Denied tenure, music professor Lily Penleric (Janet McTeer) sets off to visit her sister, a teacher in the Appalachians circa 1910. She hears a girl singing an English ballad and her interest is sparked to collect and preserve this historic music.
McTeer beautifully commands the screen as a woman of purpose who sometimes bullies her helpers to do the heavy work of pushing a recording machine up a steep wooded slope but, when they refuse to go further, puts her own muscle into the project.
Most residents warm to Lily's music preservation. Viney Butler sings salty ballads into the recorder until her grandson (Aidan Quinn) objects to her being exploited, and Viney (Pat Carroll) has to intercede. The chilly reserve of Lily Penleric melts as she and Viney's grandson begin to understand one another.
Danger arrives with a high-risk birth, as does scandal when the affair of two women is revealed. Lily is forced once again to decide where she wants to go.
Fans of O Brother, Where Art Thou will be delighted by the way music enters the characters' everyday lives and refreshed by a movie that, as a fellow viewer remarked, "is just about people."