The Mountain Minor is a 2019 film about a familiar story in the world of bluegrass and old-time music. The theme is the transplanting of rural residents into a new unfamiliar setting and the role traditional elements—not the least of which is music—play in anchoring a sense of home. The COVID-19 pandemic has likely limited the film’s screening and exposure opportunities, but it appears to have gained a following, in part because of the decision to use musicians such as old-time fiddler/banjoist Dan Gellert and Elizabeth LaPrelle (of the duo Anna and Elizabeth) as actors in the production and to record the music live on the set rather than separately in the studio.
This soundtrack recording is meant to bring home the music for viewers of the film. As one who has yet to see the film, I’m assessing the album as a separate entity, but it’s still an impressive undertaking. Over 39 tracks, many of them very short snippets, there’s a diverse assortment of mostly traditional tunes, primarily performed by Gellert, LaPrelle, and soundtrack composer Trevor McKenzie, who proves equally adept at playing old tunes and his original atmospheric interludes.
What helps to sustain the listening interest over a recording of such extended length is the sheer variety of tunes and approaches. While short fiddle and/or banjo instrumentals predominate, especially those accentuating the idiosyncratic modal tunes to which the film title refers, there are forays into lining-out hymns (“I’m Going to a City”), live square dance calling (“Old Jimmy Sutton”), bluegrass (“Darlin’ Corey”), a cappella balladry (“Young Emily”), driving full-band sound (“Paddy on the Turnpike”), and even a jazzy Grismanesque mandolin/flute/guitar configuration (“Krazy Kat”).
For my ears, at least, listening outside of the context of the film itself, there are two features that highlight the music on this soundtrack album. One is the presentation of so many great distinctive old tunes, from “Shakin’ Down the Acorns” to “Little Billy Wilson” to “Glory in the Meeting House,” and even the classic “Rye Straw.” The other is a song written and performed by the film’s writer/director Dale Farmer, “Across the Ohio,” a fine song that seems to summarize the movie’s theme and that is performed in a sweet plaintive style that effortlessly fuses old-time, bluegrass and folk.
I would have preferred to have more precise credits as to exactly who is playing what on which track. But the essays in the liner notes do give context to at least some of the selections, and the effective use of the tune “Hickory Jack” as a recurring and developing theme and the inclusion of an archival recording of Farmer’s great-uncle playing “Inch Along” bring depth and heart to the programming. While the soundtrack to The Mountain Minor was intended as a companion and a supplement to the film, it’s likely the CD itself will serve as a gateway for listeners to seek out what seems like an intriguing film.