Soundtracks of Significance: “O Brother, Where Art Thou?”

29 May

When Ethan Coen and Joel Coen hired T. Bone Burnett to produce the music for their film, O Brother, Where Art Thou? perhaps no one could have foreseen that it would usher in a whole movement in Americana and bluegrass music.

That’s just what happened, though. It turned out that the art house viewers who went to see O Brother really enjoyed the “old timey” music that created so much of the film’s ambiance. Sales were through the roof; the album hit #1 on Billboard’s Top Soundtracks chart, Top Country Albums chart and even the Top 200 chart which covers all genres! The Recording Industry Association of America has certified it 8x platinum for shipment of 8 million units.

Because the songs were not new compositions, the soundtrack was ineligible for an Academy Award nomination but it was lavished by other organizations:

The Grammy Awards

  • Album of the Year
  • Best Country Collaboration with Vocals: Dan Tyminski, Harley Allen & Pat Enright for “I Am a Man of Constant Sorrow”
  • Best Country Male Vocal Performance: Dr. Ralph Stanley for “O Death”
  • Best Compilation Soundtrack Album for a Motion Picture, Television or Other Visual Media
  • Producer of the Year: T Bone Burnett

Academy of Country Music

  • Album of the Year
  • Vocal Event of the Year: “I Am a Man of Constant Sorrow” (The Soggy Bottom Boys)

Country Music Association

  • Album of the Year
  • Single of the Year: “I Am a Man of Constant Sorrow” (The Soggy Bottom Boys)

More qualified music scholars than I have dissected the cultural impact of the O Brother album in the last twelve years. One aspect that has not often been fully explored, though, was the dichotomy between the sales figures and accolades, and the reception that the music received from mainstream country radio.

Despite the album out-selling every other country music release for more than an entire year, country radio gave the single, “I Am a Man of Constant Sorrow” a cold shoulder. It barely cracked the Top 40 Country Singles & Airplay chart, stalling at #38. The explanation (when one could be divined at all) was that mainstream country listeners weren’t really all that into that kind of music. In short, it completely defied the corporate programming template that plugged in the kind of music that had come to dominate the country music scene at the turn of the century: safe for suburban soccer moms who didn’t want to hear about rowdy nights and they certainly weren’t interested in banjos.

No one could believe the popularity of this music.

How to reconcile this notion that country listeners weren’t part of the O Brother buying demographic? For those not familiar with the country music genre, it must be especially baffling; aren’t country and bluegrass synonymous anyway? They share a lot of musical roots and conform to some of the same stereotypes but they’re quite different, especially if one is discussing mainstream country music from around the year 2001. What the success of this album really exposed was the reluctance of country radio to acknowledge Americana music. artists experienced a boon, their boats raised by the O Brother tide but they still couldn’t buy three minutes of time from country radio programmers.

Despite the lack of radio support, though, someone was buying the album. It hit #1 on the Top Country Albums chart for the week ending 24 February 2001 and then for 22 of the next 30 weeks, it stayed atop that chart. In the sporadic eight weeks where it fell out of the top position, it slipped to no lower than #3 before quickly rebounding back to #1.

Then came the September 11th attacks. O Brother, Where Art Thou? had already been on the charts for about eight months so it’s hard to know whether it began to falter from its position of dominance by running its course, but the landscape of country music since then makes it clearer that radio programmers wanted jingoistic anthems, not celebrations of our musical heritage.

Regardless of what was (or wasn’t) being played on mainstream country radio, the revival continued to find enthusiastic listeners. The runaway success of the album led to a star-studded concert in Nashville, filmed and released as Down from the Mountain. A live album was released from that performance, meaning there was a soundtrack album from a concert film staged around the soundtrack album to O Brother. (Congratulations if that made sense to you!) The soundtrack album hit #10 on Billboard’s Top Country Albums chart, and won a Grammy Award for Best Traditional Folk Album. It later spawned a tour that sold out 19 shows in 17 cities, and oh by the way – that was a winter tour, beginning 25 January 2001 in Lexington, KY. A 41-city summer tour followed in 2002.

The Peasall Sisters as The Warby Girls

In addition to bringing “old timey” music back into our collective consciousness, the O Brother soundtrack introduced the Peasall Sisters (who play The Warby Girls) and it put Lost Highway Records on the map. Lost Highway is an imprint of Universal Music dedicated to Americana and artists such as Ryan Bingham and Lucinda Williams. Last year, Lost Highway celebrated their first decade with a special series of anniversary vinyl releases including a deluxe edition of O Brother, Where Art Thou? including a bonus disc containing an additional 14 tracks recorded at the time for the film. Only two of those songs made it into the film.

Were it not for the film by the Coen brothers, it is unlikely that this spectacular album would have ever been assembled and certainly would never have reached the audience that it found. It is a reminder of the relationship between film and music, and the power that one medium has to affect the other.

  • BJ Markham

    “mainstream country listeners weren’t really all that into that kind of music” – that kind of music being anything considered “country” that strays from the “pop country” music that blankets mainstream county radio (of which, I am happy to say, I rarely partake.) This soundtrack is the perfect blend of folk, bluegrass, traditional country, blues, and gospel. What’s not to like?