There are mountain tunes as powerful as moonshine to be enjoyed in Songcatcher, a genteel period drama about Lily Penleric (Janet McTeer), a turn-of-the-century bluestocking musicologist who leaves academia for Appalachia to research country music at its source. But there’s also a mighty mushy heap of corn pone to be swallowed in this doilied educational indie project from writer-director Maggie Greenwald (”The Ballad of Little Jo”). Not only does Lily the prim feminist scholar ditch her wardrobe of buttoned-up white blouses and unloose her corset when she falls in love with Tom Bledsoe, the area’s most handsome fella (Aidan Quinn), an educated, fortuitously available mountain man who makes moonshine when he ain’t makin’ music; she also becomes involved in any number of very contemporary issues of sexual politics dressed up in old-fashioned gingham and petticoats. (Conveniently enough, Lily’s sister, played by Jane Adams, also lives in them thar hills — and she’s a lesbian schoolteacher living in erotic bliss with her lover.)
Thing is, there’s really no need to gussy up the central story, about a foward-thinking scholar’s discovery of pure indigenous music sung and strummed because, as Lily marvels, ”music is a part of life here like the air you breathe.” That’s simple and novel theater enough, especially set in grand, misty Appalachian landscapes with a soundtrack of marvelous songs performed by Iris DeMent, Taj Mahal, and Hazel Dickens, among others. There’s also pleasing geometry in the relationship of McTeer (that imposing British talent with the sturdy, stalking presence to play American women of Tumbleweeds-size character) with Pat Carroll as Tom’s shotgun-wielding granny, and with the then-13-year-old Emmy Rossum, in a lyrical feature debut as a local orphan with a throat of Kentucky gold.