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A New Generation of Bluegrass Stars Reflect on ‘O Brother, Where Art Thou?’

Jan 30, 2021

A New Generation of Bluegrass Stars Reflect on ‘O Brother, Where Art Thou?’

The soundtrack to O Brother Where Art Thou? was a phenomenon in the early 2000s, turning bluegrass musicians into superstars and creating an instant mainstream market for old-time music — from folk to gospel to children’s songs to prison chants to blues and everything in between. To celebrate the twentieth anniversary of its astonishing success and to wrap up our Artist of the Month series, we spoke to several musicians about the impact O Brother and its subsequent tours had on their lives and livelihoods.

Sierra Hull: “I grew up in a little town with maybe 900 people, and there used to be a poster section at the Walmart the next town over. You could flip through the posters and there would be pop stars like Britney Spears and Backstreet Boys. I was always convinced that one day I would find an Alison Krauss poster in there. She was as popular in my little kid brain as Britney Spears. So it was cool when O Brother came out and elevated some of those people who were already giants to me, like Alison and Dan Tyminski and Ralph Stanley.

“I was already playing, but I was too young to be touring yet. By the time Cold Mountain came out [in 2003], I was part of that tour. Alison was part of both soundtracks, and she invited my brother and me to go on that tour. So we got to help celebrate that second wave. I was 12, and it was really the first time for me to be out on tour, travel to so many different places, and play Red Rocks and the Beacon Theater in New York. Standing at the side of the stage and listening to Alison sing to hundreds of people every night every night was one of my favorite memories.

“It was amazing to watch people go crazy over Ralph Stanley every night. He had this dazzled suit jacket that he wore every night. Sometimes he would sit his banjo down while his band played and take that jacket off and throw it to me at the side of the stage. I would get to wear that dazzled jacket at the end of the show when everybody came out on stage. It’s one of the most special musical experiences I’ve ever had.”

Sara Watkins: “O Brother was something we somehow became affiliated with. Nickel Creek had just released our band’s first record on Sugar Hill, after years of doing just little homemade projects. Alison Krauss produced it, which had been out maybe a year and a half when O Brother came out. She was a big part of that soundtrack, of course, so our band was gaining a little bit of notoriety. I remember reading a huge New York Times spread, and we were listed among the people on that scene. We were part of that conversation, despite not having been part of the soundtrack in any way. We were just at the right place at the right time, and the awareness of the bluegrass scene just exploded. We were able to reach a different level very quickly. It was a huge advantage to our career. We already had some momentum, but the soundtrack really put the wind in our sails.

“T Bone Burnett [who produced the album], one of his brilliant skills is finding the right people for the right song. He brought in some incredible musicians in a way that really showed the musicianship in our community and made everyone really proud of our scene. We saw our heroes up there, and it was gratifying to see them celebrated by a huge audience. I remember feeling a new respect for Ralph Stanley with that vocal [on ‘Oh Death’]. That actually turned me on to shape-note singing. Someone told me his delivery was reminiscent of those old communities that did shape-note singing and those old preachers who used to sing that way. I’d never heard anything like it. And to this day, whenever I see Dan Tyminski, I make a point to stick around until he plays ‘Man of Constant Sorrow.’ No way I’m leaving before then.”

Dave Wilson (Chatham County Line): “I remember going with our old bass player to see O Brother in the theater. We snuck a bottle of whiskey in and sat in the back row and just laughed and drank. I remember thinking, ‘Bluegrass has arrived!’ We were already a band and playing small gigs around town, but we weren’t at a place where we had dedicated our lives to it. So it was kismet for us. That record came out, and the scene just exploded. Suddenly we had this huge advertisement out there in the world for the style of music we were playing. We definitely noticed a change. There were more strangers coming to see us play gigs, and they were really excited about it. One side effect was people would yell out for us to play ‘Man of Constant Sorrow.’ They did it enough to make me wonder if they had heard the soundtrack or just seen the movie. But we never played it. We didn’t know how! It would have probably shut them up if we had!

“I really got into the record. There are some badass arrangements on there. And it’s not corny. It’s not super traditional. I love that they reached out to the right people. It could have been bad. They could have gotten Toby Keith or someone like that. Oh god, I don’t even want to think about that! One of my favorite parts is that blues song by Chris Thomas King [a cover of Skip James’ ‘Hard Time Killing Floor’]. It makes for such a special moment. Later, they booked that concert film [Down from the Mountain, recorded at the Ryman Auditorium] at our old classic movie theater here in town, and I remember the boys going to see it and we were all just floored. That was almost bigger than the movie as far as having an impact in the folk music scene.”

Sam Amidon: “People in the folk world can be very protective of the music, which I think is valid. But my inclination is that if I find something I’m excited about, I want to share it. I want people to know about it. To have grown up in a world knowing a lot of the corners O Brother explores, it was beautiful to think about how many people all of a sudden were going to discover these field recordings and these great musicians. And I was thankful because until then, portrayals of traditional music in the mass media had just been so bad and so clichéd or so simplistic. Nothing had depicted this stuff on this scale before. Before then, if you told somebody you played banjo, they would think Deliverance. That was their frame of reference.

“For O Brother to do it without messing it up was a miracle. To see these different corners of American music — beyond just blues and bluegrass as the two major industry terms — was a very positive thing, especially because ‘folk music’ can be such a heterogeneous category. Nobody would even really know what you were talking about if it wasn’t bluegrass or blues. O Brother pointed to all of these different areas. It’s singing games and banjo songs and all these different things. O Brother is weirdly inclusive. It cast a wide net. Nowadays it’s easy to go to the soundtrack and hear more problematic elements of the whole Americana genre thing, but I think it’s good to remember that when it first came along, it was much more nuanced compared to what had come before.”

Woody Platt (Steep Canyon Rangers): “It’s interesting that the twentieth anniversary of O Brother is fairly parallel to the twentieth anniversary of our band. We formed in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, when we were seniors in college, right when the movie came out. We all had been exposed to bluegrass and old-time just by being Carolinians. We all had that music around when we were growing up, but none of us in the band really dove into it until we were in college. We’d only been following that music a few years when the movie came out. I’m not sure we were aware at the time of the impact that the movie and the tour had on bluegrass, old-time, string band, mountain music, but we could feel some excitement when we were playing bars on Franklin Street, which is the main drag in Chapel Hill. But we didn’t really have anything to compare it to. There was no before or after. It was just what we were doing, and that’s all we knew.

“I really enjoyed the movie, but I was a big fan of the album. Hearing Ralph Stanley’s voice in a film, or Dan Tyminski’s, or just seeing people I admired in that movie was pretty incredible. Looking back on it, it was good timing for us to be getting off the ground, and we were having so much fun and finding so much joy in it. The music we were playing had been a small niche, but all of a sudden it had this national interest. I have no doubt in my mind that the awareness of the music was fueled by the movie. It’s a fascinating phenomenon to think about, because it wasn’t marketed in any significant way. It just happened. It was just this thing where people were suddenly into this music.”

Molly Tuttle: “The movie came out when I was seven years old, and I remember my dad showing it to me when I was in grade school. I loved it, and the music really stuck with me because I already had an affinity for bluegrass and old-time music. Seeing it performed in a movie was new and exciting. My dad teaches bluegrass for a living, and when the movie came out, he had an influx of new students.

“It’s had a lasting impact on the popularity of bluegrass music. But I was so young that I didn’t know many of the musicians on the soundtrack by name, so it introduced me to a lot of artists who later became my favorites. And the Down from the Mountain documentary further familiarized me with people like Emmylou Harris and Alison Krauss. Many of those artists, like Gillian Welch and John Hartford, have been big influences on me, and that was my introduction to their music. I’ve performed ‘I’ll Fly Away’ and ‘Angel Band’ a number of times, and I got to do ‘Man of Constant Sorrow’ with Dan Tyminski at the IBMA awards one year.”

Dom Flemons: “I actually saw Ralph Stanley on the O Brother tour in Flagstaff, Arizona, in the year 2000. It was at this random high school. I saw the poster on a telephone pole when I was going to college there. I’d started playing the banjo by that point — six-string and four-string banjo, guitar, and harmonica. I remember the place was really packed out, and he gave this amazing performance. I just loved watching the man at work. When he sang ‘Oh Death,’ he pulled this piece of paper out of his pocket, put on his glasses, and made a joke about how old he was. And he just sang it off this piece of paper and blew our minds.

O Brother was very interesting, and I think it’s still a milestone album for several generations. A lot of the old folks who played those old styles and sang those old songs were starting to pass away, so the soundtrack ended up being a perfect vehicle for getting younger people into the music of the ‘20s and ‘30s. It reminded people of the really good old recordings that were available. That’s where I went. I found the old RCA Victor and Columbia recordings, and that was it for me.

“It’s a perfectly structured record, opening with the prisoners on the chain gang and then it goes to that beautiful ‘Big Rock Candy Mountain.’ And then you get into “You Are My Sunshine” with Norman Blake, and then Chris Thomas King presenting ‘Hard Time Killing Floor.’ That in itself was a revival of Skip James. People talk about Ghost World and Devil Got My Woman, but I think O Brother got it going. People just started casually bringing those songs back in at shows and festivals, and it seemed like a lot more people knew them. Of course they would sing them like the recordings on O Brother. Those are just things I observed before I was a professional musician, and it was amazing to see.”


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A New Generation of Bluegrass Stars Reflect on ‘O Brother, Where Art Thou?’
A New Generation of Bluegrass Stars Reflect on ‘O Brother, Where Art Thou?’