“It starts with a murder, as many Appalachian ballads do,” said playwright Phillip DePoy.
DePoy was speaking of human victims in his new play, but all around him trees were meeting their doom.
As chain saws and wood chippers attacked the neighbor’s landscaping, DePoy sought quiet, inviting a visitor off the screened porch and into the cool interior of his bungalow, to tell the tale of “Darlin’ Cory.”
The musical, with an all-Atlanta cast and songs by Kristian Bush of Sugarland fame, opens Sept. 8 and kicks off the Alliance Theatre’s 2021-2022 season.
It boasts an origin story that goes back 50 years, to a time when Foxfire magazine was encouraging young people to study the folk wisdom of their oldest relatives.
In 1969 a young man in a folklore class at Georgia State University traveled to the mountains of North Carolina with what was then cutting-edge equipment: a portable video recorder the size of a college dorm refrigerator.
He spent the day with an artisan who built ladder-back wooden chairs in the traditional manner, with a draw-knife and other antique tools.
They took time to have a midday meal together of field peas, cornbread and coffee, in a house with no electricity. Then the artisan, whose name was Walter Shellnut, settled back in his chair and sang a few songs. One of the them was “Darlin’ Cory.”
It was a song about a woman who dressed as a man, made moonshine whiskey, and used the profits to buy books for little girls.
Credit: Bo Emerson
Credit: Bo Emerson
That folklore student was Phillip DePoy. Fifty years later he proposed staging a mystery play about gender and whiskey, set in the Appalachian mountains, based on the 200-year-old ballad. Susan Booth, artistic director at the Alliance, grabbed the idea and ran with it, going immediately to Kristian Bush and suggesting that he write some songs for a play that had yet to be born.
Bush, who is better known for his multiplatinum success in pop country but who has branched into theater with last spring’s Alliance production, “Working,” and 2017′s “Troubadour,” bought a four-string mountain dulcimer and wrote the first few songs in the next 24 hours.
That first seed for the show was sown back in 2019. As T.S. Eliot points out, between the idea and the reality, falls the shadow. In this case, the shadow was a worldwide pandemic and 4 million deaths.
Theaters across the country, including the Alliance, slammed shut. The hiatus was a tragedy, but it gave DePoy, Bush, Booth and line producer Amanda Watkins time to talk about the play, which grew and morphed in the interim. “It’s wonderful and awful to have that kind of time,” said Booth.
This will be the prolific, professorial DePoy’s 45th play. (He’s also written 21 novels, and, as a touring musician, many songs.) “Darlin’ Cory” is part three of DePoy’s Appalachian trilogy, which started off with “Edward Foote,” a sort of “Oedipus Rex” set in the hills and hollers of Georgia produced by the Alliance in 2015, and “Foxglove,” a “Tristan and Isolde” tale produced by the Alliance Theatre Teen Ensemble in 2016.
“Darlin’ Cory” is set In a tiny Appalachian mountain village that is full of secrets, where an ambitious young woman collides with the preacher and his power structure. Then a mysterious stranger arrives with the best moonshine anyone’s ever tasted, and some secrets threaten to spill.
The choreography is by John Welker, artistic director of Terminus Modern Ballet Theatre. There are the usual surprises typical in a DePoy play, plus social commentary on the patriarchy. “It’s a hero’s journey out of Joseph Campbell,” DePoy told the audience, “it’s a Greek tragedy, it’s an Appalachian murder ballad — now how much would you pay?”
“Darlin’ Cory,” the folk song, does not appear in the new musical. The musical follows elements of the mournful ballad made famous by Burl Ives, but only a faint trail of bread crumbs can be traced from the play’s original incarnation to its latest form.
“Sometimes an entire scene that I wrote, Kristian took and turned into one song,” said DePoy, “so instead of a lot of talking, there’s beautiful singing.”
The musical is still changing. During a conversation with the authors staged in front of a small audience Aug. 24 at the Woodruff Arts Center’s Rich Theatre, Bush and a strong vocal ensemble performed three of his songs, including the powerful “After the Ashes.”
The song incorporates a few words from the original ballad:
Dig a hole, dig a hole in the meadow / Dig a hole in the cold cold ground / Dig a hole, dig a hole in the meadow / Gonna lay darlin’ Cory down
Booth told the audience this was the first time she’d heard the songs performed by an unmasked chorus.
The theater company has been scrupulous about keeping rehearsals COVID-19-safe for the cast and crew, and is keenly aware that, after a year and half of being mostly dark, the Alliance is opening its doors during another wave of skyrocketing infections. ”Darlin’ Cory” will be the first production mounted on the new Coca-Cola Stage since the beginning of the pandemic.
The theater will require audience members to wear masks and show proof of vaccinations or provide a negative COVID test. Still, “I think we’re all a little apprehensive about that,” said DePoy. “There’s no telling how people are going to take gathering now. But people are excited to be back, and that includes the cast and crew.”
Bush, appearing onstage in robust beard and his customary fedora, fronted the chorus with a few chords from his guitar and a stomp of his foot. Although the ancient ballad “Darlin’ Cory” is a song about dread, he said his instinct is to find a silver lining.
“I happen to be a hopeful person,” he said in an earlier interview, “and when it translates through me, it turns into some sort of song of hope in the middle of a song of darkness. That’s what I do. It is a real needed remedy right now. Things are just dark — no matter how you slice it — outside of our windows right now. It’s hard to have a regular maintenance of hope on your emotional car.”
Bush enjoys writing songs for a different audience and setting than the Sugarland arena. He has released an EP with four of the songs from “Darlin’ Cory” and in the meantime is writing songs with his brother Brandon Bush (musical director of “Darlin’ Cory”) for their own band, Dark Water.
He compares the musical devices in the two kinds of songwriting — songwriting for the theater and songwriting for the amphitheater — in terms that call to mind construction projects.
In a Sugarland song, he said, the message must come across in three minutes, and the feelings must be big and broad. “We use these giant emotional hammers to communicate with people, to make a song that says ‘you’re feeling happy’ or ‘you’re feeling sad.’”
In the theater, he said, “instead of one of six hammers, we have this unlimited amount of very small brushes and small tools.
“What’s great about it is the goal is the same,” he said. “I want everyone in the room to feel the same at the same time. Honest to God, all I want you to do is feel less alone.”
“Darlin’ Cory.” Sept. 8-Oct. 3. $25-$85. Proof of COVID-19 vaccination or recent negative test and masks are required. Alliance Theatre, Woodruff Arts Center, 1280 Peachtree St., Atlanta. 404-733-4600; alliancetheatre.org