From: No Depression
Mountain music, by the book
by: David Menconi
Horace Kephart isnít a household name, but his name is in a lot of
households, Thatís because of Charles Frazierís epic 1997 novel Cold Mountain --- this yearís
National Book Award winner, and the Titanic of literary fiction with 1.5 million copies sold.
Look up the acknowledgments page in the Cold Mountain, and youíll find Kephartís seminal 1913
book Our Southern Highlanders credited as one of the dozen or so sources for the novelís
Daniel Gore hopes to put Kephartís name into a few more households with
Ways That Are Dark (Elephant Rock Records). An album of songs based on Our Southern
Highlanders, itís a remarkable piece of bluegrass scholarship that Gore allows sound a lot like
Cold Mountain feels.
If thereís a precedent to Ways That Are Dark, it would be Panamanian
salsa singer Ruben Bladesís 1987 album Agua De Luna (based on Gabriel Garcia Marquez short
stories) or Van Dyke Parksí Jump!, a 1984 song cycle based on Joel Chandler Harrisí Uncle Remus
tales. Kephart was a Thoreau-like figure, an accomplished librarian who fled his urban life
for North Carolinasís Smoky Mountains at the turn of the century. He went native, and also
demonstrated that you can take the man out of the library but not the librarian out of the man.
Kephart spent the rest of his days documenting mountain culture in a
series of articles and books, the most enduring of which remains Our Southern Highlanders.
When Gore first came across the book 15 years ago, he discovered that it tied together his
interests in music, folklore, outdoor pursuits and book collecting.
I identified something very familiar in Kephart, Gore says. It resonated
with my own experiences in the Smokies. Iíd spent a lot of time up there fishing, hiking,
camping. ...We were always up there exploring somewhere throughout my childhood. Our Southern
Highlanders kind of explained things in a way no other book could do.
Gore stared writing songs based on the dialect, tales and events that
Kephart recounted. By the time he was ready to record, Gore had moved from his native North
Carolina to Spokane, Washington, where he pays the bills as an electrical engineer while
playing bluegrass mandolin nights and week-ends. For Ways That Are Dark, he recruited an
all-star bluegrass cast including Peter Rowan, Tim OíBrien (whose upcoming album, not
coincidentally, consists of songs based on Cold Mountain) , ex-Red Clay Rambler Jim Watson and
Doc Watson sideman Jack Lawrence.
Musically, Ways That Are Dark is first-rate, and the structure makes it a
fascinating piece of work, Since many of the lyrics are in archaic mountain dialect, the liner
notes include a lexicon of terms: furriner (someone from anywhere else), cooteriní (to move
lazily, like a box turtle), ol Ned (slang for fat pork) and so forth. Liner notes explain the
origins of each song, and also include relevant photographs drawn from the Kephart collection
at Western Carolina University.
Topics include feuds, wild pigs, bear hunts and, of course, moonshine.
Because moonshineís production was both illegal and an important part of the mountain regionís
economy clashed between moonshiners and G-men federal agents were a fact of life. Close to
half the songs on Ways That Are Dark are concerned with one aspect or another of moonshining
culture, including the title track (recommended to fans of Steve Earleís Copperhead Road).
Kephart was very fond of the local water, as they say, Gore says. He
liked to drink it. But the history and culture of the moonshiner captivated him, too. The
process was a lifestyle for these people, their bread and butter. Itís like if you go to
Alaska, seal-spearing is part of the culture and nature of the place. Kephart made a point of
saying that in the mountains, there was a fine line between G-man and moonshiner. People could
easily move from one side to the other.
Despite its high-caliber cast and impressive quality, Gore was unable to
interest any record companies in releasing Ways That Are Dark. In fact, he says he couldnít
even get most of the to return his phone calls which is not entirely surprising, given that his
day joy precludes touring to promote an album ). So Gore has gone the D.I.Y. route, selling
the album by mail order and through a web site.
In the music business nowadays, if you try to float a project without the
inside connections that are required, youíll never get anywhere, Gore says. But thatís okay,
and Iím not the only one. More and more great musicians are abandoning their old contracts
with record labels and setting up their own companies to market and control their product.