Review of the Original Motion Picture Soundtrack: Get Low

Does anyone buy CDs these days? An informal survey of people I know yielded the somewhat predictable conclusion that most of us prefer to download individual songs and ‘cherry-pick’ albums for our favorite tracks. So, unless you are a die-hard fan of the movie Get Low or have unusually eclectic tastes in music, that is what you’ll want to do with this soundtrack album featuring various artists and released on the Rounder label.

For those of us familiar with Rounder and some of the artists included here, a quick glance down the list of performers will certainly arouse our curiosity. Acoustic music luminaries Alison Krauss, Jerry Douglas and Stuart Duncan as well as up-and-comers The Steeldrivers are all involved, most on more than one track. These cuts are blended with the vintage sounds of Bix Beiderbecke, the Ink Spots, Paul Whiteman and Gene Austin with a handful of score excerpts by Academy Award winning composer Jan A. P. Kaczmarek.

Fans of Jerry Douglas and his impeccable Dobro playing are perhaps the most likely to be impressed here. He is featured on 6 of the 16 tracks in a mixture of combinations of writer, producer and performer. Two of those songs “No Haircut” and “North” are co-written and performed with Stuart Duncan, whose flawless fiddle playing blends so perfectly with Douglas, it comes as no surprise to learn that these two professionals have recorded a wealth of music together throughout their respective careers.

If you’ve never heard of The Steeldrivers, you will. They’re often called a bluegrass band mainly due to the standard guitar/mandolin/fiddle/banjo/bass set-up but there’s more to it than that. They’re more ‘low-down lonesome sound’ as opposed to the ‘high, lonesome sound’ we’re used to in bluegrass music. Think of John Fogerty from Creedence Clearwater Revival singing bluegrass. Aside from the gritty vocals (their t-shirt calls the music ‘uneasy listening’), what sets them apart is the songwriting of guitarist Chris Stapleton. That’s why it’s a little disappointing that of their four contributions here, only one (“Jesus Come For Me”) is original and only two feature vocals. A cynical listener may speculate that their recordings of three traditional tunes including the ubiquitous “Angelina Baker” and “Whiskey Before Breakfast” have more to do with not having to pay to record and duplicate them than the music itself.

The highlight of this disc for me was the hauntingly beautiful opening ballad “Lay My Burden Down.” It’s sung perfectly by Alison Krauss (her only contribution: sorry AK fans.) demonstrating the quality we’ve come to expect when prodigious talent meets very expensive microphones. It should be noted here that this song was penned by Aoife O’Donovan, singer with the band Crooked Still whose songwriting prowess is rightly beginning to garner her as much acclaim as her vocal skill.

Alison Krauss – “Lay My Burden Down”

There are no great surprises on the Get Low soundtrack and while there may be good songs from very good musicians, fans of these artists won’t find much satisfaction here. On the other hand, anyone who discovers these players for the first time through this recording is in for a real treat if they delve into the massive treasure trove of previously recorded material.

In listening to this record I found myself wondering whether movie soundtrack albums are marketed toward people who’ve seen the movie and liked the music, people who like the music enough to want to see the movie or both. In the end, I found the juxtaposition of traditional tunes and jazz pieces from the period interesting enough to look into why these songs were selected and featured together. This pushed me to read the synopsis of the plot, which in turn inspired me to see the movie. Congratulations, Sony Pictures Classics. You got me.

Iain Birchwood

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