Searching for the Wrong-Eyed Jesus
Luaka Bop / V2
have to admit that I think Jim White can do no wrong. I've been consistently impressed by his albums, his live show, and his affability. When I first saw the tracklist for the Searching for the Wrong-Eyed Jesus, I thought a mistake had come at last. It wasn't that I thought the artists were good enough; quite the opposite, I thought they were too good. Or at least too well-known. For a film intending to portray a certain side of the real South—the deeply religious, swamp-hidden South—it sure had artists that were readily accessible and more than regionally known (and sometimes not even Southerners!). If Cat Power, Sixteen Horsepower, and the Handsome Family aren't household names, they also aren't the kind of artists you could only find by pillaging America's backcountry.
But authenticity doesn't require obscurity, and in this instance the argument rests more on truth than on fact. The artists on the soundtrack and in the movie might not be playing part-time in a charismatic church and part-time for whiskey money, but their music conveys the reality that White and filmmakers Andrew Douglas and Steve Haisman wanted to reveal. Mixed in with more famous artists are some surprising discoveries that supply the requisite credibility, people like banjo-player Lee Sexton, Clarence Ashley, Doc Watson, and Johnny Dowd, who White initially thought should be the film's centerpiece.
Regardless of how the music fits into the film, or of how the soundtrack ties into the filmmakers' intentions, it's important to just dig right into these tracks for what they are: music. White gets three pieces on the soundtrack. Although the tracks are strong, they are available on his previous albums ("Christmas Day" and "The Wound That Never Heals" on No Such Place and "Still Waters" on Wrong-Eyed Jesus). "Still Waters" hits the hardest of these three, with its tale of a man trying to come to grips with the conflicts within himself. Over simple, but well-orchestrated guitar parts, White sings, "I just throw myself into the arms of that which would betray me / I guess to see how far Providence will stoop down just to save me."
White's lyrics run toward the complex and literate, but most of the songs on this disc have a more traditional and basic folk presentation. In "Little Maggie", Sexton sings, "Yonder stands little Maggie / With a dram glass in her hand / She's drinking away her troubles / And a-courtin' another man." With his fingerpicking and his yodel, Sexton takes us to his roots, to the buried sound of another place. Then he drops the final verse, the one Dylan left out of his version, the one where our narrator sends Maggie off with the new man so he can enjoy a new woman. It's painful, questionable, and powerful, and, in all its simplicity, fits the complex image of the South that this soundtrack is supposed to help portray.
There's another way to get that picture: create a collaboration between two people who have never met before that says what you want it to. The filmmakers stumbled over Maggie Brown and invited to sing with Johnny Dowd on "First There Was." Her raspy, country voice offsets Dowd's so-disastrous-you-have-to-like-it tenor on the morbid hanging song. Dowd's previously recorded the song with Kim Sherwood-Caso, but Brown takes over well, playing the true Louisiana in a forced collaboration to help British filmmakers and a migrant songwriter convey the truth about the South.
The soundtrack assemblers do something that others working on OSTs would be wise to pay attention to: they use movie dialogue sparingly, and only to develop the album. Opening track "Stories" by Harry Crews quickly hints at what is to come, the Mayor's mid-way delivery of "Small Town" gives a quick description of the setting that's been developed so far, and White's "Essential Truth" lets him close the disc with his own thesis about Southerners and the relationship between the land and the people's blood.
The tracks on the disc show a diversity of folk, blues, and old-timey styles, but they fit well together. The disc has two true stunners—"Still Waters" and Melissa Swingle's ghostly, musical-saw rendition of "Amazing Grace"—but it could have benefited from diving into the more obscure a bit. Where it succeeds most is in presenting one vision of the South. You can disagree with the vision, but White and cohorts make a solid argument.