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October 28, 2006 2:25 AM   Subscribe

I'm looking for examples of stripped-down bluegrass songs with the kind of eerie/sad sound that gives you goosebumps and makes your heart ache.

There's a particular kind of plaintive Appalachian style that really exudes what those people endured. Almost like a bluegrass dirge. I'm thinking along the lines of something that sounds like it could've been recorded a hundred years ago... raw, simple and authentic. Suggestions welcome.
posted by empyrean to Media & Arts (40 answers total) 64 users marked this as a favorite
The one that springs to mind instantly is "Oh Death" by Ralph Stanley.
posted by essexjan at 2:57 AM on October 28, 2006

Roscoe Holcomb.
posted by enrevanche at 3:56 AM on October 28, 2006

"Talk About Sufferin'", from Ricky Skaggs's fantastic Family and Friends. A-capella, close harmony, minor key, talking about death as a release from the hardships of life. And a liberal dose of Jesus. It's fucking stellar, and just what you're looking for.
posted by saladin at 5:09 AM on October 28, 2006

Instrumental, but exactly what you're looking for:

Mary Z. Cox: A Secret Life of Banjo

Butch Baldassari & David Schnaufer: Appalachian Mandolin and Dulcimer

Both of these feature haunting versions of "Wayfaring Stranger", the most haunting traditional song I know. Johnny Cash's version is not quite bluegrass but as stripped down as you get.
posted by unSane at 5:14 AM on October 28, 2006

If you want the eerie stripped down sound, maybe you should look into delta blues as well as bluegrass.
posted by milarepa at 6:00 AM on October 28, 2006

Anything by Gillian Welch. Try Time (The Revelator) for a start.
posted by felix betachat at 6:26 AM on October 28, 2006

Why it's been piegeonholed as a Christmas song always puzzled me, but I Wonder as I Wander is one I thought of.

Also- There is a lot more similarity between that raw Appalachian sound and the Celtic tradtion than a lot of people know. there are some direct historical ties there.
posted by I_Love_Bananas at 7:02 AM on October 28, 2006

The Cold Mountain soundtrack is good for this. The whole album is shot through with that spare spooky 19th century appalachian vibe.

In particular, "Lady Margret" is a ghost story ("three time he kissed her cold corpsey lips...") sung a capella by Cassie Franklin, and Jack White's version of Wayfaring Stranger is also very good here.
posted by stupidsexyFlanders at 7:41 AM on October 28, 2006

Sackcloth n' Ashes by 16 Horsepower is so spooky that I've put it on as halloween music more than once. Very authentic appalachian sound.

I also second the Delta Blues suggestion ... perticularly anything by Charlie Patton.
posted by likeSoy at 7:51 AM on October 28, 2006

The Legend of the Rebel Soldier always brings tears to my eyes. Lyrics here.
posted by Nathanial Hörnblowér at 7:57 AM on October 28, 2006

I've never consistently liked the dark and lonesome of any bluegrass greats more than Ralph Stanley.
posted by cortex at 8:15 AM on October 28, 2006

empyrean, do you have the name of a song and/or artist that I could hunt up online and listen to get an idea of what exactly you are looking for?
posted by dgeiser13 at 8:29 AM on October 28, 2006

Bill Monroe. And you need to check out the Southern Journey recordings; this site sells a box set and offers audio clips. Check out "Tribulations" by Estil C. Ball.
posted by naomi at 9:02 AM on October 28, 2006

I really like Jim and Jenny and the Pinetops and the Be Good Tanyas.
The Tanyas aren't quite as "authentic," (they're from British Columbia,) but they are definitely sad 'n' spooky.
posted by chococat at 9:03 AM on October 28, 2006

i have to second gillian welch. she is EXACTLY what you are looking for. " hell among the yearlings" and "revival" are absolutely haunting, and tender.
posted by metasav at 9:07 AM on October 28, 2006

Well jeez, I was going to suggest "No One Knows My Name" by Gillian Welch, which has always sounded haunting to me. But now that I listen to some of these other samples, it sounds almost warming by comparison. It's certainly got grit, and a woeful story behind it. Might as well check it out - it's nice. You can hear two different samples of it, one at Amazon and another at
posted by kookoobirdz at 9:21 AM on October 28, 2006

Here's a live recording of "Time (The Revelator)." Performed on A Prairie Home Companion 9/25/2004.

If you can dig up the entire show, it's well worth a listen. Gillian Welch and David Rawlings performed with Old Crow Medicine Show. It's really lovely...especially the finale, an ensemble performance of "We're All in This Together". I think I got it off of Sharing the Groove a few years back. I don't know what StG got resurrected as, unfortunately, so I can't tell you where to find it now.
posted by felix betachat at 9:53 AM on October 28, 2006

Also, Tim O'Brien's album Songs from the Mountain has a lot of that haunting, spare Appalachian sound.
posted by felix betachat at 9:55 AM on October 28, 2006

Not exactly bluegrass, but this stripped down version of I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry, sung by Pappy and backed up Victoria Williams, Howe Gelb, and the rest of Giant Sand, has been known to bring water to my eyes, especially listened to in the dark with headphones on. Unfortunately, the terrific album it's from, Glum, was put out of print by Warner Bros. two years after release. I think it's GS's best recording. The final words, spoken by a female voice, make this a terrific closing track for a sad mixed cd.
posted by dobbs at 10:17 AM on October 28, 2006

Try "Credo" by Hayseed (on the "Melic" album ... features guest vocal by Lucinda Williams ... utterly haunting).
posted by jbickers at 10:32 AM on October 28, 2006

The Obray Ramsey song "Rain and Snow" on the album called "The Music Never Stopped" has that sound.
posted by extrabox at 10:59 AM on October 28, 2006

The relatively recent Ralph Stanley album Short Life of Trouble: The Songs of Grayson & Whitter is excellent in this vein. It's not exactly bluegrass, but it's very good.
posted by OmieWise at 11:04 AM on October 28, 2006

Here's something for you: Chris Whitley, Dirt Floor. Achingly gorgeous music, even if it doesn't fall squarely into the bluegrass bucket. Chris was extremely gifted, with the voice of an angry angel and furious fretboard fingers. He was one of a kind, I miss him so very much.
posted by dbiedny at 12:33 PM on October 28, 2006

Try James McMurtry's Angeline.
posted by weston at 12:46 PM on October 28, 2006

Oooh, second Gillian Welch. Her music changed my life. She has four albums and they're all fantastic. From 'Time (The Revelator), try the title track, April the 14th Part 1, Everything is Free Now, and I Dreamed a Highway. Or from 'Soul Journey', I Made a Lover's Prayer. Or from 'Revival', Barroom Girls, Only One and Only. Or finally from 'Hell Among the Yearlings', Whiskey Girl.

Also, 'On a Lonesome Night' by Ricky Skaggs and Kentucky Thunder from Live at the Charleston Music Hall gives me shivers.
posted by PercussivePaul at 1:01 PM on October 28, 2006

Bil Monroe pioneered the "high lonesome" sound so you can't go wrong with him. My particular favorites are his cover of Lefty Frizell's "Long Black Veil" and his version of "Pilgrim/Wayfaring Stranger". Also n'thing the Stanley Brothers/Ralph Stanley.

Also check out the Pixies' "Silver". They do an excellent job of emulating that mournful bluegrass sound.

Trivia: Monroe sang "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot" at Carter Stanley's funeral. Ralph Stanley did the same for Monroe when he passed away.
posted by oneirodynia at 1:03 PM on October 28, 2006

I find "Hard Time Killing Floor Blues" by Chris Thomas King (which can be found on the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack) heartbreaking. The Skip James version isn't bad either.
posted by TG_Plackenfatz at 1:17 PM on October 28, 2006

This is easy:
William Elliott Whitmore. [myspace]
Appalachian, lamenting, soulful. His new album is excellent.

Podcast from his label [mp3].
posted by yeti at 1:38 PM on October 28, 2006

The Wailin Jennys might be a bit more modern than you had in mind, but they sing a couple of truly beautiful songs. Try "Long Time Traveler," which you can listen to on their website.
posted by dseaton at 1:42 PM on October 28, 2006

I can't believe nobody has said Lefty Frizzell, "Long Black Veil" (Though not every woman in that region cheats on their husband and then weeps at the grave of her lover after he's hung for a murder he didn't commit.)

Also, Gillian Welch's version of "The Miner's Refrain" makes me come pretty close to choking just about every time.
posted by bilabial at 2:23 PM on October 28, 2006

And I can't believe there's no love yet in this thread for Dolly Parton. While it's true she's been over produced to death, on her own, with her own songs, her vocal range and her natural approach to melody and harmony is pure Appalachia. Get back to her 1971 release "Coat of Many Colors" for some simple musicality.
posted by paulsc at 3:04 PM on October 28, 2006

I know exactly the sound you're talking about and it's very tough to find. Not even many classic bluegrass bands consistently had that sound other than the Stanley Brothers. None of the new hippy bluegrass jam bands even sound like bluegrass let alone have the sound you're looking for. You're probably better off sticking to more unknown artists like Roscoe Holcomb and maybe Doc Watson. Ralph Stanley's newer solo material is about close as you might get.

You could also try:
Stanley Brothers - An Evening Long Ago (Live on the Radio 1956) This whole album might have the sound you're looking for. It's just Ralph and Carter with no band.
There might be some examples of this sound on The Anthology Of American Folk Music. I own it but I'm not intimately familiar with it.

I get the impression you're looking for older artists, but here are a couple of newer songs that might also fit (but I doubt it):
Johnny Staats Project "Coal Tattoo"
Patty Loveless "You'll Never Leave Harlan Alive"

Oh, and everything by Nickel Creek :)
posted by bda1972 at 4:18 PM on October 28, 2006

I can heartily endorse the Louvin Brothers: shattering fraternal harmonies and a repertoire populated with weeping drunkards, dying soldiers, jail-bound n'er-do-wells, loquacious doubting Thomases and a general roundup of redemption-haunted Southern sinners. And every love song's a ménage with death.

More modern? Iron & Wine.
posted by Haruspex at 4:38 PM on October 28, 2006

Amen on the Stanley Brothers, bda1972!

For other specitic tracks, I recommend you check out Who will sing for me and When I wake up (to sleep no more). These both have band with them, but the vocals overpower the instrumental parts.
posted by whatzit at 4:39 PM on October 28, 2006

An act that I've totally fallen in love with over the last year or so is Old Crow Medicine Show. Their latest album is produced at least in part by Gillian Welch, and has some good stuff, both rollicking and of the "high lonesome" variety. See their older stuff too, especially, "We're all in this Together", "Big Time in the Jungle", and "Gospel Plow".</plug>
posted by Emperor SnooKloze at 4:42 PM on October 28, 2006

Response by poster: Wow! I love you all. I just got back and expected to see "what're you talking about?" Thanks so much to everyone. Consider yourselves all marked as best answer, because there's no way I could value any one over another. This has turned into a fantastic repository and it looks like I have a ton of material to wade through.


If you want the eerie stripped down sound, maybe you should look into delta blues as well as bluegrass.

Yes, I do have a background in blues from back when I was learning guitar as a kid. I suppose that's how my interest has branched out into bluegrass and this question came about.

There is a lot more similarity between that raw Appalachian sound and the Celtic tradtion than a lot of people know. there are some direct historical ties there.

My wife and I were discussing this last night. Earlier this week we saw a special on PBS featuring Irish/Scottish/Canadian Celtic music and we wondered out loud about the links to American bluegrass and folk, since there were obvious (to us) similarities.

empyrean, do you have the name of a song and/or artist that I could hunt up online and listen to get an idea of what exactly you are looking for?

Some of the ones that have been named fit perfectly, but I didn't want to throw any out there in case it discouraged anyone from responding with what gave them the same feeling as I was looking for.

Oh, and everything by Nickel Creek :)
SMACK! Kidding... I'll let you off, because of your other great recommendations.
posted by empyrean at 5:17 PM on October 28, 2006

Nobody's mentioned Dock Boggs.
posted by al_fresco at 5:34 PM on October 28, 2006 [1 favorite]

Okay, I'm not an Appalachia fan, but when it comes to someone at least dabbling in such stuff, I really enjoy Natalie Merchant's "House Carpenter's Daughter."
posted by lhauser at 9:10 PM on October 28, 2006

I second Iron & Wine - "Faded From the Winter" particularly stands out as one that makes my soul ache.
posted by sarahsynonymous at 7:51 PM on October 30, 2006

I totally forgot about this, but the song Northern Cross fits the general criteria, and as performed by Cry Cry Cry is almost certainly going to be what you want. It's available on Rhapsody and the iTunes store for preview. Leslie Smith's recording is pretty good too.
posted by weston at 2:05 PM on October 31, 2006

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