Southern Missouri got a moment in the spotlight earlier this year when Winter's Bone was nominated for four Academy Awards. The film — an adaptation of Missouri writer Daniel Woodrell's novel of the same name — is an unflinching look at hardscrabble lives in the Ozarks.
The tone is set in the opening scene, as an a cappella rendition of "Missouri Waltz" drifts in over a bleak rural backdrop. The eerie but gorgeous voice belongs to former journalist and teacher Marideth Sisco, a West Plains, Missouri, resident who contributed several songs to the soundtrack. On Friday, she brings the Winter's Bone Tour to Crosstown Station. We checked in with Sisco to ask about the film's surprise success and what to expect from the show Friday.
The Pitch: You ended up working as a kind of music consultant on the film, right?
Sisco: Yes, while I was working on some of the songs, the filmmakers and I got to be friends, and they were interested in better understanding what Ozark music was and wasn't. I've lived down here a long time and I've been singing since I was 3 years old, so I tried to help guide them along. What I did was more presented them with choices and letting them decide. With "Missouri Waltz," they asked me about using it as a kind of lullaby, and I told them, 'First of all, it's really racist.' But they asked me to fix it, and so I made it more palatable to modern tastes and sent it over, and they liked it.
When you first saw the film, did you feel like the filmmakers portrayed life in the Ozarks accurately?
I have to say, it really blew my mind that this band of people from New York, who had no connection to this place, could come down, listen to people, take in the culture, and then make such an authentic film. They really grasped the culture of family loyalties, not telling things to strangers, self-reliance.
What is Ozark music, in your view?
It's very close to Appalachian music, but it has different rhythms and uses, and different cultures have filtered into it. The Ozarks is full of settlements that came in on the back side of the frontier movement. Some people just said, 'Whoa, this is as far as we want to go.' And those cultures — Swiss, Austrian, Polish, German — have filtered into the music. The first songs my father learned were shadish dances, which are kind of like a polka but with a different rhythm. Ozark rhythms largely aren't as hard-driving as, say, a bluegrass rhythm.
What about lyrically and thematically?
I suppose the songs people play down here address universal themes: sadness of the heart, love and loss, death. Those things speak to deep currents in this culture. There's a hardness to Ozark culture that has roots in the land itself. The Ozarks is rocks, and underneath the rocks there's more rocks. It's tough to scratch a living here, but people still do it. We've got the meth problem now, but before that it was marijuana, and before that it was moonshine. But somebody once said, 'If you're poor enough, all those things are called economic development.' I think that idea, that things are more driven by need down here, also makes its way into the songs people sing.
Do you play regularly in West Plains?
Lately I've been on tour, but usually every Thursday, people gather over at Rick Cochran's house, and whoever shows up to play plays. It's a really amorphous group. I met Tedi May, the bass player that's coming out on tour with us, there.
Who else is coming with you on tour, and what will you be playing?
It's six of us. Van Colbert plays banjo. Linda Stoffel sings high harmonies — she's from West Virginia, our resident Appalachian singer. Bo Brown plays dobro and guitar. Tedi May plays upright bass. Dennis Crider plays rhythm guitar and does a local fingerpicking style that has a real Ozarks feel to it. And I sing. It's a lot of old traditional material, plus some more contemporary things I've written with a songwriter. My stuff is in the old style but with a contemporary twist, not so much topical songs as songs about the land and the culture and the people down here. That's the stuff I like the best.