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Local Musician Helps Hollywood Get into Shape

Pioneer Press by Jim Walsh

Ralph Stanley, Emmylou Harris and Nancy and Norman Blake are singing tonight in a hockey arena in St Paul. Thousands of people have paid as much as $75 to hear them and the rest of the "Down From the Mountain" folks play bluegrass and old-time country music. Earlier this year, the album that sparked the tour, the sound-track to "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" won the Grammy for record of the year.

Old news, right? But three years ago, few could have predicted that bluegrass and its main preservationists would become a music-industry phenomenon. That's why it's not much of a stretch to say that the next-best-old-new-thing could be a music that has its origins in the Baptist churches of late 18th- and early 19th-century New England and that Tim Eriksen, a Twin Cities-based musician, could have a hand in shepherding it to the masses.

Stranger things have happened, and this is one way they start: T-Bone Burnett, the musical director and producer behind "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" is working on a new film, "Cold Mountain." Directed by Academy Award-winning writer and director Anthony Minghella ("The English Patient"), the film is a Civil War-era story that features Nicole Kidman, Jude Law, Natalie Portman and the White Stripes' Jack White.

Brendan Gleeson ("Brave-heart") plays a singer in the film, but his singing voice will be provided by Eriksen, who moved from western Massachusetts to Minneapolis two years ago with his wife, Minja Lausevic, an ethnomusicologist at the University of Minnesota. For the past 20 years, Eriksen has been a tireless champion of shape-note singing, the church music that finds one singer in the middle of the so-called "hollow square," surrounded by a circle of other singers - friends, family, acquaintances and strangers.

On their laps sits the 150-year-old "Original Sacred Harp" hymnal, which guides the singers with shapes denoting fa, sol, la and mi. The singing itself is boisterous, exhausting and passionate.

"Like any good music, Sacred Harp singing depends on the people," said Eriksen, who plays with the world-music outfit Cordelia's Dad and who cut his musical teeth on hardcore punk rock and traditional folk music. "At its best, it's incredibly vibrant. You just feel lighter than air, really. When the singing's really going, and you're catching people's eye around the square, it's one of the most exciting things I've experienced.

"But 'exciting' sounds kind of trivial. It's just a beautiful feeling: a combination of the aesthetic experience and something of a more spiritual experience and a communal experience."

That experience will be brought to the big screen next year. "Cold Mountain" is the first film to feature shape-note singing as an integral part of the story. When the movie producers needed an expert on the music, they contacted Eriksen, who was initially reluctant to help out because Sacred Harp is a pure form of folk music that has forever been about music, not money.

"I come out of the hardcore punk tradition, and (the film's producers) Disney and Sony are like the biggest enemies of life as it should be," said Eriksen, who became a father this year. "But it would have been a hard thing to turn down. I called a bunch of (shape-note) singers whose opinion I really respect and said, 'What do you think about Sacred Harp music being in a movie?' And people were pretty enthusiastic about it. There weren't too many reservations expressed.

"It's anybody's guess how it's going to turn out. I just keep saying that I want to try to ensure that the music is represented with the dignity and the excitement that it has at its best. It's really, really beautiful stuff that people should know about. If I thought it would be hurt by exposure, I wouldn't have done it."

In addition to the shape-note singing, the film will feature traditional music from North Carolina and many of the "O Brother" musicians, who got together in Nashville, Tenn., to record those tracks. "It was pretty funny," said Eriksen. "I found myself singing with Jack White and Ralph Stanley - sort of an odd combination. (White) plays this minor character, Georgia, who does a lot of singing."

For the shape-note segments, Eriksen brought Burnett and Minghella to Liberty Baptist Church ta Henagar, Ala., to attend a singing. The initial plan was to record two songs in a studio, but this singing is not unlike riding a wave of emotion that requires time, patience, energy and being in the moment, and it's not so readily captured. In the end, due in no small part to Eriksen's enthusiasm, the film-makers ended up recording several songs at the church.

"I have reservations about talking things up or selling things, but Sacred Harp is something I so flrmly believe in," he said. "I spent the whole week I was there (in Alabama) talking up the Sacred Harp stuff, and by the end of the week, it had gone from being this one little 15-second segment to being a much bigger part of the film.

"Some of the actors came down, too, and they all got really fired up about it. A bunch of them were crying. I mean, the stuff we did in Nashville was good, but I just think that by comparison, the Sacred Harp stuff is so deep."

Eriksen first got hooked on shape-note singing in the '80s, when he would gather with friends at a big country house in western Massachusetts that had no television. For entertainment, they sang songs, and the sessions eventually turned into shape-note singings. Gradually, as Cordelia's Dad toured the United States and Europe, the band members became less interested in perfoming for people and more interested in singing with them.

"We'd do 250 (dates) a year, but for the last couple years, every night we'd have people stay after the gigs and bust out the Sacred Harp (hymnals)," said Eriksen. "And this was at punk rock clubs, as well as folk venues. It was an unusual bunch of people that, a lot of them, I've since become really close friends with.

"The association with the people in this music is really strong. It's powerful, it's beautiful, it's deep, and it's interesting."

And it's coming to a theater, if not hockey arena, near you soon.

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