December 2, 2010
Motion picture soundtracks have always fascinated me. In the Soundtracked series, composers and/or directors offer commentary on their film's soundtrack, and offer insights into the creative evolution that melds music into the final film.
Steve Peters was the music producer for the film Winter's Bone. The film is based on Daniel Wooderll's novel of the same name, and won the Grand Jury Prize and the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award at the Sundance Film Festival.
The Los Angeles Times wrote of the film:
"Intense, immersive and in control, "Winter's Bone" has an art house soul inside a B picture body, and that proves to be a potent combination indeed. "
At first glance, I would seem an unlikely choice to produce the soundtrack album to Winter's Bone. The film is set in the Ozark Mountains of southern Missouri, and the soundtrack draws heavily on the traditional music of the region: Old Time ballads, Mountain Gospel, Bluegrass. If I am known at all, it's usually as an experimental composer/sound artist with a history of playing in arty rock bands and Javanese gamelan. But most people don't know that when I play music for fun, I'm usually singing old country and folk songs or playing scratchy fiddle tunes (badly), and that music has influenced my own work more than anyone would guess. So I was thrilled when my friends Jonathan Scheuer (executive producer) and Debra Granik (director, co-writer) invited me to work on this project.
We felt it was especially important to acknowledge this music with a soundtrack release, because although it's all over the film, most of it is only heard in short bits, playing on the radio in the background. In some cases only a few notes of a song made it through to the final cut. So the album was a chance to allow that music to be heard and enjoyed in its entirety, and to pay tribute to the musicians who had made such a vital contribution. It was a real honor and a pleasure for me to work with these people, and I have the utmost respect for all of them; the irony of me as a “producer” telling them how to play is hardly lost on me, I assure you.
Marideth Sisco – "Missouri Waltz"
When I first met with Winter's Bone co-writer and co-producer Anne Rosellini, we talked about possible singers for the main title and/or closing credits songs. Many names were tossed about. Then she mentioned this woman in Missouri who was acting as a local music and folklore consultant on the project, and was also a singer who appeared in one scene in the film. Anne played me a sample of Marideth Sisco's singing, and within seconds I was wondering why we were even having this conversation when the real deal was right there under our noses.
The solo version of "Missouri Waltz" that opens the CD is not the same one heard in the opening credits of the film. Marideth had casually recorded herself singing it at home and sent an MP3 as a demo. But, thinking it was just a throw-away, she dumped the original file, and the sound editor ended up having to use the MP3 in the film mix. The nasty low-res artifacts were somewhat masked in the film, but as the very naked lead track on a CD it wasn't acceptable. When we later started work on the album, we had Marideth sing it again in the studio, but it was hard to recapture the relaxed lullaby feel of the original. Many takes and many hours of digital editing later, I managed to assemble something that came fairly close, adding the sound of wind and crickets in the trees that I'd recorded at the land where much of the film was shot. This sets the tone and establishes a strong sense of place that resonates through the rest of the soundtrack.
Blackberry Winter – "Farther Along, High on a Mountain, Fair & Tender Ladies"
Marideth gathered together a group of ace local musicians to play in the party scene in the film, some of whom ended up working on the album. These folks are mostly unknown outside of southwestern Missouri, but they are all fantastic players. The studio we used is a soulful old ex-hardware store in Springfield (helmed by the esteemed Nick Sibley), and we made it feel like a cozy living room, clearing out space on the big rug and arranging the chairs in a circle so everyone could see each other and play without headphones, like at a normal picking session. That first day we focused on songs to possibly use in the end credits: "Farther Along" (which made the cut) and "Ballad of Jessup Dolly" (Marideth's reworking of the ballad "The Wind and Rain"). A few other tunes got recorded along the way, and these can be heard on the download version of the album. We met again a few weeks later to record the bluegrass classic "High on a Mountain" and the ballad "Fair and Tender Ladies." These are both played in the film's party scene, but were re-recorded for the CD to improve upon the mono shotgun mic recording from the location shoot.
White River Music Company – "Out of Sight, Missing You"
These guys are hard-working veterans who have all played together over the years in various combos and as session players in the Branson music scene, but they weren't really a steady “band” before singer Rick Reding pulled them together to audition as the bar band for one scene in the film. Rick tends to bill himself as a gospel songwriter, but he also writes killer songs in the classic honky tonk tradition, a genre niche that you won't hear much on the radio amidst all the slick Nashville pop that passes for “country” music these days. In a fair and just world, the No Depression crowd would be all over this stuff. "Out of Sight" is a great trucker love song, "Missing You" is perfect for cryin' in your beer, and "Honky Tonk Days" (download only) is a rockin' two-stepper about the pleasures of playing music. Since the band was supposed to be playing in a bar, we recorded them live in the studio, with the vocals running through a PA system to give it that extra bit of bar room ambiance.
Dirt Road Delight – "In the Palm of His Hand"
"In the Palm of His Hand" is an achingly beautiful gospel tune written and sung by Daniel Lee Parkin, who had sadly left Dirt Road Delight before the film came out to pursue his solo career. The other two members, fiddler Billy Ward and bassist Tedi May, have carried on the group, which is now a quartet. Recorded in a remote cabin in Tennessee by Ric Landers with his Your Place Or Mine portable studio, this song came to us basically finished. There were a few small issues with the mix that Ric and I ironed out via email, but overall this track needed very little work.
I should also mention that DRD's genius fiddler Billy Ward is all over this album, playing with White River Music Co. and on two of the Blackberry Winter tracks, as well as his own song, Man on the Run, only the last few notes of which are heard in the film. It was basically a rough mix of a seven-minute jam BIlly had recorded, and out of modesty he'd hired a demo singer to do the vocal. I thought Billy was the right guy to sing it, but the original files were unfortunately lost on a dead hard drive. We got him to dub the new vocal over the mix we had (with a second verse written on the spot in the studio by Jonathan Scheuer), along with some new fiddle solos. Then I took all of that home and spent a long day editing out the sections with the original singer, laying in the new vocal and solos, and cutting it down to about half the length. In the end I think it's much stronger, though I'm sure Billy, a perfectionist after my own heart, would still rather go back and do it all over again from scratch.
John Hawkes - "Bred & Buttered"
This song was a sweet surprise. Actor John Hawkes, who plays the male lead role of Uncle Teardrop in the film, is also a musician whose current band is King Straggler. He apparently wrote and recorded this song, written from the point of view of the missing father who drives the film's plot, as a gift to director Debra Granik. I hadn't known about it until Jonathan played it in the studio one day on a whim: “Hey, wanna hear this song John Hawkes did?” Those of us present were instantly charmed, and insisted it would make a great addition to the album since we were already including some other songs that weren't actually used in the film. I'm a sucker for actors who sing but aren't really known as “singers” – Harry Dean Stanton, Tony Perkins, Jeanne Moreau, Jane Birkin – and I know I'm not the only one. So I was very happy that this tune made the final cut. It doesn't sound like anything else on the album, but it adds stylistic variety and a certain kind of lightness that are important.
Dickon Hinchliffe – "Hardscrabble Elegy," "Angel Band"
In addition to all of the regional music heard in the soundtrack, Dickon Hinchliffe (co-founder and ex-member of the British band Tindersticks) was enlisted to compose the original score cues for Winter's Bone. Using mainly folk instruments – violin, banjo, guitar – his spare, brooding drones add a subtle undercurrent of tension and menace running just beneath the surface. But as effective as his score was in the context of the film, these shorter cues didn't quite work as stand-alone pieces on an album of mostly country and gospel music, and so the decision was made to offer them as a special download only release.
However, Dickon also penned a gorgeous instrumental tune for the second half of the end credit roll, and his "Hardscrabble Elegy" sits majestically at the heart of the CD. And the album ends with his arrangement of the rousing hymn "Angel Band," a collaboration with Marideth Sisco recorded after the fact through a process of exchanging audio files via email between Missouri and London. It turned out beautifully, and there are rumors of a possible Dickon/Maredith duo project.
Winter's Bone links:
Steve Peters links:
also at Largehearted Boy:
Previous Soundtracked submissions (directors and composers discuss their film's soundtrack)
Online year-end 2010 music lists
weekly CD & DVD release lists
Book Notes (authors create playlists for their book)
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)