As the sun begins to dip down over Raleigh on Friday, the International Bluegrass Music Association will be well into its fourth convocation in the state’s capital. The streets of downtown will be crowded with local and out-of-town visitors seeking to soak up as much live bluegrass as they can handle. Meanwhile, the band taking the stage at Red Hat Amphitheater will be a work of fiction.
Well, sort of. The Soggy Bottom Boys are indeed a bunch of breathing, tremendously talented humans with honest-to-god instruments that they actually know how to play. But the band itself, an amalgamation of personnel from Alison Krauss and Union Station and the Nashville Bluegrass Band, wouldn’t exist without O Brother, Where Art Thou?, the Coen brothers’ 2001 film about a bumbling trio of con men who break away from a chain gang to seek a mysterious treasure.
The film’s plot is loosely based on Homer’s epic The Odyssey, set in Depression-era Mississippi. The loveable-hateable protaganists are George Clooney’s motormouth Everett, John Turturro’s angsty Pete, and Tim Blake Nelson’s dim Delmar. Music is central in the story, more so than in any of the films the Coens had made before. With a guitarist, the Robert Johnson-inspired Tommy, the group pulls a fast con by “singing into a can” for a blind record producer. They take their money and split, on the run from the law again. But unbeknownst to them, their version of “Man of Constant Sorrow” becomes a hitand eventually their salvation.
When Clooney opens his mouth to sing, the voice that spills out belongs to Dan Tyminski. He’ll lead the ensemble known as the Soggy Bottom BoysBarry Bales, Ron Block, Pat Enright, Stuart Duncan, and Mike Comptononce again late Friday afternoon. Tyminski first auditioned for the soundtrack as the guitarist for Alison Krauss and Union Station, but was called back for a solo audition.
“It was a little confusing to me, because I didn’t think that I necessarily sounded like I pictured Clooney’s voice sounding,” Tyminski says. “It was kind of weird, the thought of my voice coming out. Looking at it in perspective, it was a Coen brothers movie, and everything’s a little off-center and a little strange.”
O Brother, Where Art Thou? is plenty strange with its deft combination of classical mythology and the cultural quirks of the rural South. The soundtrack is a perfect expansion of the film’s themesClooney’s beleaguered Everett probably could’ve written “Man of Constant Sorrow” himself. But putting it together wasn’t an easy project. Venerated producer T Bone Burnett worked closely with the Coens to dig up songs that would fit the feel of the filmits darkness and its lighthearted hope. Bluegrass is, of course, rife with both.
“What we found when we went in was that they had done an enormous amount of research, listening to all the recorded music from that era that they could find,” Tyminski says. He remembers box sets of recordings stacked up in the rehearsal hall where he and Union Station auditioned for their parts.
Burnett then assembled a cracking team of professionalsthe kinds of musicians who’d spent their lives steeped in this stuffto bring the soundtrack to life.
“He was able to find some of these old-timers who were still alive and still had a great voice and tremendous knowledge, like Ralph Stanley and John Hartford, and bring in young outstanding singers and players that respected this old music and loved it,” says Sandy Wilbur, who worked on O Brother, Where Art Thou? as its musicologist. It was her job to research the origins of each song to ensure that the film had the rights to all of its music.
“I think that combination was the magical ingredient that gave [the film] both an authenticity and a contemporary sound that just couldn’t be beat,” she says.
Among those younger players was Gillian Welch, O Brother‘s associate music producer, who sings “I’ll Fly Away” and “Didn’t Leave Nobody But the Baby” on the soundtrack. (She makes an onscreen appearance as a customer inquiring after the Soggy Bottom Boys’ sold-out single, too.) Though she already had two records to her name by the time of the movie’s release in February 2001, Welch’s O Brother work gave a significant boost to her career. She released her landmark LP, Time (The Revelator), the same year, cementing her reputation as one of the most important contemporary figures in folk music.
For others, the soundtrack’s popularity brought about a remarkable late-career revival. Ralph Stanley, who was an early force in bluegrass with his brother, Carter, as The Stanley Brothers, was one such beneficiary. His chilling a cappella rendition of “O Death” appears in a scene where Everett, Delmar, and Pete stumble into a Ku Klux Klan rally, and the song became a staple of his sets through the end of his career. He died at age eighty-nine in June.
But even though the soundtrack focuses on traditional tunes, the Coens and company were surprised to find that some songs they had thought were in the public domainand thus, free to use in the filmwere not, in fact, traditional. They’d been mining discs of music that had often been incorrectly deemed traditional. Wilbur knew that sloppy attributions wouldn’t fly.
“I remember my first conversation with Ethan when he showed me the CD, and he said, ‘Look, it says right here, ‘Traditional,’” Wilbur says. “I said, ‘So what?’”
The music was such an important part of the movie’s fabric that it became crucial for the Coens to clear the usage of their chosen songs in order to avoid litigation. Wilbur’s exhaustive research revealed several surprises. She had to navigate several different versions of “Man of Constant Sorrow” to divine its author and clear its use. “Big Rock Candy Mountain” required careful untangling, too, as it existed in dozens of versions with varied lyrics and melodies. Wilbur also discovered that the chosen version of “I’ll Fly Away,” which everyone had assumed was traditional, not only had a specific author but was also recorded by the Kossoy Sisters in 1956, a full two decades after O Brother‘s setting.
All that careful work yielded significant results. The soundtrack won the 2002 Grammy for album of the year, and “Man of Constant Sorrow” and “O Death” won trophies in country categories. As of January 2015, it’s sold nearly eight million copies.
The popularity of the movie and its soundtrack had a major impact on the bluegrass world, according to Tyminski. Ticket sales to bluegrass concerts went up, venues got bigger, and a massive tour featuring all the artists on the soundtrack sold out venues nationwide. Even festivals that didn’t have any artists connected to O Brother enjoyed the benefits of the bluegrass revival.
“We started seeing more diverse crowds, more rock ‘n’ roll T-shirts and spiked hairpeople of all genres of music that we weren’t as accustomed to seeing,” Tyminski says.
A decade and a half later, the current music marketplace still feels the ripples of O Brother‘s success. The movie’s wild popularity cracked open a place for bluegrass, folk, and other acoustic music in the mainstream. Welch has said that, at the time, she and collaborator Dave Rawlings joked that they were at the forefront of the “banjo wave,” a prophecy that’s come true as folk-inspired music has enjoyed an increasingly large spot in the sun. Acts like The Avett Brothers were already in operation, but the public’s reinvigorated interest in their sorts of sounds undoubtedly helped turn new ears their way. Tyminski found himself back on the Top 40 landscape as recently as 2013, when he appeared on Avicii’s decidedly not-bluegrass “Hey Brother.”
“You could hear the change in music, post-O Brother, where people were seeking that stuff out, looking for that way to be as rootsy and real and pure and organic as possible,” Tyminski says. “It brought in new faces that brought new attention to an art form that had been around for such a long time. No one really took a good look at it like they did with the soundtrack.”
But how did the house band for a fifteen-year-old movie end up in a headlining slot at the biggest annual bluegrass bash? William Lewis is the executive director of Pinecone, Raleigh’s council of traditional music. He’s also responsible for booking the Red Hat shows in IBMA grouped together as Wide Open Bluegrass. Lewis explains that the Soggy Bottom Boys are part of the festival’s effort to include music fans who aren’t “in the trenches,” as he puts it.
“What we do at Wide Open Bluegrass is try to draw out a broad narrative of bluegrass music, in that it’s traditional but it can also be progressive. There are connections to country music and classical music, and it’s got all these fingers and branches,” he says. “Oftentimes, it takes some kind of a hit album to cross over into the mainstream, and this was a really important one.”
Tyminski, Bales, and Block all performed with Union Station at Wide Open Bluegrass last year, and Lewis says organizers felt like the time was right to get The Soggy Bottom Boys back together. The movie has held up, after allTyminski says he still regularly comes across it on TV, which is always a pleasant surprise for him.
The band’s appearance coincides, in spirit, with the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, the Red Hat headliner Friday eveninga band that has spent 2016 celebrating its fiftieth anniversary. Like the O Brother soundtrack, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s expansive 1972 record Will the Circle Be Unbroken brought revered traditional artists like Doc Watson, the Carter Family, Earl Scruggs, Merle Travis, and Jimmy Martin back into the national spotlight. It remains an important crossover record that bridges revered old-school figureheads with a young, fresh audience.
“These albums really helped cross over into the mainstream, and I think remind people how powerful and important the music is,” Lewis says. “It’s kind of cool to have both of those on the same stage, in the same night, to give a nod in the direction of film and of albums that bring traditional music to broader audiences.”
At the bottom of the cover of Will the Circle Be Unbroken, a line of script reads, “Music forms a new Circle.” A Coen brothers comedy soundtrack seems like an unusual link to continue the chain of American acoustic music, but it made a place for old-time traditions in the new millennium. For all the talk of constant sorrow, O Brother, Where Art Thou?’s spot as a historic high point for bluegrass is delightfully unimpeachable.
This article appeared in print with the headline “O Brother, Where Aren’t Thou?”