greeted the entire cast at the end, when they came onstage to sing “Angel Band,” a real chestnut of white country-gospel music, was deafening and prolonged, and it resumed even more forcefully after they finished singing. The performers looked genuinely surprised and pleased. (Earlier, Cheryl White had looked out at the hall before she started singing and said, “GOllll—leee!”)

Given the evening’s songs’ preoccupation with the afterlife, it was fitting that so many in the audience could be overheard, as they reluctantly filed out, saying that the concert was “heaven.” (“Heaven” is what A.O. Scott in the New YorkTimes a couple of days later also called Down From the Mountain, the documentary film about the Ryman concert, which is finally being released in art houses after much distribution wrangling. In the same paper, there were reviews of the Carnegie concert and of a movie about Appalachian music at the turn of the century called Songcatcher. What is going on here? Is this music really going to become more popular, as O Brother heads are predicting, or is the moment just a calendrical coincidence?)

At the party afterward, when asked about the acoustics of Carnegie Hall, David Rawlings said, “There seemed to be an awful lot of ambient noise when we were rehearsing in the afternoon, and it worried me. I always forget in a big hall like that during the actual performance there will be four or five thousand one-hundred-and-fifty-pound bags of water out there to quiet things down.” Gillian Welch said that the hall as seen from the stage looked like a “giant birthday cake.” Well, for those of us 150-pound bags of water who like this kind of thing, if the hall was the cake, the music was the present.