Friday, January 14, 2011

Interview: Marideth Sisco Discusses The "Winter's Bone" Soundtrack & The Music Of The Ozarks

The Winter’s Bone album is a starker and earthier companion to O Brother Where Art Thou?, which is often seen as the holy grail of soundtracks filled with traditional American music. What O Brother did for bluegrass, Winter’s Bone should do for the music of the Ozarks- bring it to a wider audience that will be receptive and appreciative, and in my mind- just waiting for it, even if they do not yet know it.

The film, Winter’s Bone, unravels the riveting story of 17 year-old Ree Dolly’s search for her meth-addict father, Jessup, who goes missing after posting the family house as bail. Living on close to nothing, and with her siblings’ eviction at stake, Ree is determined to find Jessup’s missing body at all costs. She finds an unlikely, and questionable ally in her uncle, Teardrop, and together, they face a deadly clan of murderous outlaws.

The film is set among The Ozarks mountain region of southern Missouri. The cloudy and gray overcast sky, along with the rugged wooden landscape set the stage for a powerful film that tells the story of hard people, living in hard places, unearthing dangerous secrets among territorial and violent ties.

The brilliant soundtrack album, delivers an outsider’s glimpse into the Ozarks of Winter’s Bone, and offers a wide variety of stark, subtle, uplifting, and deeply heartfelt traditional music from this rich, rural, region. The collection harks back to a rich history of yesteryear, while playing as a score of inspirational tunes that we all can cherish.

One of the true highlights of the album for me was discovering many of the region’s artists for the first time, especially Marideth Sisco. She is an accomplished singer, songwriter, storyteller, who was accompanied by the band, Blackberry Winter, on several of the collection’s tracks. Sisco is a member of the Davis Creek Rounders, heads her own podcast and radio show called These Ozark Hills, and she just completed her first collection of essays , sharing the same title.

I recently had the opportunity to speak with Ms. Sisco and as you can read here, she was more than generous with her time, and shared much of her experiences and insights into this region's music.

How did you get involved with the Winter’s Bone Soundtrack?

Marideth Sisco: The Winter's Bone production team was in the West Plains area visiting Daniel Woodrell and scouting for locations, when someone expressed a wish to hear "Ozarks music." Daniel, who knew a group of us played weekly at a friend's house, brought them to hear us. They stayed a while, listened to the music, videotaped us, and left. Two years later I got a phone call from Anne Rosellini telling me they'd written a scene into the movie for me.

Can you describe your experience working with Black Berry Winter?

MS: The experience has been wonderful for all of us, I think. Some of us have known each other for years; others are new. But we have a fine resonance when we're all together. Bo Brown and Dennis Crider are long-time friends of mine, but didn's know each other before meeting in the studio for the soundtrack. Bo and Billy Ward have played together for years, but I'd never met Billy. Van Colbert played the Old Time Music festival in West Plains with his brothers, and I'd heard him several times. But we'd never played together before the studio recording.

How did you select the songs to be included on the soundtrack album?
MS: That was a mutual decision between Producer Steve Peters, WB producer Jonathan Scheuer and me. In addition to the songs that actually were heard in the film we wanted to include the songs that had been chosen for the film but had not made the cut for various reasons. We'd have added more, but had to stop when we reached the limit of the CD's capacity.

What is your most memorable experience regarding your involvement with Winter’s Bone?

MS: It would have to be when I saw the finished film for the first time at Sundance. Before then, in my mind it was this little hometown indie film that might have some merit. I was completely blown away by the sheer magnitude of its authenticity. Try as I might, I could not find a single frame of the film that did not depict the depths of this hardscrabble land absolutely accurately. This film does not, nor does it pretend to, depict all of the Ozarks. But it got this slice of the culture dead on.

What has the film and the soundtrack done for this music (and region of the country)?

MS: The film certainly has made more people aware of the Ozarks, And the soundtrack is reaching people in many cultures. I get letters and requests for the CD from places as far away as Ireland and Greece. Today, someone from a newspaper in Copenhagen interviewed me and asked for photos. I think it's making this very unique "old time music" more visible. Plus we get the chance to explain that this music is not bluegrass, but what bluegrass music stems from. Bluegrass music is the child of the old time tradition.

What do you find to be some of the most important aspects of the music that has come out, and continues to emerge out of the Ozarks?

MS: A good question. Certainly the old ballads are a tradition unto themselves. As the Ozarks is an offshoot of Appalachian culture that has evolved its own unique life, ways in an area that is historically culturally isolated, so, too, the music has been shaped by the timeless need to express the challenges and difficulties of life in these Ozarks hills. Songs continue to change and evolve over time to address the concerns of both the audience and the players.

In your opinion, what makes this music unique?

MS: Its simple honesty, which is sometimes couched in terms that date back to Elizabethan England, and a tonal structure that is woven from traditions sometimes modal, sometimes leaning toward modern jazz. It's music from the heart, and even though it has its roots far back in time in the British Isles and elsewhere, it is ever fresh in speaking to the concerns of the heart.

As a newcomer to the region’s music myself, and someone who has discovered this music through the film and soundtrack, could you recommend some of the artists from the Ozarks you feel that traditional music enthusiasts should be aware of and/ or seek out?

MS: Locally, certainly you should look at the work of Kim and Jim Lansford, Moon Mullins, The Colbert Brothers and the Grace Family. Many country artists have their beginnings here, including  Wanda Jackson, the Dusty Rhodes Family, Red Foley, Leroy VanDyke, Jimmy Driftwood, Pat Boone, Brenda Lee, etc. Porter Wagoner is from my town, West Plains.

Are there any albums you would consider “essential listening”, and/ or a good place for novices to begin?

MS: First, Dixie Blossom, by Art Galbraith and Gordon McCann. Then the three-volume set of string bands from the 1920s and 30s called Echoes of the Ozarks. There's also a collection of  Ozarks tunes from National Geographic that Steve Peters can tell you about. Those are the old bones of the music.

Who are your influences as a writer, musician, and storyteller?

MS: As a writer, John McPhee, Paul Gruchow, Mary Oliver and Margaret Atwood. I learned to sing from Ronnie Gilbert and Judy Collins, with a dash of Judy Henske. Storytelling I learned from my whole family, and the guys on the loafer's bench in front of Goldie's Cafe in Butterfield.

Available through Ms. Sisco's etsy store here
What have you been listening to lately?

MS: Oh, my, what haven't I been listening to? Patti Larkin, the McGarrigle Sisters, Bryan Bowers, Gillian Welch and Pat Metheny, mostly. And Rhiannon.

When did you start These Ozark Hills radio show and podcast?

 MS: I started it in May of 2008.

What was the inspiration for the show?

MS: It was originally going to be stories and interviews with local folks, to establish local programming for the Missouri State-based KSMU public radio station from the satellite campus in West Plains. But as it got going, and I wasn't always able to come up with a suitable interview, or I recorded it wrong, or some other problems got in the way, it just became easier for me to write up a little essay that would fit into the format, something around 800 words or so, and respond to the events and currents of the day or season. And that approach proved to be popular with the radio audience. So that's what it's become.

What’s next for you in 2011?

MS: Well, since 2010 was nothing I'd have predicted in my wildest dreams, I'm hesitant to make any great leaps intuitively. I'll be teaching again for Drury University. We've begun work on a second album of Ozarks music to come out in the spring, and I've been researching a couple of screenplay ideas for the Winter's Bone team. I suspect I won't have too much extra time on my hands, at least for the next few months. No complaints. I'm having the time of my life.

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