O Brother, Where Art Thou?
The Soundtrack That Brought Bluegrass Back
When it first appeared in 2000, Joel and Ethan Coen's retelling of the Odyssey as a Depression-era morality story didn't have much impact. As a film, it was a little bit odd, though haunting in spots. But people left theaters humming the prominently featured songs, rerecordings of hymns, and old-time laments that helped the Coens evoke the ethics and beliefs of a simpler time. That triggered a phenomenon. Within a year the soundtrack had sold over five million copies, renewed interest in classic bluegrass and traditional American music, and spawned an extensive concert tour and a slew of subsequent releases. For a while, any performer with a speck of bluegrass in the back catalog was opportunistically riding the O Brother bandwagon.
There are only a few vintage recordings among the nineteen songs here (one, "Po' Lazarus," credited to J. Carter and Prisoners, was recorded in 1955 by folklorist Alan Lomax); the rest were produced by T-Bone Burnett in a spare style reminiscent of the single-microphone, wax-cylinder recordings of the 1930s. Nothing mucks up these homespun tunes, which provide a gravitas the film occasionally lacks. With its tales of infants dying and calamitous journeys, bluegrass turns out to be eerily dramatic, and such performers as Alison Krauss, the Soggy Bottom Boys, and the Cox Family function in the manner of a Greek chorus, offering empathy and gossipy wisdom. Among the many perfect moments uniting music and visuals, there's the climactic scene at a Ku Klux Klan rally: Here, the sepulchral voice of bluegrass pioneer Ralph Stanley is heard singing "O Death." All by himself. It's an amazing song made more chilling, if that were possible, in this context.
Released: 2000, Lost Highway
Key Tracks: Ralph Stanley: "O Death." Soggy Bottom Boys: "Man of Constant Sorrow." J. Carter and Prisoners: "Po' Lazarus"
Next Stop: Ralph Stanley: Saturday Night/Sunday Morning
Book Pages: 817–818