By Barry Gilbert
Of the Post-Dispatch

May 14, 2004

It's unlikely that so many people at the Fox Theatre have ever derived so much happiness from so many songs about death.

But that's what happened Wednesday night during the Great High Mountain Tour, a collection of about a dozen acts playing old-time, acoustic string-band music. The nearly three-hour show, which at first seemed out of place in the grand, urban museum that is the Fox, essentially spans two movie soundtracks produced by T-Bone Burnette: the country and gospel "O Brother, Where Art Thou?"of the early 20th century and the Civil War-era folk music of "Cold Mountain," plus the 2002 "Down From the Mountain" tour soundtrack celebrating the music of "O Brother."

The music comes from the hard lives of settlers and soldiers, sinners and preachers, and farmers and families who wrote about their hopes and fears to the accompaniment of guitars, banjos, fiddles and mandolins.

Tying a diverse cast together without hogging the spotlight was Alison Krauss + Union Station. The classy fiddler with the heavenly voice and crack band was funny, charming and at ease among the young (12-year-old mandolin prodigy Sierra Hull) and the old (bluegrass legend Ralph Stanley, 77).

The show began with two sacred-harp songs from "Cold Mountain," performed by much of the company, before moving on to minisets from each act, including one-time Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash sideman Norman Blake and his wife, Nancy, who offered subdued takes on "Big Rock Candy Mountain" and "You Are My Sunshine"; and the Cox Family, who played "I Am Weary (Let Me Rest)" and "Will There Be Any Stars in My Crown?"

An early highlight was Tim Eriksen, Riley Baugus and Dirk Powell singing "The Cuckoo" from "Cold Mountain" with help from mandolinist Mike Compton and bassist Dennis Crouch from the hot Nashville Bluegrass Band, and singers Amy Helm and Fiona McBain from the young band Ollabelle.

But the audience really didn't become engaged until Heidi Andrade from the young Reeltime Travelers earned cheers with an extended clog-dance rout ine - and then picked up her fiddle and blew the dust off the Fox.

Krauss and Union Station's early set led into intermission with the "O Brother" hit "I Am a Man of Constant Sorrow," sung by guitarist Dan Tyminski, who dubbed George Clooney's singing in the movie. Dobro master Jerry Douglas, bassist Barry Bales and guitarist/banjo player Ron Block complete the group.

There was more mixing among the bands during the second half, and highlights included Krauss on "Down to the River to Pray" and "You Will Be My Ain True Love"; Krauss, Helm and McBain on "Didn't Leave Nobody but the Baby"; the haunting Ollabelle on "John the Revelator"; and the Whites on "Making Believe," propelled by Douglas on dobro and patriarch Buck White on mandolin.

The Whites also got the crowd singing along for the first time on "Keep on the Sunny Side," as well as laughing when Sharon White said: "Pretty fancy building, huh, Dad?"

"Doncha know, it'd hold a lot of hay," Buck said, looking around.

But the best was saved for last, and Krauss introduced Stanley, a first-generation bluegrass pioneer, as the "meanest and most lonesome" of them all. The white-haired Stanley blazed through "Pretty Polly" with Blake and the Nashville Bluegrass Band behind him, before the lights came down and he sang the chilling "O Death" a cappella, backlighted in silhouette.

After a standing ovation, the full cast joined Stanley for "Angel Band" and the fitting closing hymn "Amazing Grace," with the audience standing, holding hands and singing along.