"Every Sound Below"
Produced by T Bone Burnett, who became Hollywood's go-to guy for old-timey music after the multiplatinum success of the "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" soundtrack, "Cold Mountain" has its share of high-concept hillbilly music. That's what happens when you ask Elvis Costello, Sting and Jack White of the White Stripes to go Appalachian.
The results are mixed. White's infatuation with string-band music is the focus of the "Cold Mountain" soundtrack far too often, and the best he can come up with are rootsy but otherwise routine reprises of "Wayfaring Stranger" and "Sittin' on Top of the World." Singer Alison Krauss covers the tunes by Costello and Burnett ("The Scarlet Tide") and Sting ("You Will Be My Ain True Love") in heartbreaking fashion, yet only the former tune, wistfully harmonized by Cheryl White, would stand out on one of Krauss's CDs with Union Station. In the end, it's the lesser-known names -- singer and multi-instrumentalist Tim Eriksen, banjoist Dirk Powell, fiddler Stuart Duncan and, unquestionably, the Sacred Harp Singers at Liberty Church.
A musical magpie, Eriksen picks up the Civil War theme on his second CD, "Every Sound Below," with back-to-back renditions of "The Southern Girl's Reply" and "The Cumberland and the Merrimac." Like every track on this soulful collection of mostly traditional tunes, the performances are sparsely arranged. Eriksen recorded the album alone, playing guitar, fiddle and banjo. He's a storyteller at heart, with a distinctive, unvarnished voice, so it isn't surprising that the narrative ballads, including banjo-driven "Omie Wise" and "John Colby's Hymn," leave the deepest impressions.
Powell's "Time Again" is an extended family affair, a celebration of mountain music made with family and friends. A veritable string band unto himself, Powell plays banjo, fretless banjo, fiddle, guitar, mandolin and bass here, surrounded by first-rate pickers, including guitarist Tim O'Brien and banjoist Riley Baugus. The music covers a wide swath of sounds, by turns charming ("Prettiest Little Girl in the County"), reeling ("Three Forks of Cumberland"), despairing ("My Love Lies in the Ground"), prayerful ("When Sorrows Encompass Me Round") and propulsive ("Texas Bells"). Interspersed throughout are taped recollections and musical snippets featuring Powell's grandfather, Kentucky banjoist and guitarist James Clarence Hay -- proof that the circle remains unbroken.
-- Mike Joyce
Alison Kraus & Union Station, Tim Eriksen and Dirk Powell appearing Wednesday at Wolf Trap. * To hear a free Sound Bite from "Cold Mountain," call Post-Haste at 301-313-2200 and press 8103; to hear Tim Eriksen, press 8104; to hear Dirk Powell, press 8105. (Prince William residents, call 703-690-4110.)