“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.

© 2020 Saving Country Music
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