Think of Cold Mountain as the prequel to O Brother, Where Art Thou. Whereas the latter movie was a mock epic imitating Homer's Odyssey, Cold Mountain is a serious imitation of the epic, jumping back and forth between the warrior's efforts to get home and the woman's efforts to keep the home alive. Both movies feature the culture, the language, and the sometimes quirky and sometimes heroic people of the South.
The best part of both movies is the music, in both cases assembled and produced by T Bone Burnett. O Brother showcased country music just as it was first being transmitted over the radio. Cold Mountain goes back much further, showcasing the roots of roots music in the 19th century. The second movie soundtrack, like the first, wakes up 21st-century ears, with a sound so different, so eloquent and spare and moving, compared to the shallowness and clichŽs of pop muzak, that it actually seems new.
Again, Mr. Burnett has drawn on contemporary young artists to render the old music. Cold Mountain features Alison Krauss again, but also Jack White-of the rock group White Stripes-who also plays the musician Georgia in the movie. Mr. Burnett even employs the talents of Sting, as well as actual mountain folks (such as the talented Cassie Franklin) who had never gotten in front of a microphone before. (Not all of the music is from the 19th century, though. The blues number was certainly written well after the Civil War, and several contemporary songs emulate what Bill Monroe called "the ancient tones.")
Most affecting is hearing the Sacred Harp singers of the Liberty Baptist Church, Sand Mountain, in Henagar, Ala. They have kept alive the "shape note" tradition, the 19th-century method of teaching folks to sing from songbooks in which every note had a different shape. Those church singing groups pioneered the harmonies that would influence practically every American musical form that would follow.
It is not necessary to have watched the movie to enjoy the Cold Mountain soundtrack, which consists mainly of tough-minded songs of faith, the sort that could really get people through suffering, whether of the Civil War or of the tragedies of life.