It's 1907 and Dr. Lily Penleric (JANET McTEER) is a dedicated assistant professor and musicologist who's so upset when she's passed over again for a promotion that she packs up her bags and heads off to visit her sister who lives in the Appalachian mountains. Eleanor or Elna (JANE ADAMS) is a teacher who runs the Clover Settlement School with Harriet Tolliver (E. KATHERINE KERR), who's secretly her older, lesbian lover.
While Lily is a bit taken aback by that and the comparative primitive conditions of her sister's locale, she immediately forgets that when she hears an orphaned teen, Deladis Slocumb (EMMY ROSSUM), sing one of the folk songs that's been passed down through the generations of mountain folk. Realizing it and other such songs are unique, Americanized versions of the same English ballads she formerly taught, Lily decides to document and record as many of the songs as possible.
Accompanied by Deladis and Fate Honeycutt (GREG RUSSELL COOK), the local teen who's sweet on her, Lilly soon meets many of the neighboring residents, hoping they'll have more songs and information for her research that she ultimately hopes to have published.
Among them is Tom Bledsoe (AIDAN QUINN), a man who's been to the outside world and doesn't trust anyone from there; his grandmother Viney Butler (PAT CARROLL) who turns out to be a repository of sorts of such music; the very pregnant Alice Kincaid (STEPHANIE ROTH HABERLE) whose husband, Reese (MICHAEL HARDING), is cheating on her; and Earl Giddens (DAVID PATRICK KELLY) an educated local who works for Mr. McFarland (STEVE BOLES), a coal magnate who has many of the residents worried about his plans for their land
As Lily continues on her quest, she encounters various difficulties and obstacles, including Tom who initially doesn't trust her, but eventually becomes her lover, and discovers a few things about herself in the process.