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Chris Hegedus, and D.A. Pennebaker
May 24, 2000, is a day that will live in hillbilly infamy. That’s the date of the concert that assembled most of the musical stars of O Brother, Where Art Thou? at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium. The show was a benefit for the new Country Music Hall of Fame—I don’t know what happened to the old one—as well as a discreet promo for the Coen brothers’ movie. In Down From the Mountain, directors Nick Doob, Chris Hegedus, and D.A. Pennebaker concentrate on the performances but also show us the scene backstage and even leave the building occasionally—notably for footage of John Hartford on a riverboat. (The singer-songwriter worked as a river pilot for years after “Gentle on My Mind” stopped paying his bills.) The easygoing Hartford, who died a year after the concert, served as the show’s MC, and his cancer-ravaged form is not the film’s only intimation of mortality. The concert builds to Ralph Stanley’s a cappella version of “O Death,” and many of the songs concern either damnation or salvation. Even the Peasall Sisters, a prepubescent trio, sing a song about Christian duty that packs a large measure of dread: Maybelle Carter’s “In the Highways.” The film (whose directors’ previous musical subjects include Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix, David Bowie, and Depeche Mode) also showcases the Cox Family, the Fairfield Four, Chris Thomas King, and the Whites, but aside from Stanley and Hartford, its stars are clearly Gillian Welch, Emmylou Harris, and Alison Krauss. Their performance of “(Didn’t Leave) Nobody but the Baby”—a semitraditional, semisynthetic “lullaby and field holler combined”—shows just how indomitable this music is: It can even survive being slicked up for a Hollywood farce. —Mark Jenkins