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How the O Brother, Where Art Thou? Soundtrack Changed Roots Music

Updated: Dec 23, 2020

T Bone Burnett changed roots music forever with his soundtrack album to O Brother, Where Art Thou?

It could be argued that the rapid recognition of the music genre known as Americana was in the main part due to the release of the enormously successful soundtrack to the movie O Brother, Where Art Thou?

December 2020 marks the 20th anniversary of the release of of T-Bone Burnett’s inspiring album which would top the Billboard 200 chart, go on to sell 8 million copies in the U.S. alone, be certified eight-times platinum and win a host of Grammy awards, including the coveted Album of the Year.

Quirky brothers Joel and Ethan Coen directed and co-edited the somewhat whacky O Brother, Where Art Thou? The satirical comedy-drama, which starred George Clooney and premiered in October 2000 , is set in rural Mississippi during the Great Depression. It is loosely based on the Homer epic The Odyssey. Like many of the unorthodox Coen movies, it received mixed reviews but was selected for main competition at the 200 Cannes Film Festival and nominated for several honours, including the Academy Awards where it won Best Cinematography Award for Roger Deakins. The film was in fact the fifth film collaboration between the Coen Brothers and Cinematographer Deakins.

But, to some surprise, the big hit of the film - and one which would give it legendary status - was the out-of-left-field soundtrack which the Coen brothers always conceived as a major component to the movie. In fact, the film features a fictional musical group known as the Soggy Bottom Boys that the main characters form to serve as accompaniment for the film.

The 19 songs selected cover a broad musical canvas of the American South, with a sophisticated mix of gospel, delta blues, bluegrass, swing and southern country. These, in fact, were the genres compromising the musical style dubbed Americana which, at the time of the film’s release, was in the early stages of being promoted by the marketing gurus in Nashville.

Work on the actual script for O Brother actually began in 1997 and was more than half completed by May the following year, long before the cameras rolled. For the Coens it was important that the music could come first so it could be incorporated into the actual script So one of the early tasks was to find a musical director.

And the Coens decided to go with someone who they had recently worked with - award-winning producer, musician and songwriter T Bone Burnett, who cut his teeth in Bob Dylan’s band during the 1970’s. It was a decision they would never regret.

“Ethan Coen called me and asked, ‘How would you like to make a movie about the history of American music?’ I mean, that’s one hell of an elevator pitch,” Burnett recently told No Depression.

Burnett immediately set out by compiling a catalogue of what is today known as old-timey music. The selection included traditional numbers whether they be gospel, bluegrass or Appalachian folk songs. And to interpret them, Burnett wisely selected some of the finest artists from the said genres – Ralph Stanley, Emmylou Harris, Gillian Welsh, John Hartford, Alison Krauss and Dan Tyminski, who was a guitarist and backing vocalist in the Alison Krauss & Union Station band.

Tyminski would find fame in the film as “the voice” of George Clooney’s character Ulysses Everett McGill. And his overdub on “I Am a Man of Constant Sorrow” would win him a Grammy Award for Best Country Collaboration with Vocals.

The selection of “I Am a Man of Constant Sorrow” as the movie signature tune actually had its roots back in 1998 when Burnett was working on the Coen movie The Big Lebowski. It was an traditional folk song, dating back to 1928, but made famous in 1951 when it was released by The Stanley Brothers with an arrangement by Carter Stanley.

Burnett told No Depression: “When we were looking for a theme song for The Dude in The Big Lebowski, I actually proposed ‘Man of Constant Sorrow’ for him.” He added: “We ended up going a different direction with Lebowski, using Captain Beefheart and Creedence Clearwater Revival to establish his musical identity. But honestly, there’s less difference between Creedence’s ‘Fortunate Son’ and our version of ‘Man of Constant Sorrow,’ than there is between it and some of the older versions.”

Tyminski told No Depression his involvement in the project started because his manager Denise Stiff had been asked by T Bone to wrangle up artists for the soundtrack: “As the full band, Alison Krauss & Union Station, we all went in to audition because we were huge fans of the Coen Brothers and of T Bone as well. While we were there, Denise mentioned that they were still looking for the person who would be George Clooney’s singing voice and she threw my name out there as a potential candidate. They told me to come back by myself the next day and I ended up doing a version of ‘Man of Constant Sorrow’ that was nothing like what ended up on the soundtrack. But the stars aligned, they saw what they were looking for, and called me back the next day to offer me the gig.”

Though there had been numerous versions of the song over the years – from Jerry Garcia to Bob Dylan – it was the Stanley Brothers classic that provided the best interpretation for the movie. “For the audition, I decided to do a more traditional bluegrass take on it: much higher, must faster, less swampy. We ended up dirtying it up a bit for the final film version, which I thought gave it the right character that it needed,” said Tyminski.

In the original soundtrack of O Brother, Where Art Thou, there are five variations of “I am a Man of Constant Sorrow.” Two are used in the film, one in the music video and two in the Grammy winning album. Two of the variations feature the verses being sung back-to-back, and the other three variations feature additional music between each verse.

"'Man Of Constant Sorrow' has, I think, 50 copyrights in the Library Of Congress," Burnett told Jim Beaugez of "The one we worked with most closely was The Stanley Brothers' version. Even though we had done our own arrangement, we could've gotten sued by 50 people for infringement."

The actual Stanley Brothers version is not included, but Ralph Stanley does feature in the movie soundtrack with a scintillating a cappella version of “O Death.” It was to win him a Grammy Award for Best Male Country Vocal Performance and on the occasion of the 44th Grammys, Ralph, then 73, stunned the audience in Los Angeles by standing under a single spotlight on a darkened stage and singing the song a cappella.

On the actual day of the soundtrack recording, it was intended that Ralph record a banjo-backed version of “O Death” but he convinced Burnett that they do it instrument free as he first heard it among Baptist congregations near his home in Virginia.

“For the film, we were working in epic Greek themes, which were always about dealing with fate. To me, ‘O Death’ was talking directly to fate, the thing that’s coming for you, and the faster you run away from it, the closer it gets to you,” Burnett said in his recent interview with No Depression.

Burnett explained that he and his team were not interested in digitally fabricated sonic sepia tones. Instead, they recreated vintage recording techniques and blended them with the technological advancements in audio output to create updated versions of these decades-old songs.

Burnett’s treatment of such retro-music is little short of brilliant. Besides the big names of Harris, Hartford and Krauss, he made some incredibly incisive calls by including little known, yet established, family-based interpreters of old-timey music like The Whites (“Keep on the Sunny Side”) and The Cox Family (“I Am Weary (Let Me Rest),” not to mention child star siblings The Peasall Sisters performing Maybelle Carter’s “In the Highways.”

And for good measure he stitched together a silky-soprano trio of Krauss, Welch and Harris to record an a cappella version of “Didn’t Leave Nobody But the Baby.”

It was originally intended to release the film in the summer of 2000, but it was delayed until the autumn and the soundtrack only hit the stores a couple of weeks before Christmas

Burnett told No Depression: “Luckily enough, the movie and the soundtrack both started doing really well in tandem with each other. Back then, there were still a lot of movie theatres inside of malls and folks could walk right out of the movie, take a few steps to the record store, and buy the soundtrack. The more records that sold, the more theatres the studio would put the movie in, and it just kept growing together like that. After its initial run in theatres, every time the movie went to a new format — cable, broadcast TV, DVD — there would be another wave of interest and spike in sales of the soundtrack each time. It was all very organic.”

Sales of the soundtrack were fuelled by a concert tour titled Down From the Mountain featuring most of the original artists. It sold out throughout America and the DVD, which incidentally captured the last performance of the great John Hartford, became a must-have with O Brother fans.

One artist who saw her saw her profile broaden virtually overnight was Gillian Welch. In the next 12 months she would release her acclaimed album Time (The Revelator) which would establish her (and musical partner David Rawlings) among the big names of Americana music.

Welch told Rolling Stone: “After O Brother, what happened was my kind of weird freakish musical existence became this little tributary that fed into the mainstream. And over the course of a couple years, and now, a couple decades, it has not really gone away. I’m not so much of a freak anymore. I haven’t really changed. Dave [Rawlings] and I, we still just sit on the sofa singing Stanley Brothers songs. That’s what we do! But the world kind of changed around us.”

Krauss too was to benefit from her inclusion in the project. Though she had released a number of successful albums with Union Station, blending bluegrass with folk and country, now she was suddenly less fringe and more connected with mainstream mass audiences. She and the band toured extensively in 2002 off the back of a new album New Favorite which was released in November 2001 and went gold within four months.

And her association with T Bone Burnett was to reap real rewards when in 2007 he would unite her with rock legend Robert Plant and produce their multi-platinum, Grammy-winning mainstream album Raising Sands.

But the biggest winners from the O Brother phenomenon would have to be the Americana Music Association (AMA) and its genre of music it was established to manage and promote. The AMA had been in existence only 12 months before the release of T Bone’s album, so there was no better launch than see a multi-genre roots recording become a musical sensation.

It wasted little time recognising T Bone’s contribution to the fledgling genre when in 2002 at the inaugural Americana Honours and Awards, he was given a lifetime achievement award for executive achievement.

There is no one better to provide proper context and an intelligent perspective on how the timing of O Brother Where Art Thou? influenced the advancement of the Americana genre than the AMA Executive Director Jed Hilly, who told No Depression: “There were some pretty important things going on in the music business in the 1990s that affected what we now call Americana”

The most impactful was probably the FCC ruling which changed the way radio existed. “It went from 10,000 different radio stations being run by 10,000 different owners to those same 10,000 radio stations being bought up and corporatized by like 10 companies,” said Hilly. “All of a sudden, artists associated with what Steve Earle called the ‘great credibility scare’ — Rodney Crowell, k.d. lang, Dwight Yoakam, Emmylou Harris, Rosanne Cash — all of a sudden, the Nashville music business had no interest in any of them. They were only after artists like Garth Brooks and Shania Twain.”

But by the beginning of the new century there was hope for the alt country brigade with some acts, including the likes of Uncle Tupelo, Ryan Adams and Son Volt, suddenly getting more radio play. Added to this was the traction gained by Johnny Cash teaming up with Rick Rubin in the 1990's to produce the widely-successful American Recording music series.

“All that set the stage for the environment into which O Brother was dropped in 2000. The audience was there, they just needed the commitment and delivery by the right group of record company, producer, and artists. O Brother hit all those chords perfectly,” said Hilly.

But the last word for the sensation that is O Brother Where Art Thou? should go to its musical founder T Bone Burnett: “Something I always tell the artists I work with is that the song’s arrow shouldn’t point to themselves, it should point to the listener. Every time someone tells me a personal story about a touching moment involving a song from O Brother, then I’m reminded that we were successful at the most important thing.”

Paul Cutler

Editor Crossroads – Americana Music Appreciation


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