If awakened to the strains of the Songcatcher soundtrack, a mysteriously sleeping Rip van Winkle from the Appalachians would be shocked: "Look what they've done to our songs, Ma! They've changed the rhythms; they've made them louder, with voices that dominate the instruments; they've sentimentalized our straightforward views of life and death and all the suffering in between!" The Songcatcher movie doesn't seem destined for greatness: It's a romance set in the hills at the turn of the last century, with a city-slicker woman hoping to record the singers most deem too primitive and falling in love with a mountain man in the process.
But, despite all the concerns of our van Winkle, or perhaps because of them, the Songcatcher album is a modern-day delight -- if for no other reason than the fact that we don't have recordings from this era at all. It wasn't until the late 1920s that "hillbilly" music became a commercial force. Those early records, by the likes of the Carter Family and Uncle Dave Macon, are clear-eyed, remarkably unsentimental snapshots of traditional songs passed from generation to generation. Since then, they've been mutating, becoming part of the popular culture.
The Songcatcher soundtrack features many of the most talented female vocalists of our time interpreting songs that, for the most part, date back to the 19th century or earlier. One of the album's handful of original tracks (and its most luminously gorgeous), "When Love Is New" was written by Dolly Parton; in it, the sung dialogue between mother and daughter (Parton and teenager Emmy Rossum) compares the pain of experience with the freshness of discovery. Rosanne Cash makes her long-overdue return to recording with "Fair and Tender Ladies." Emmylou Harris brings a masterful "Barbara Allen." Maria McKee sends shivers up the spine with the old hymn "Wayfarin' Stranger." Iris DeMent, Allison Moorer, Patty Loveless, Julie Miller, Sara Evans, Gillian Welch and Deana Carter turn in equally inspired performances.
Nothing is sung the way it once was sung. These songs, however modern in approach, resonate with the experience of the past. Life has changed dramatically over the past century, but pain and suffering and hope and love and death are all still with us. Songcatcher is about connections between then and now, between any two people caught in the act of being human.