The bluegrass-heavy sound track from the Coen brothers’ O Brother, Where Art Thou? topped Billboard’s country chart for 26 weeks, selling more than four million copies. As a result, veteran bluegrass and old-timey performers like Ralph Stanley are achieving new recognition from a broader audience, as are upstarts like Gillian Welch, and mainstream country stars like Patty Loveless and Dolly Parton are delving into their mountain roots. And hard-core bluegrass musicians like Del McCoury and James King, who never stopped plugging away for the true believers, have been pumping out new recordings at a record pace to take advantage of the interest as well. This tour, assembled to pimp the O Brother concert documentary Down From the Mountain and its sound track (on Lost Highway), brings to town many of the music’s best performers; it was sold-out as of press time. The Tribune’s Greg Kot has already pegged the phenomenon as this year’s Buena Vista Social Club–another craze that caught fire thanks to a film project–and indeed, when it comes to bringing good stuff to the masses, moviemakers are putting the music biz to shame. Big record companies, the broadcast media, and mainstream concert promoters continuously and grossly underestimate the taste of American audiences; you can’t gain entree to one without the others, yet none of them has any time for anything that isn’t born a cash cow. This packed bill all but guarantees a less-than-ideal shuffle of meticulously programmed and disappointingly brief sets, but the talent is the real deal. Onetime country star Loveless, whose radio presence has been on the wane, has turned a sow’s ear into a silk purse with the brilliant, bluegrass-flavored Mountain Soul (Epic), a perfect marriage of polished country singing and lusty ruralism. As heard on last year’s terrific Del and the Boys (Ceili Music), McCoury and his killer band maintain their reign as kings of the genre, applying the classic high-lonesome sound to an expansive repertoire. And Rhonda Vincent, who spent much of the 90s trying unsuccessfully to make a country star of herself, continues her convincing return to bluegrass on the recent The Storm Still Rages (Rounder). Other highlights include headliner Emmylou Harris, who, although she has no bluegrass pedigree, can sing anything and make it sound heavenly; Stanley, who remains in excellent voice even if he’s been sleepwalking through his sets for years; and Norman Blake, an underappreciated guardian of the American folk tradition. Friday, February 8, 8 PM, Chicago Theatre, 175 N. State; 312-443-1130 or 312-902-1500.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Erick Anderson, Senor McGuire.