When Charles Frazier's epic novel Cold Mountain came out in 1997, it found two passionate readers in the world of American traditional music.
Multi-instrumentalist Tim O'Brien, long known as a leading light in bluegrass and American-Celtic music, and Dirk Powell, a well-known Appalachian fiddler, composer and session man, found the journey of the main character, a wounded Confederate soldier making his way home during the Civil War, as moving as any they had encountered in their careers of immersion in folklore, narrative and myth.
What most attracted O'Brien and Powell, though, was the book's placement in a universe both knew well: 19th-century western North Carolina, where old-time ballads, hymns and banjo and fiddle tunes provided a living soundtrack to post-Civil War life.
Frazier's frequent, and almost encyclopedic, references to that music so thrilled the pair that they set out to get as much of it on record as possible. Critics have called the resulting 1999 CD, Songs From the Mountain, one of the greatest old-time music records ever produced.
Strangely enough, that puts O'Brien, Powell and their collaborator, banjo player and old-time music scholar John Hermann, in an odd position. When filmmakers set out to turn Cold Mountain into the major motion picture now in theaters, they chose famed Nashville producer T-Bone Burnett to create the soundtrack.
Burnett's work on the Coen brothers' 2001 film O Brother, Where Art Thou? had mined a mother lode of interest in old-timey artists like Ralph Stanley, Alison Krauss and Ricky Skaggs.
This time out, Burnett may have skipped the artists who knew the material best: He gives a star turn (and five numbers) to ex-punk rocker Jack White and includes Brit rockers Sting and Elvis Costello, each of whom write an ersatz Appalachian-Celtic "traditional" for the score. O'Brien and Powell, featured on one tune each, are bit players on the new Cold Mountain soundtrack.
The situation has made great fodder for debate in roots-music chat rooms, where fans of old-time music are openly questioning the filmmakers' "right" to marginalize O'Brien and Powell, whose 1999 labor of love so hauntingly evokes the novel's era and characters.
Leaving aside the question of which collection is better, Songs From The Mountain - now being "repositioned" by Nashville's Sugar Hill Records - is truer in approach to the music Powell calls "a living link to the past and to the Scots/Irish and English immigrants who settled [western North Carolina] in the late 1700s," a version closer to what listeners would have heard during the Civil War.
On the CD, O'Brien's reverence for old-time musical storytelling is evident in his restraint. His piercing tenor, long the hallmark of the bluegrass band Hot Rize, soars and bends with such virtuosity that he easily could have upstaged simple tunes like "Wayfaring Stranger," "Mole in the Ground" and "Black Crow." Instead, the approach of the 50-year-old O'Brien, who has played those pieces for decades, becomes the musical equivalent of a river shaping its bed over time.
Powell adds "Stobrod's Tune," an original instrumental that echoes the experience of one character, a fiddler, with a dying girl. "This tune could be one Stobrod made up," writes Powell in the CD's notes. "It just formed as it went one morning, following itself along until it finished at the end."
With gentle, haunting harmonies, and such rough-hewn instruments as cigar-box fiddles and gourd banjos woven in with deftly played acoustic guitars and mandolins, the trio brings to natural life the sense of aspiration, grief and loss that drives the novel. Frazier himself calls the CD "a marvel."
"Dirk, Tim and John wonderfully capture the raw power and rough, sorrowful beauty of the music that sustained old America's spirit - and gave it a new life for the new century," Frazier says.
The newly released Cold Mountain soundtrack CD, with its all-star cast and producer, is sure to garner a few end-of-year award nominations, but early critics have called it uneven.
If that's the price of Burnett's use of talent from outside the realm of traditional music, perhaps fans of the Frazier novel can find an antidote in the soulful work of this trio of acoustic craftsmen, artists who harmonized their feelings four years before Hollywood rolled its klieg lights up to Frazier's Cold Mountain.