High on a Mountain: Interview with Marideth Sisco
Already Winter’s Bone has been an unlikely hit this awards season. The starkly beautiful film, directed by Debra Granik, tells the story of a tenacious young woman named Ree Dolly (played fearlessly by Jennifer Lawrence) as she struggles to hold her family together after the disappearance of her meth-cooking father. Those aren’t issues that many films—especially those rumored for Oscar nominations—tackle, and Granik strove for accuracy and authenticity in her depiction of rural families facing poverty, eviction, and death in the Ozarks. That meant hiring locals as extras, filming at remote locations high in the mountains, and using traditional and contemporary music played by Ozarks pickers, fiddlers, and strummers.
That music is featured prominently on the film’s new soundtrack, which opens with Marideth Sisco singing a gentle version of “Missouri Waltz,” accompanied only by the sound of crickets and wind. She’s joined by a regional band called Blackberry Winter for covers of Ola Belle Reed’s “High on a Mountain” and the traditional “Fair and Tender Ladies.” Featuring contributions as well from score composer Dickon Hinchliffe (of the UK band Tindersticks) and actor John Hawkes (who gives a truly Oscar-worthy performance in Winter’s Bone), the soundtrack is one of the most unexpectedly moving and poignant folk releases of the past year—both an effective soundtrack collection and one of the most unpretentious and revealing depictions of Ozarks folk music as a lively and important aspect of social life.
A journalist, teacher, writer, musician, and folklorist, Sisco acted as an informal consultant on Winter’s Bone, not only recommending and recording old songs for use in the film, but in some cases actually rewriting centuries-old tunes to fit the story. She also appears in the film, leading a makeshift band through a few songs at a neighborhood party. On the eve of a trip to Italy to play the Torino Festival in December (where Winter’s Bone would win Best Film), The 9513 spoke to Sisco about rewriting centuries-old songs, working from mp3 files, and what distinguishes Ozark music from that of Appalachia and the upper South.
How did you get involved with this movie?
It was one of those happy accidents. Debra Granik and [screenwriter] Anne Rossellini were down here looking for locations, and Daniel Woodrell and his wife were driving them around. This was early in the process. The group that I play with, we meet every Thursday night unless it’s a holiday or something. So they were out looking for locations and driving around the country, and somebody in the group said, “I wish we could hear some Ozarks music.” And Daniel and his wife said, “Aren’t they playing tonight?” So they called and asked if they could come over. The group of them piled into the music room, and we sang some songs for them. Then they thanked us and went on their way.
Two years later—it was a full two years later—I got a phone call from Anne Rossellini, and she said there’s just one song that they couldn’t get off their minds and were wondering if I’d do it for the movie. I was thinking, “Oh wow they want me to record something for the soundtrack.” I was very flattered. But then she said, “No we’ve actually written a scene in the movie for you.” It was a total surprise to me. I had no idea that that was anywhere near their minds. If you’ve seen the movie, you know I’m not terribly photogenic, except in the sense of being that old lady singing songs. But I said, sure, and they told me when to be there.
Shortly after that, I went to the doctor and was diagnosed with uterine cancer. He said they had it lined up to do the surgery on the 19th of that month. And I said “I can’t do that.” “Why not?” I said, “I’m in a movie, and they’re shooting on the 19th.” I just figured that if I waited until after the surgery to do the shoot, I wouldn’t have the stamina to sing. So they put the surgery off until the 23rd, and I went out and did the shoot.
Did you help choose the musicians for the shoot?
They wanted to incorporate some local musicians they had heard play while they were around. Some of them I knew and some of them I didn’t. I suggested a couple more. So they called me back and said they had the musicians for me. And I said, “Well that won’t work at all.” These are all lead players. You don’t have a rhythm guitar player. They asked if I knew anybody, and I said I know Dennis Crider and he’ll be fine. I brought Dennis and they brought Billy Ward and D.J. Shumate. I suggested they also include Kim and Jim Lansford, the old-time musicians. Jim’s a wonderful mandolin player, and they both look like old-time musicians.
We all got together on the 18th and borrowed a conference room at the hotel and practiced for an hour and a half. The next night we went out to the shoot, and they told us it would take an hour or two, so we should be there at 7:15. As it turned out, one of the actors who was in the scene with us had to be in Los Angeles the next morning, so they had to get all the shots of her they might need, so we actually didn’t start until 9:30 that night and we didn’t finish until 4:30 in the morning.
It was very cold. There was no heat in the house. It was an adventure. It was the first time I’d been on a movie set actually participating in things. I lived in Los Angeles for a while, and I used to play music out there some. So I’d been to sets just watching friends play, but I’d never actually been part of the process. It was fascinating. It was obvious to me that they knew what they were doing. They were very professional, all of them—very fast and very coordinated. It was nice watching the dance of all the different crew members getting things changed from one shot to another. We just sat in our little places and played whenever they told us to. And that was it. I didn’t receive a finished product until Sundance, and of course I was dumbfounded when I saw what they had done. It’s such an amazing piece of work.
Were you familiar with Daniel Woodrell or Debra Granik before then?
No, not really. I knew Daniel. That’s not true. I knew Daniel’s wife, Katie. I’d encountered her several times. I knew Daniel slightly, but I’d never met Debra nor had I heard of her. That was all new to me when they showed up. And then through the next few months, after I recovered from the surgery and we were farther into the summer, they’d call me up. Once they called me and asked what the “Missouri Waltz” sounds like? I said it sounds really racist. They said, Could you fix it? I don’t know. I could try I guess. I fiddled with it and took out some of the more offensive material and tried to make it all sound of the period. I do a little radio show on Ozarks subjects, and I have a little recorder that I use for that, so I just picked up the recorder and sang the song into the recorder—no accompaniment or anything, just a cappella. I sent it to them and asked if that’s what they wanted. I never did hear back from them, and eventually I erased the .wav file off the recorder. We got all the way up to November and several other songs later, and they called and said they needed that .wav file for the “Missouri Waltz.” I said, I erased that a long time ago. And they said, Well, actually it starts the movie now. All they had was this .mp3 file. So I went into the studio and tried to re-create it. I think we did five takes and I never was able to get anywhere near what that original recording was. So they had to use that original .mp3 file. That’s why all those wind sounds and cricket sounds are in there, to mask the fact that that file is really flimsy. Their sound people are very adept at creating something out of nothing, so it turned out well… with no help from me.
Were they choosing songs they wanted you to play, or did they rely on you to choose?
In the instance of “Farther Along,” they said they needed a hymn. “I have lots of them. What kind?” “Well, no sin and redemption,” they said. “Just the ‘Great Mystery.'” I said, “How about ‘Farther Along’?” They had not heard it, so I sang that into the recorder and sent it to them. They said that would be great. There was a local studio down here, so I went in. I thought it would really sound good with an old-fashioned church piano, and I had a friend here in town who was at the time the academic dean at the university and was also a blues piano player. I thought he would be perfect for that. He had a Roland luxury piano that he could change the settings on to sound like different kinds of pianos. We went into the studio and recorded it with piano. I sent that to them, and they said, “That was really good, but could I do it with a softer less aggressive accompaniment?” I relied once again on my friend Dennis Crider, who’s an outstanding rhythm guitar player. His stuff is very melodic and I’ve sung with him for a long time. I figured we could probably do it, so we did. They said it was perfect.
As time went on, there were more and more pieces they needed for different things, and a lot of the pieces I picked, a couple they suggested. Being a low-budget film, you try to use as much of the public domain material as you can. I had collected all these public domain songs, and they called and said, “There’s this one public domain song to use called ‘High on a Mountain.'” I looked it up and said, it’s not traditional. It’s an Ola Belle reed song and you’re going to have to get permission to use it. They contacted Ola Belle’s husband—she’s passed away—and he was delighted to have it in the film. We did her song and the rest of them are all traditional tunes. It was a continual construction project—I’d get one song for them and they’d say now we need this. So I’d suggest a few things.
One song they couldn’t get out of their head was an old, old song called “Wind and Rain.” Gillian Welch does a version of it. The first version was written in the 1500s or something. It’s a very old song. They listened to it and said, “We love the tune and like the way it’s presented, but it just doesn’t relate well enough to what the film says. Could you cook up some different lyrics?” I said I’d tried. I put together what became “Ballad of Jessup Dolly,” but then there wasn’t room for it after the credits. But it’s on the soundtrack album. It’s a peculiar thing, because Jessup Dolly is the only character in the film who is never seen, except for that brief glimpse of a hand. And yet, I wrote a song about him, Billy Ward the fiddle player wrote a song about him, and John Hawkes, who plays Teardrop, wrote a song about him. All three of those songs were included on this soundtrack, because it’s just such an odd thing that the one missing character is the one that we were all inspired to write something about.
Was it difficult to rewrite some of these older songs? It seems like they’re constantly changing.
One thing about traditional movement is that the folk process is allowed. What that means is you adapt a song to the current situation. Pete Seeger was a great one for that, and Bob Dylan has written some songs forward that had a traditional tune. But it’s a form that was easily adaptable to a new situation. I rewrote a little bit of “Fair and Tender Ladies,” because there was a verse in it that I really wanted to use. It had some pretty words in it, but it didn’t rhyme. And it just aggravated me that it didn’t rhyme. It’s easily enough to make it rhyme—you just change it a little bit. So I fiddled with that and I fiddled with “Missouri Waltz,” and when it came time to do “Wind and Rain,” I kept the tune and wrote all new words to it. I don’t really picture myself as a songwriter; I’m more of a tinkerer of things to make them work better. I don’t write many songs because I find the whole process is tedious to me. It’s so exacting. Lyrics are the hardest thing in the world because they have to match a certain meter, they have to be singable, and they have to rhyme. But I can do it and when I set my mind to it and really bear down, I can enjoy the process.
I was struck by the party scene, where you’re singing with the group of musicians. It really presents Ozarks music as a living thing, not something that’s part of the past but something that occupies a role in everyday life.
Absolutely. That’s very true in this culture. The music tradition here goes very deep and very far back. A lot of people will look at the music of this area and call it derivative because it certainly does have a lot of the same tunes as the Appalachians and all the music of the upper South. But again, it’s that folk process. It changes according to the situation, and we excel at sad ballads because that’s just a fact of life here. The Ozarks isn’t an easy place to live. It makes for a hard life for a lot of people, and there’s a lot of struggle and a lot of heartache, but feelings and families run really deep here. The music becomes a way to celebrate that.
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