The sticker on the front promises “Real Country Music”, and that’s more or less what you get — if by “real” you mean dark and bloody and generally miserable. The soundtrack to Sam Raimi’s new Deep South thriller is a smorgasboard of country gothic, heavy on the heartbreak.
As theory, of course, this is a shaky proposition. The revisionist tendency to gauge the music’s authenticity by its sorrow-and-woe quotient is too narrow by far. You’d think Hank Williams never wrote a happy song. Still, on its own terms, The Gift mostly sparkles. Its thematic focus gives it a coherence you don’t often get from soundtracks. If it’s less ambitious than the Coen Brothers’ O Brother, Where Art Thou? roots-fest, it’s arguably more fun.
You get Loretta Lynn at her slyest on “Everybody Wants To Go To Heaven”, George Jones at his lonesomest on “A Picture Of Me (Without You)”, and foreboding recent offerings from Willie and Waylon. Merle Haggard checks in with the lovely title track from his latest (Blaze Foley’s “If I Could Only Fly”), and West Virginia wildman Hasil Adkins distills about a half-dozen bluegrass standards into the epic bleakness of “Beautiful Hills”.
It’s no surprise that the old guard trumps the upstarts, but the Souvenirs and Amy Nelson sit respectably enough alongside their elders. And Neko Case, represented by one recycled track (“Furnace Room Lullaby”) and one gorgeous new one (“Pretty Girls”), is her marvelous aching self. However you define “real country music,” she belongs on the A-list.