The Reverb Feature: What hath “O Brother” wrought? A decade later, the hit soundtrack still inspires a roots revivalBy Ricardo Baca | August 19th, 2011 | 5 comments
The “Old Grass GNU Grass” weekly bluegrass show on community radio station KGNU has had a steady following in its 30-plus years of broadcasting from Boulder and, more recently, Denver. But when the station’s music director, John Schaefer, recently hit the pledge-book archives to see how various programming blocks had performed over the years, he noticed an unusual and dramatic spike in the bluegrass show’s draw.
“Right around 2001, the spike of donations was the biggest it’s ever been for that show,” said Schaefer, who initially was confounded by the numbers. “It was such an anomaly. . . . And later on, I looked up when ‘O Brother, Where Art Thou’ came out. Sure enough, it came out in the winter, and that following spring and fall pledge drive enjoyed these massive spikes. And it pushed it up and kept it up for a long time.”
The long-running show was only one of many entities to benefit from the massively influential “O Brother” soundtrack, which celebrates its 10th anniversary this month with a fresh reissue. The music that scored the Coen Brothers’ Depression-era adaptation of Homer’s “Odyssey” changed popular music in a big way, bringing old-timey mountain music back to the forefront of America’s pop market for the first time in multiple decades.
And we’re still feeling the soundtrack’s influence. Would the masses have been ready for roots- minded crossover acts Mumford & Sons, Old Crow Medicine Show, the Civil Wars or the Avett Brothers had it not been for the brave, game-changing appeal of “O Brother”?
If the soundtrack wasn’t the red- hot coal in the locomotive’s engine, it was the laborer laying the railroad track for future successes.
“The ‘O Brother’ soundtrack opened the door, but people were ready for it,” said John Paul White, who makes up one-half of the popular modern roots duo the Civil Wars. “It’s the same situation now. People are ready to strip their lives down and evolve and get a little more primitive. They want that in their music too. They’re tired of all the pomp and circumstance. We were too, so we’re right there with them.”
Brian Eyster agrees that the soundtrack helped introduce the masses to the music. He directs communications for Planet Bluegrass, the Lyons-based promoter behind the Telluride Bluegrass Festival, Rocky- Grass and next weekend’s Rocky Mountain Folks Festival — which will feature the Civil Wars.
But, he says, that’s where its involvement ends.
“The year of the ‘O Brother’ soundtrack was the first year Rocky- Grass ever sold out, and it’s sold out ever since,” Eyster said last week from his Lyons office. “But once you open that door, you realize there’s this incredible wonderland of American roots music that people have played for hundreds of years and will continue to play for hundreds of years. The music itself is so powerful that it doesn’t take much to get hooked.
“It’s a long continuum, and the ‘O Brother’ thing was a little spike on it.”
“O Brother” was an anomaly and a defining moment in modern music history. The roots record was a bona fide hit, winning the year’s most prestigious Grammy (Album of the Year), making millions for folk legend Ralph Stanley, launching cult artists Alison Krauss and Gillian Welch into mainstream consciousness and eventually selling 8 million copies in the U.S. alone.
“Something just clicked like nothing like this had ever clicked,” said Rob Jacobs, senior director of marketing at Universal Music Entertprises. “The soundtrack was this out-of-seemingly-nowhere phenomenon with all these wonderful, real-deal artists, one after another. It had the movie as a driver, but it wasn’t a blockbuster. It did well and had its fans, but out of that, this was the ultimate word-of-mouth project. And it affected people deeply.”
While Lost Highway first released the soundtrack in December 2000, UMe will reissue the CD in double-disc form on Tuesday — complete with a 17-track bonus disc that includes more than 10 songs that were recorded for the film but have never been released before.
Like the original album, the reissue was crafted by legendary roots producer T Bone Burnett. The success of the soundtrack opened many doors for Burnett, who went on to work on “Cold Mountain,” “A Mighty Wind” and other films. And his liner notes in the reissued “O Brother” make it clear that he’s well aware of the soundtrack’s unexpected scope.
“For many of us, ‘O Brother’ was part of a musical education,” Burnett writes in the new liner notes. “It helped extend this important 20th century musical legacy into the 21st century.”
And to be honest, pop music needs the acoustic infusion. While Eminem, Katy Perry, Taylor Swift and Lil Wayne rule the charts, the honesty of a well-written, earnestly produced roots track means more than it ever has. It’s more than a back-to-basics exercise. It’s a conscious decision to ignore the many modern tools and trends in favor of a simpler, more straightforward process.
“My ears, over time, got tired of the wall of sound,” said Joy Williams, the other half of the Civil Wars. “And when things are stripped back, emotion shines through a little more. What’s raw shines through, and hopefully that’s part of what is connecting to people.”
Just ask the world’s biggest Americana poster boy, Marcus Mumford, frontman of Mumford & Sons. The Brit has sent extensive shout-outs to the “O Brother” soundtrack in interviews over the past few years, noting that a mixtape his brother’s friend made — featuring Welch, Krauss and the film’s fictional group, the Soggy Bottom Boys — was an early inspiration to him.
“It’s been heavily influential to so many artists,” said UME’s Jacobs. “There was an article in Spin where Mumford & Sons talked about how they were inspired by it. Bright Eyes, Neko Case and a lot of those artists — I can’t say it’s 100 percent, but it’s in there. I’ve heard T Bone interviewed a couple times, and he talks about it being a stream, and all of those artists are a part of that stream. They’re just further down.”