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Peasall Sisters bring it on home

By John Lupton, December 2005

When the offbeat filmmaking Coen Brothers set out a little more than five years ago to recast Homer's "Odyssey" into a tale of the adventures of a trio of escaped convicts in Depression-era Mississippi, the result was the hugely successful "O Brother, Where Art Thou?," a film that not only cemented George Clooney's status as a major star, but featured a landmark soundtrack of old country songs that sparked a wave of new interest in old time and bluegrass music that is still rippling across the country.

Most of the artists on the soundtrack were familiar names to those with even casual knowledge of the newly-christened "Americana" format, but many who saw the film or bought the soundtrack album (and millions did both) were intrigued by the sibling harmonies of a trio of pre-teen newcomers, the Peasall Sisters from the Nashville suburb of White House, Tenn.

The success of the film and soundtrack spawned a tour dubbed "Down From The Mountain" that criss-crossed the country drawing sellout crowds and included a number of artists from the soundtrack, the Peasalls among them.

As the 'O Brother' phenomenon began to recede, the sisters - Sarah (now 18), Hannah (14) and Leah (12) - set about the difficult task of doing what so many child stars in music and film have failed to do - sustain a career.

Their latest CD, the recently issued "Home To You" (on Dualtone) serves as pretty convincing evidence that not only are they growing as singers, but are showing remarkable writing and arranging talents as well. Three of the dozen tracks on the disc were written or co-written by Sarah, and she's particularly proud of "Logtown."

"That's a song that my mom (Sally) and I co-wrote. I just love that song. That's probably my favorite song I've ever written because it's so special to us. It's about a town that our family was from, so that has kind of a special place in our hearts...How it turned out, instrumentally and musically is just amazing to me."

The town of the song's title is a ghost town on the Mississippi side of the Pearl River, not too far east of New Orleans. Until taken over for missile testing by NASA in the '60s, it was home to Sally's family, and they still have kin in the area. The song was written, of course, before the havoc caused by Katrina this past August, and Sarah evidences concern.

"I haven't been back there, and I haven't been able to contact anybody who is close enough to go see it. I've wondered about it. We have this huge, old family tree...and I want to know if it's still there, or if something happened. Really, there wasn't anything left of the town, so there couldn't have been any buildings knocked down because there weren't any buildings there to begin with. But I would love to be able to go down. Hopefully, a little bit later on, my mom and I, we're trying to plan a trip."

Hannah, the self-described "quiet one," is nonetheless cheerful and eager to volunteer that for her part, she leans toward the more traditional fare on the new disc.

"I love 'Carrick Fergus,' but I also love 'Freight Train Blues,' that's my favorite...just 'cause it's fun, and it has a lot of attitude and cool instrumental parts and stuff, and the vocals are really cool on it, too."

Also on the new album is "Angel Band," a song so closely identified with Ralph Stanley (who was integral to the "O Brother" soundtrack) that many forget that the Peasalls are the ones singing it as the closing credits roll.

"We did it on the actual movie," says Hannah, "At the end of the movie, it's our voices singing 'Angel Band,' and we just fell in love with the song, and John Carter really likes it too."

Hannah's referring to John Carter Cash, who produced and engineered the album with the Peasalls at the same Cash Cabin Studio where much of the later music of his parents Johnny and June Carter Cash was made. With a sense of insight and appreciation far beyond her 12 years, Leah nevertheless can't contain her enthusiasm at being in the presence of so much history.

"'Incredible' is just the only word to describe it. When we're in the cabin recording, and we'll be in between songs, and they'll be mixing or whatever...we'll go out and (sit) down with Johnny Cash's guitar. When I was younger, I wouldn't have known who Johnny Cash was because I just wasn't, you know, informed on country music. But now, I'm like 'Oh my gosh, we got to walk in the place that he walked in.' It's just really cool."

Likewise, Hannah enjoyed working and doing things the "Cash Way." "John Carter is really free, he just makes everything so fun, and he's so laid back."

In addition to recording their own version of the Irish ballad "Carrick Fergus," they take on traditional favorites, "Fair and Tender Ladies" and "The Old Account," all arranged by Hannah and Sarah. It is perhaps on these three cuts that they best show off their knack for finding the right harmonies, usually with Sarah doing alto, Hannah on soprano and Leah filling in the tenor. (Instrumentally, Sarah plays guitar, Hannah plays mandolin, and Leah is the fiddler).

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