It's the music that matters most in Appalachian Strings. But the vibrant production now at the Denver Center Theatre Company is also a history, both of "hillbilly" music and of the people of Appalachia. The writing in this engaging piece is sometimes a trifle overwrought, the people idealized beyond the true boundaries of human nature, and the whole tone of the evening unabashedly nostalgic for a simpler way of life. But it still says something substantial about a unique and fast-disappearing mountain culture.

The direct descendants of Scotch-Irish immigrants (with some French and German peasant stock mixed in), the people of Appalachia always had it rough. But they never resorted to slavery, and so carried off a whole portion of the state of Virginia, creating the free state of West Virginia prior to the Civil War. The underground railroad ran right through their mountains, conveying slaves to freedom in the North.

By the turn of the century, when mining interests stripped the land and dug big holes in the hills, the hillbillies' collective goose was cooked. They suffered massive losses during the sweeping flu epidemics of the late 'teens and early Twenties. Some local musicians turned pro and profited when their music flourished in the dominant culture. But when the mines closed, the work was gone. Many of the hill people pulled up stakes and headed to northern and western factories.

This form of historical musical storytelling is becoming something of a tradition for co-author/director Randal Myler and the DCTC. (Myler gave us the terrific Ain't Nothin' but the Blues last year, and Love, Janis the year before.) In this production, written by Myler with Dan Wheetman, three actors tell stories from the region. Kathleen Brady plays all the mama roles with generous wit, Dale Dickey projects innocence and earthly desire with charm as the various daughters and young maids, and Archie Smith does the dads and granddads with crotchety goodwill. Some of the tales are the fanciful kind spoken at the kitchen hearth; others are true stories about real people who struggled with poverty and lived by a code of conduct all their own, taking no welfare even when starvation stared them in the face. "We had a thousand things to eat," says Smith in one scene. "Every one of them was peas."

But the authors have chosen to tell most of the cultural history of the region in song. And here co-author/musician Wheetman and musicians L.J. Slavin and Tony Marcus really shine, playing a variety of wonderful instruments--including, at one point, a saw. The opening sequence features lively old Irish tunes performed on the fiddle and the drum. Dancer Suzanne Girardot does a highland-style jig, and we see the evolution of Appalachian dance spring right out of those first few steps. Singer Molly Andrews performs a breathtaking version of "The Water Is Wide," first with the Irish and then with the Appalachian accent. Religious numbers like "Honor to the Hills" and "Canaan Land" are beautifully sung but perhaps a tad self-consciously--the actors don't seem at home in the form. "Cumberland Gap" and "The Farmer Is the Man (Who Feeds Us All)," by contrast, ably relate the geography and economics of the region. And a skillful children's medley of lullabies, hymns and comic songs forms a backdrop for stories and superstitions about childbirth.

But while the first act is a joyous celebration of a people's history, the second act gets down to brass tacks. "Hard Working Miner" and other songs describe life in the mines, and the tone turns somber as the talk turns to black-lung disease, death by cave-in, disregard for the safety of the miners by the owners, and the grief of widows and orphans left to starve. By the time the company sings "Down on the Picket Line," it's a relief to hear social protest so vividly defended.

As the Great Depression arrives and the people of Appalachia disperse to the far corners of the U.S., Myler and Wheetman bring in songs about lonely, lost individuals homesick for their people and their land. "Poor Wayfarin' Stranger" and "This World Is Not My Home" have more than one meaning. The ending gets emotional and manipulative when the actors start talking about the land being in their blood. But these last few moments of embarrassing corn are a small price to pay for so delightful an evening.

Appalachian Strings, through June 8 at the Denver Center Theatre Company, 14th and Curtis in the Plex, 893-4100.