Released in conjunction with a PBS documentary on the birthplace of bluegrass and mountain music, The Appalachians pairs contemporary bluegrass and old-timey stars with back-in-the-day archival recordings from the likes of Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family. The result isn't a lesson in history or music so much as human suffering and the eternal struggle to, as songwriter James Hedley wrote a hundred years ago, look on the sunny side of life. The sequence of tracks that begins with Jimmie Rodgers '"Waiting for a Train" and ends with the Carter Family's "Wildwood Flower" contains 50 lifetimes of pain and disappointment, as faces weathered like mountain tops sing hauntingly of love and destitution, and how the two are one and the same. Kentucky balladeer Addie Graham's "We're Stole and Sold from Africa," a darker (literally) sibling of Ralph Stanley's "O Death," defiantly details America's unforgivable sin; Blind Alfred Reed's "How Can a Poor Man Stand Such Times" puts a face on financial disaster; and Rodgers 'sweet "Waiting for a Train" desolately kicks a can down Tin Pan Alley.
The contemporary performances sound more optimistic thanks to cleaner production, even if the songs 'subjects rarely hear change jangle in their pockets. Jeff Black's restrained cover of the standard "Dark as a Dungeon" is perfectly pitched; Rose Bell's scratchy fiddle on "Amazing Grace" explores the Appalachians 'crucial bagpipe connection; Jason Ringenberg adds a bit of menace to the classic "Price to Pay"; Ricky Skaggs '"Soldier of the Cross" straddles the divide between old-timey and contemporary bluegrass with a very traditional arrangement spruced up with some decidedly modern harmonies; and Johnny and June Carter Cash's excellent duet on "The Road of Kaintuck" similarly spans bluegrass 'ages. (I'm still trying to figure out how the fact that weird New York folkie Devendra Banhart sounds exactly like the archival recording of West Virginian Maggie Hammons '"When This World Comes to an End" fits into all of this.)
The Appalachians recalls Nitty Gritty Dirt Band's hugely important Will the Circle Be Unbroken, their 1972 album that featured collaborations with Doc and Merle Watson, the Carter Family and many others. The Appalachians 'connections are much more spiritual and sequential than Circle's, but the purpose — to welcome mountain music into the modern age — is much the same. While many bluegrass revivalists insist upon ignoring the music's dark and pessimistic origins, the performers here revel in them, and this disc is absolutely essential as a result.