In the movie Songcatcher
, a young woman heads into the Appalachian hills to record the folk songs of an early twentieth-century culture that critic Greil Marcus gets off on calling "the old, weird America." On this set of film-inspired recordings, some of the best female singers on the planet wander back through the years to catch a few of these songs themselves, but what they tote back doesn't seem old in the least. For example, Emmylou Harris' "Barbara Allen" and Roseanne Cash's "Fair and Tender Ladies" are pushed along by rhythm tracks that are tape-loop depressive and 21st-century gothic, respectively, and each reminds that classic folk songs will be old only when people stop singing them -- that is, when hearts no longer break and loved ones no longer die. Iris DeMent is clearly channeling the ancient tones when she pines through "Saro Jane," while Maria McKee's amazing "Wayfaring Stranger" alternates between whispers and diva-styled declarations and might've been cut sometime last night. Each, though, conveys emotions that feel like forever.
Also making memorable contributions are country singers both mainstream (Deana Carter, Sara Evans, Patty Loveless) and alt (Julie Miller, Allison Moorer), all of whom come off as modern, whether they're singing standards or standard-inspired originals. The high point comes when Dolly Parton, singing one of her own and playing a worried single mom, warns Emmy Rossum, playing her head-over-heels-in-love daughter, that new love invariably turns ugly with the years. Very nearly as strong, though, is Gillian Welch's haunting version of "Wind and Rain," an old song in which a musician crafts a fiddle from a dead woman's remains. Weird? Sure it is, but only as weird, and wonderful, as the need to transform pain into song.