by Dan Richarson
They're sounds you don't hear much in modern music, like the piercing edge sawn by a master violinist or the earthy resonance of a cello.
These stringed sounds are the music of the wild hills and the hollers of an earlier America. Combine them with flashes of piano, jazzy guitar and modern folk vocals and you get Heartland: An Appalachian Anthology.
Heartland is a fusion of talents, an album that weaves together today's nimblest roots-based musicians, like cellist Yo-Yo Ma, banjoist Bela Fleck and fiddler Mark O'Connor, along with guests James Taylor and Alison Krauss. The inside cover of the album describes several previous, but less expansive, fusion albums, starting with Appalachia Waltz in 1995. The idea is that, as Flannery O'Connor once wrote, "Everything that rises must converge."
Having risen to the top of their respective instruments and genres, the musicians join strings in what might be called an "eclectica," a combination of folk, American roots, jazz and bluegrass.
The result is a sort of all-star album of Appalachian music. Though those who enjoy bluegrass or O Brother, Where Art Thou? likely will enjoy Heartland, the music here is older, and more intense - the slow songs like Slumber, My Darling are more somber and touching, and the fast ones possess an unparalleled animation, like the aptly named Death by Triple Fiddle.
Only about a quarter of the tunes on Heartland are traditional, such as O'Connor's violin version of Amazing Grace, which is clear and powerful enough to make an atheist say Amen. Most are modern arrangements of Appalachian and American sounds - songs people might have played back when farmers stacked stone walls to mark their fields, and the sound of the highway was a horse's clop-clop-clop on a dirt road.
Purists won't like this album, probably, for its wide-ranging take on American music. But anyone who knows that high, lonesome feeling of the old bluegrass fiddlers -- or anyone who simply enjoys virtuoso instrumentals -- will find a home in Heartland.