“O Brother, Where Art Thou” Soundtrack, 20 Years Later
In the often contentious environment of country music where the commercial interests of the industry and the critical concerns of roots enthusiasts often result in friction and infighting, it’s very rare that an album comes to any sort of universal consensus, let alone one that’s the soundtrack to a movie, recorded and produced outside the Music Row ecosystem. But such was the fate of the music to the 2000 Coen Brothers film O Brother Where Art Thou, released 20 years ago today.
In fact, the impact and reception for the O Brother Where Art Thou soundtrack was so significant, it’s very fair to characterize it as one of the most important albums in country music history, and it was most certainly one of the most significant releases of the last 20 years.
But this is not an album where a spirited retrospective is necessary to convince historians and the public at large about its importance and impact. The amount of acceptance the soundtrack received from both the public, the media, and the music industry in its own time was virtually unprecedented, especially when you consider it contained mostly old bluegrass and folk standards that didn’t at all fit with the norms of country music at that time.
O Brother Where Art Thou won the all-genre Grammy Award for Album of the Year in 2002. Ralph Stanley won the Grammy for Best Country Solo Performance for his a capella “O, Death.” Dan Tymiski won for Best Country Collaboration for singing “I Am a Man of Constant Sorrow” for the George Clooney character of the film.
And this wasn’t all due to the Grammy Awards being much more inviting to music based on artistic merit. O Brother Where Art Thou also won both the CMA and ACM for Album of the Year. “I Am A Man of Constant Sorrow” also won the CMA Single of the Year in 2000. That’s right, a nearly 90-year-old song won over some radio star. That speaks to just how significant this soundtrack was.
But the public didn’t need much convincing that the album was worth their time. Though sales started off a bit slow, as the movie gained cult status, sales for the soundtrack soared. It hit #1 on the all-genre Billboard 200, spent over 20 weeks on the Billboard Country Albums chart, and by 2007, had been certified 8 times Platinum. Along with being one of the most awarded, O Brother Where Art Thou is one of the best selling country records of all time.
The success of the soundtrack also had a massive impact on country music itself. Alison Krauss and Gillian Welch became bona fide stars. Artists like Chris Thomas King and Dan Tymiski found new support behind their careers. Ralph Stanley and John Hartford received renewed interest in their legacies, and songs like “O, Death” and “Man of Constant Sorrow” became standards.
No, it didn’t result in a massive roots resurgence in the mainstream of country, but it did result in a greater share of the attention, with Alison Krauss all of a sudden having hits on radio, at least for a period. But perhaps more importantly, O Brother Where Art Thou installed bluegrass back to its place of prominence in American music, even if it was still once removed from the mainstream. The vibrancy we see for bluegrass today was very much revitalized by the film and its soundtrack, while other country subgenres such as Western swing and rockabilly still seem to struggle for proper recognition.
The popularity of O Brother Where Art Thou would also very much influence and support the more independent side of country. Though not directly involved with the movie, Old Crow Medicine Show most certainly owes much of their early and unprecedented success at that time to the film and its music. Later the string band resurgence would reach all the way to the mainstream with bands like Mumford & Sons and The Lumineers. They very much piggy backed off the movement, and cited O Brother directly as an influence.
Soon string bands decked out in Depression-era attire became so popular, a backlash against them ensued, even among roots fans. “Wagon Wheel” became the “Free Bird” of the era, with Darius Rucker eventually recording a version, taking it to #1, and winning awards with it.
The success of the O Brother Where Art Thou soundtrack most certainly still resonates today, as do the lessons. In the dearth of support for bluegrass, folk, and string music in the mainstream, other avenues can and must be found to reach the proper audiences. As we’ve seen recently with movies such as Hell or High Water, and TV shows like Yellowstone, the small and big screens can be conduits for artists to connect with fans and bypass the insular mainstream channels.
O Brother Where Art Thou also proved that there is still massive appeal for old music. Listeners just have to be exposed to it in a compelling manner. That’s what The Coen Brothers and producer T Bone Burnett did, recording the soundtrack even before they shot the film, speaking to what a seminal part the music was to the project. And it paid off in ways that country and roots fans, and even just general fans of music, still enjoy today.
December 5, 2020 @ 11:32 am
Burnett deserves a ton of credit for putting this together, the music matched the vision the Coen’s had and helped the movie become something great.
December 5, 2020 @ 12:29 pm
I well remember this as it grabbed me immediately at the time. Of course Id been raised on Country and bluegrass. I agree with you Trig on the massive influence this album and movie had. I honestly think Americana music became what it was, in part due to that soundtrack.
I remember a tour based on this album called the Down From The Mountain tour. As I recall, it featured The Del McCoury Band, Emmylou Harris, Alison Krauss and Union Station and Ralph Stanley. I remember meeting Ralph Stanley that night at the merch booth. He signed a CD for me, but didnt say a word. I tried talking, and just got a barely audible grunt in return. However, some pretty gals approached and all of a sudden, Ol’ Ralph came to life, just a grinnin’ and wanting to pose with them for pictures! Ralph Stanley was still a player in his 80s! Oh yeah.
December 6, 2020 @ 10:14 am
There’s a great concert video from that Down from the Mountain tour, too:
December 7, 2020 @ 7:17 am
Old Ralphie wanted some tight poon tang!
Thom's Country Bunker
December 5, 2020 @ 12:35 pm
I’m 36, a bluegrass nerd and banjo picker and that’s all down to this LP, really. Until I went to see this movie (something I remember vividly, despite being a stoned, drunk 16 year old waster at the time) country for me was Garth Brooks, Shania, Creedence etc.
– all of whom I love – but this movie (really, this soundtrack) did a total flip on me. I must have listened to that Chris Thomas King “Hard Time Killing Floor Blues” a thousand times.
It’s one of those records I always throw at people who say, ‘I don’t like country’.
‘Oh yeah well, that’s different’. BUT YOU KNOW IT AIN’T!
Anyway, I could go on and on about this record but I think I’ll just stick it on the turntable.
Thanks for the re-up!
December 7, 2020 @ 7:19 am
Lol I thought I was the only person who listened to Creedence when I was a teen.
December 5, 2020 @ 1:01 pm
Yessir, I was still in elementary school when this movie came out.
Granted, I grew up in southeastern Kentucky, but this soundtrack was everywhere. Most all kids were familiar with “Man of Constant Sorrow”, all in the midst of the golden era of TRL.
My mom bought this album and used it in her Arts and Humanities class, on top of playing it all time at home.
It’s wild to think about the mass appeal of that particular soundtrack given the genre of the music. Clooney, man.
Great Threads in Saving Country Music Comments Section History
December 5, 2020 @ 1:26 pm
Original article: Willie, Waylon, and Merle on Cocaine, In Their Own Words
JULY 10, 2015 @ 11:09 AM
I loved the part from Waylon. I’ve never read that before.
I’m surprised Merle Haggard was even mentioned in Luke Bryan’s comments. He always struck me as much too professional. “Outlaw”? Sure. But when you think about the addiction stories – ‘No Show’ George Jones, Waylon, Johnny Cash’s struggles – there really aren’t stories like that about Merle Haggard. I guess that’s just further proof that Luke Bryan was talking out of his ass.
JULY 10, 2015 @ 11:22 AM
Merle Haggard is not an Outlaw. Neither is Johnny Cash. They were buddies of the Outlaws, but they weren’t part of the original Outlaw movement. Another misnomer by Bryan.
JULY 10, 2015 @ 11:27 AM
True. But he was a contemporary, so I’d be willing to give a pass to Bryan for that one. But to lump him in as a drug addict was just in poor taste. Especially when the guy wrote “we don’t smoke marijuana in Muskogee…,” lol.
JULY 10, 2015 @ 11:36 PM
Oh, so you’re going to hold Bryan to being a scholar of the Outlaw movement and using the term exactly as it was first used? Maybe no-one except Willie, Waylon, Tompall and Jessi is allowed to be called an outlaw?
DECEMBER 5, 2015 @ 1:12 AM
Waylon didn’t like Merle!
December 8, 2020 @ 9:32 am
If you’re wondering about cocaine and the crowd Merle hung with: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jeWY00gTCvo . This is footage from a concert of his in Anaheim in October 1980. Merle himself talks about how after one of his divorces he partied hard including cocaine. (I’m sorry I don’t have the citation handy).
December 5, 2020 @ 4:18 pm
I watched this movie in Paris just after it was released. I loved it and I absolutely loved its soundtrack. It was a very important moment in the way that led me to country music. My site, Country Music France, would probably not exist today, if I hadn’t watched this movie 20 years ago. And I would’nt have read this excellent post and all the posts that you write, Trigger, if I hadn’t fallen in love with all the amazing songs that are part of O’ Brother’s soundtrack. This movie is definitely a great part of my history.
December 5, 2020 @ 4:26 pm
In my opinion this is one of the most influential albums is the 2000’s. So many great artists and songs. Sounds great after all these years.
December 5, 2020 @ 4:32 pm
Anyone else feeling old right now?
Loved this movie when it came out. The production of the music was pitch perfect. ‘I’ll Fly Away” was a standout for me.
December 5, 2020 @ 5:27 pm
I was in middle school when it was released – it changed my musical landscape. I bought every Alison Krauss record and bluegrass cd that my local Walmart stocked. Led to my intro to Nickel Creek. CMT played the videos and spotlighted the soundtrack which was my intro to it. PBS then had a lot of those acts on Austin City Limits and Mountain Stage during that time. Plus, Patty Loveless released her Mountain Soul album that fall and it continued that newfound sound in my life.
I recently read Sara Evans’ new autobiography. Her “Born to Fly” album was nominated for CMA Album of the Year in 2001, alongside Alan Jackson, Brooks & Dunn, and Tim McGraw. The O Brother soundtrack took the win. In her book, she goes on a rant about how she thought it was unfair that the soundtrack was nominated bc it wasn’t country.
December 5, 2020 @ 5:59 pm
I have a similar story. I was 17 and sitting in the back room of my house when I heard some song come on through my dad’s stereo. I was immediately struck by it – had never heard anything like it it in my life. So I went running into the den where he had put it on so I could look at the CD case. It was a song called “O Death” by some guy named Ralph Stanley. Haha. That led me down the finest rabbit hole I’ve ever been down – 20 some odd years now of chasing down, learning about, and loving American roots and country music. It really is wild how many doors this album opened up for me and so so many others.
December 5, 2020 @ 7:26 pm
I was in college when this came out. Its fine on its face, but the problem is that it had a similar effect as later Johnny Cash. “I don’t like country music, but I like Johnny Cash.” “I don’t like bluegrass, but the ‘O Brother, Where Art Thou’ soundtrack… Now that is some good music.”
Robbie Fulks encapsulated the archetype:
“Down at the bar a-spinnin’ Haggard
He wore a Johnny Reb tattoo
Overalls, he spat and swaggered
Lord, he was a Boston Jew
He loved bluegrass, oh brother
When I said Shania he sneered
“That’s a word I wouldn’t utter
“We like to keep it down-home up here”
I never saw so many goobers until the day I crossed that line.
Wilson Pick It
December 5, 2020 @ 10:48 pm
This is just gatekeeping BS. If you’re really a country fan you should be happy that people who grew up on rock got interested in Johnny Cash and bluegrass.
December 6, 2020 @ 2:41 pm
Who gets to determine what you should do and how you should feel if “you’re really a country fan?” Broadening appeal to attract a wider audience is almost always the death of anything decent.
December 6, 2020 @ 9:38 pm
Nah, you just get to feel less special about your club for a bit. You’ll either grow out of it or move on to some other niche thing no one cares about right now.
December 6, 2020 @ 2:23 am
Wonderful music album that really deserved It’s success and it still sounds as good today as it did upon release. It is an album I often return to. I always feel that is the test of good music. The film was pretty good as well.
December 6, 2020 @ 4:25 am
That album was the gateway for me. Brilliant stuff.
December 6, 2020 @ 6:48 am
Predictably, RS published an article that looks at the album in a negative light.
December 6, 2020 @ 12:39 pm
My dad never really bought music. He listened to the radio, but only really paid attention to the farm reports and football/basketball games. I know he liked 70s and 80’s country music, but it wasn’t played a lot. He had a Dwight Yoakam CD that’d he’d listen to, but then when this came out he bought it. That tells you how big of deal this movie and soundtrack were.
December 6, 2020 @ 1:17 pm
The music was great. The movie was five stars and it still is an amazing watch. It’s fair to ask how it didn’t win the Oscar for best picture. It truly is one of the top five movies of the 21st century.
December 6, 2020 @ 1:54 pm
I was in a smaller movie theater complex in Fairfax, VA that would sometimes play “artsy” movies that the big multiplexes typically wouldn’t and was there to see the movie “Songcatcher.” During the previews, the trailer for O Brother came on. Old timey acoustic music was playing in the background, but I probably figured it just for atmosphere given the rural, earlier 20th setting. Then, the George Clooney (George Clooney!) character steps up to the microphone and starts singing “Man of Constant Sorrow!” I was shocked and also pumped. I knew the song, but don’t think I had known it for very long. I think it was on the The Pizza Tapes album by Jerry Garcia, David Grisman and Tony Rice that I had first heard it, although I had bought some Stanley Brothers compilations around that time after getting into Ralph’s album Clinch Mountain Country a couple of years earlier. But in general, this was a style of music that I was into since around 1990 when I moved to the DC area and it was surreal to see it featured in a major motion picture.
December 6, 2020 @ 11:52 pm
A somewhat relevant story.
About ten years ago, I saw Ralph Stanley and the Clinch Mountain Boys headline at the Three Rivers Arts Fest in Pittsburgh. Dr. Stanley was well into his 80s at that point. He didn’t do much but sing and, even at that, he had to be prompted what song was coming up. (Dr. Stanley’s son, Ralph II – who now tours with the CMB – did most of the talking between songs.) Otherwise, he just kind of stood there. And, as I recall, his singing was, well, not great. It wasn’t horrible, but his timing was frequently off.
And it was completely captivating. It was like listening to my 93 year old grandpap tell stories about the old days. I was hearing and seeing something that I recognized was significant and full of history.
Then, it got better.
The band left the stage, leaving Dr. Stanley to sing “Oh, Death” alone. A cappella. As he sang, the usual festival noise dissipated until there was only the singer. The moment was spiritual and chilling. Even now, I get goosebumps and misty eyed as I’m thinking about it.
I grew up in the church and I know the hymns, and Southern Gospel music and Christian music. I know country and bluegrass. I’ve heard people sing and perform at all kinds of venues and places. Hearing Ralph Stanley sing “Oh Death” easily ranks as one of the top two or three performances of my lifetime.
December 7, 2020 @ 2:39 am
The movie had a HUGE impact on me. I didn’t grow up with old time, bluegrass or early country music. There was a SF punkband that released an album with fiddle, banjo in 2000 (Swingin Utters – s/t. Check it!). When this came out I was blown away by the music. Country radio is non-existent in my little country.
20 years later I’m still obsessed with the music. The County Records record label out of Floyd, VA (formerly in NY) is my main source for the early stuff.
I was very fortunate to be able to sit in the kitchen of and with Dr Raply Stanley and his wife and chat for 2 hours about bluegrass, Carter, working for Bill Monroe, touring in the early days etc. Saw him two years later at the Muddy Roots festival in Cookeville, TN and his performance was ‘interesting’. Del McCoury and Ricky Scaggs tore the house down after that.
December 7, 2020 @ 7:43 am
This album, and the Chicks are basically what got me into country and bluegrass (and then I lived in North Carolina for a few years).
December 8, 2020 @ 8:29 am
My wife and I went to see this movie for the first time on our 27th wedding anniversary. 20 years later we’re still stuck with each other LOL.
December 9, 2020 @ 5:49 am
Once in a while a movie has this effect. Most people had never heard of Flatt & Scruggs or Bluegrass in general before the 1960’s movie Bonnie & Clyde. Same goes for Deliverance. For me personally, nothing beat the fad the movie Urban Cowboy created. I was a working nightclub fiddler at the time and the surge in new business was incredible. People simply HAD to don designer jeans, boots, and hats and dance “The Cotton-Eyed Joe.” New clubs and dancehalls sprang up like mushrooms from coast to coast, and any Country honkytonk musician who was worth a damn had more work than he could handle. This was especially true for fiddle players. That was one craze I was sorry to see come to an end!
Hopefully another movie will come along soon start a new Country Music fad.