1. Archive

Actor Aidan Quinn catches a few songs of his own

(ran GB edition)

Folk tunes have long fascinated actor Aidan Quinn, who spent much of his childhood in musically rich Ireland.

So Quinn says he was attuned to the various musical traditions explored in Songcatcher, the story of a folk-music archivist (Janet McTeer) who visits the Appalachians in 1907 and discovers golden melodies.

But the actor says he was unaware that he was embarking upon what was to become an obsession. "I fell in love with those songs," he says, "and I began to practice the guitar for at least two hours a day." Some of his strumming and singing actually made it into the film, albeit with substantial backup by David Mansfield, the composer and musical supervisor who strummed along with Quinn.

That puts the actor in heady company on the soundtrack, which features blues icon Taj Mahal and country legends Iris DeMent, Hazel Dickens and Emmylou Harris. "I also got help from Sheila Kay Adams (an Appalachian music expert)," Quinn says. "She has a voice that will raise the hair on your head, and she was able to teach me the high lonesome style" of country ballads.

Learning to play was crucial to Quinn's character, Tom Bledsoe, a mountain man who falls in love with McTeer's "songcatcher." Her title character, Lily Penleric, is based loosely on Olive Dame Campbell, who founded the John C. Campbell Folk School.

"Bledsoe is a guy who has been to the other world outside of the mountains, but he has come back. He thinks he knows a lot, or at least that's how his mom (Pat Carroll) describes him," Quinn says. "But he's a stranger in a strange land. He doesn't really fit the mountains, and he doesn't fit in the big city either. And he's definitely suspicious of all outsiders, including Lily. So I think he's a fascinating character to play."

Yet Quinn pulls off the role seamlessly, disappearing behind a thick beard and heavy accent. And by the end of the 28-day shoot in the North Carolina mountains near Asheville, Quinn felt like he had put down roots.

"During the shoot, I stayed in a coldwater shanty at the end of a dirt road," he says. "It cost me $100 for a month, and I found it when I was walking around the hills up from Weaverville. The porch had the most incredible view over the mountains, and I said, "God, I'd love to live here.' So I found the landlady and asked her if she could fix it up and let me stay there, and she did."

Every night, Quinn says, "I'd walk down into Weaverville and eat at one of the two restaurants. And each night, both restaurants would have live music. It was incredible. It was the only place in the world that I've found where music is just as central to everyday life as it is in Ireland."

Director Maggie Greenwald says Quinn struck her as "quite the outdoorsman."

"He loved to go back to his cabin, sit on the porch and have a big cigar after a day of shooting," she says. But Greenwald, a New Yorker who also teaches directing at Columbia University, says she and the rest of the crew stayed in suburban tract houses and motels, mainly because the best cabins were booked by summer vacationers.

The mountain experience apparently has stuck with Quinn, who says he couldn't completely leave the area behind. As a reminder, he says, he continues to practice the guitar. Then he adds: "I bought the 1915 Martin that I used in the movie. Taj Mahal played on it and said it was sweet, and that was enough for me."