Pittsburgh, PA
May 12, 2021
    News           Sports           Lifestyle           Classifieds           About Us
A & E
Tv Listings
The Dining Guide
Headlines by E-mail
Home >  A & E Printer-friendly versionE-mail this story
A & E
Music/Cover Story: O Brother, what now?

Soundtrack's breakthrough success has a ripple effect on the old-time music scene

Friday, August 16, 2002

By John Hayes, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

It was an accident in an industry where accidents rarely happen. Filmmakers Joel and Ethan Coen were looking for some quirky period music to provide aural authenticity to their 2000 movie, "O Brother Where Art Thou?" They hired rock 'n' roll producer T Bone Burnett to bring in some bands and waited to see what would happen at the box office.

Venerable Ralph Stanley
put the chill into 'O Brother'

Deep roots:
anthologies of more old songs

The movie did well for a Coen Brothers film, but at the record store and Amazon.com, the soundtrack exploded through the roof. It went gold before anyone knew what was happening, leaving the music industry uncharacteristically unprepared.

In a business where radio is the most trafficked link between people and product, music from "O Brother" is curiously absent from the airwaves. Those who had never been exposed to traditional mountain music heard it at the movie theater or, more probably, picked it up at the video store. When the soundtrack sold a million copies the industry said, "That's nice." When it passed 2 million, they called it a "phenomenon."

Now, two years since its release, the "O Brother" soundtrack is poised to crack 6 million in sales. It crested for a while as the top-selling album in the world and remains well inside the Top 40. It cleaned up at the Grammys and has spawned a new phrase describing old-timey tunes -- people have started calling it "O Brother music."

But with the exception of some small public stations, including Pittsburgh's WYEP (91.3 FM), radio can't touch it. The acoustic gospel, blues, folk and bluegrass tunes fit into no popular format. Mainstream country-hits radio can't figure out what to do with it.

Even the Coens and Burnett have had to scramble to capitalize on the unprecedented interest in the once-obscure music. This weekend's Down From the Mountain Tour at Mountaineer Racetrack near Wheeling is an offshoot of a concert and documentary film that showcased artists from the "O Brother" sessions. The Coens and Burnett are behind a new Sony/Capitol offshoot, DMZ, formed in part to market the music of their Grammy winner, Ralph Stanley.

There's no doubt that "O Brother" has rocked the music world, but it's too soon to tell if the unprecedented interest in old-time mountain music is a short-term fad or the first stirrings of a new direction.

Nielsen SoundScan sales figures offer some evidence that "O Brother" is affecting other artists. As of this week, the soundtrack has sold 5.7 million albums. In only two months, Stanley, who has spent a lifetime on the periphery of the music industry, has sold 27,000 copies of his new self-titled disc. Rounder Records' Alison Krauss and Union Station, "O Brother" veterans who bridge the gap between traditional bluegrass and adult acoustic music, have recently gone gold with last year's "New Favorite." Similar in style but not on "O Brother," Rhonda Vincent's "The Storm Still Rages" has moved only 38,000 discs in a year. The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band's landmark 1971 album "Will the Circle Be Unbroken" has seen a recent bump in sales up to 187,000, undoubtedly due to the good fortune of having its 30th anniversary remastered re-release coincide with the peak in "O Brother's" popularity.

"Clearly there's a ripple effect going on in relation to 'O Brother,' " says Skip Ogden, editor of the "iBluegrass" online magazine. "[Artists] who were on the soundtrack are selling more of their own records. But judging from record sales, it doesn't seem like people are exploring the music beyond that."

On the road, however, bluegrass bands are seeing more people and younger fans at their concerts.

"The concert business is not going well overall this year," says Gary Bongiovanna, editor of Pollstar, a touring industry trade magazine. "Bluegrass isn't doing Springsteen-level business, but [attendance at] the summer festivals seems to be over where it was last year, although it still may be too early to tell. Down From the Mountain, in the first half of the year, was averaging 4,400 people per city, which is very good for an unusual tour of its kind. I think it's great to see that art form being embraced by people like it is."

Fans of "O Brother's" diverse, old-time mountain music have been showing up at bluegrass festivals this summer, but it's unclear whether they'll return. There's very little bluegrass on the soundtrack and very little gospel, blues or folk at most bluegrass festivals.

But bluegrass comes in several varieties. Named for the old-timey country music played by Bill Monroe and the Blue Grass Boys, it has evolved over the past half century.

"There are three or four schools," says Ogden. "Some people like it very traditional -- if Bill Monroe or one of the original [creators] didn't record it, it's not bluegrass. Contemporary or modern bluegrass doesn't have the harsh vocals, and maybe they do covers of Beatles songs. Progressive bluegrass is the Jerry Garcia/David Grisman stuff played by jam bands like Sam Bush and Yonder Mountain."

A fourth category might portend the future of bluegrass music.

"There's sort of a fourth category that people are calling bluegrass, but which really isn't," says Ogden. "Nickel Creek plays progressive acoustic music, and Alison Krauss has recently gone over to that, too. It's not [made] for country radio. It's adult acoustic music, not really bluegrass, but I believe that's what bluegrass is going to become. The excellent production values and the style of the artists on 'O Brother,' I think, is helping that to happen."

Bluegrass festivals that showcase traditional-leaning artists are not basking in the "O Brother" glow. Grateful Dead-influenced progressive bluegrass festivals like JamGrass, which recently brought Grisman and Dark Star Orchestra to Station Square, are keeping Deadheads off the street, but have little connection to "O Brother." A new and younger audience descended upon Telluride, Colo., for one of the nation's biggest annual contemporary bluegrass festivals. Attendance at the 13-stage MerleFest in North Carolina jumped from 69,000 to more than 80,000 this year.

Former Pittsburgher Sue Cunningham, an award-winning fiddle genius who used to play with The Flying Cunninghams (notice the surname), has taken advantage of all the hype and booked a contemporary bluegrass festival this weekend near her home in Wellsboro, Pa. She now saws for The Hickory Project.

"What I'm seeing on the road is a lot more interest, more young people," she says. "Also, I see them picking up instruments. We do a lot of workshops and there are a lot of young people interested in learning [to play] traditional instruments who probably first heard the music from watching 'O Brother.' "

She describes the festival, Music in the Mountains, as a diverse collection of 18 bluegrass, folk and Celtic bands, include Pittsburgh acts The Rank Strangers, Flying Cunninghams and Mark Weakland. (For details, call 800-920-5175.)

"We're always going to have traditionalists who will maintain the way the music sounded in the '30s and '40s," says Cunningham. "But I see the music evolving, getting more complex, combining some of the chord progressions and harmonies from jazz. Country music is voice-dominant, but in bluegrass the important focus is on the instruments. What's going to happen, I think, is this all could form another style of music."

John Hayes can be reached at jhayes@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1991.

Back to top Back to top E-mail this story E-mail this story
Search | Contact Us |  Site Map | Terms of Use |  Privacy Policy |  Advertise | Help |  Corrections