Dirk Powell, Tim &
O'Brien & John Herrmann,
Songs from the Mountain
(Howdy Skies, 1998)

Here's one of the greatest old-time music records I've ever heard, and a great introduction to this musical genre for those new to it. The musicians are fiddler Dirk Powell, who has done solo albums for Rounder; Tim O'Brien, known not only for his solo work, but also for his work with Hot Rize, his sister Mollie, and his band the O'Boys; and John Herrmann, an extraordinary banjoist who I hope to hear more from. The title refers to Charles Frazier's bestselling novel, Cold Mountain, and the songs are either mentioned and played in the book or are contemporary with or inspired by the events of the novel -- providing, in the words of the liner notes, "a living link to the past and the Scots/Irish and English immigrants who settled the (western North Carolina) area in the late 1700s." It is an intriguing conceit, and one that works equally well whether or not you've read the book.

There are classics in abundance here, such as Stephen Foster's "Hard Times," and the traditional "Angel Band," "Wayfarin' Stranger" and "Jack of Diamonds." A few originals also appear; in fact, the first tune, "Mountain Air," is by Powell, but sounds as ancient as the medley's other melodies, "Washington's March" and "Bonaparte's Retreat." Powell also offers "Stobrod's Tune," named for the fictitious fiddler of Cold Mountain, and it's a grand one, played with double stops throughout and accompanied by Herrmann's frailing banjo. Herrmann contributes "Cherokee Trail," which should easily become a new "old" standard for old-time musicians everywhere, as well as new lyrics to the traditional songs "Bow Down" and "Skillet Good and Greasy." O'Brien's sole original is "Claire Dechutes," a gloriously haunting piano-fiddle waltz with Herrmann's mandolin chiming away in the background.

This is old-time music at its modern best. You'll hear no "authentically" out-of-tune instruments here, and few sour "blue notes." What you will hear is the best of old-time tunes played with skill and passion, and sung in magnificent harmonies, especially the final song, "Angel Band." There is detailed documentation for each song, and a wonderfully evocative tinted cover photo. Songs from the Mountain is a marvelous companion piece for devotees of Cold Mountain, and an unparalleled treat for lovers of old-time music.

- Rambles
written by Chet Williamson



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