Would you believe one of the best-selling country albums since the turn of the millennium is actually a movie soundtrack? Believe it. The infamous O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack moved more than eight million copies in its first seven years in the United States alone. And it almost single-handedly made America fall back in love with bluegrass music.
Back in 2000, the famous writer/director duo the Coen Brothers took a big gamble. They had recently released two critically acclaimed films in 1996 (Fargo) and 1998 (The Big Lebowski), but instead of following that same familiar path, they diverged to make a Depression-era adaptation of one of the oldest tales in the book, Homer’s Odyssey.
And they did it by making the soundtrack a staple piece of the movie. Not just in the overall feel and vibe, but in the actual plot itself. The famous tunes in the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack actively move the movie along. From The Soggy Bottom Boys’ rendition of “I Am A Man Of Constant Sorrow” being the X factor of the story, to the siren’s song and Ralph Stanley’s haunting dirge, “O Death.”
So the Coen Brothers actually decided to compile and record the soundtrack before shooting the movie. The unmistakably brilliant musicality of Alison Krauss and her right-hand man Dan Tyminski litter the whole album. Krauss’ version of “Down To The River To Pray” is the best there is, hands down.
The record even features two stunning early era originals. Harry McClintock’s 1928 “Big Rock Candy Mountain” and Alan Lomax’s 1955 recording of “Po Lazarus” set the tone for what became a Grammy-winning compilation.
And not just any old Grammys. This record won Best Country Collaboration, Best Male Country Vocal Performance (the aforementioned Ralph Stanley) and the elusive Album of the Year. The O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack is one of a few soundtracks to land that distinction. You can credit a lot of that to producer T Bone Burnett, who worked with the Coens beforehand and has since become the ear for country and bluegrass music in film and television.
The cultural relevance was not lost on the critics. Many consider the compilation one of the most important of the past 16 years. For stars, it introduced a whole bunch of young folks to bluegrass music. You see, the Coen Brothers are pretty hip. And hip kids watch Coen Brothers movies.
A 10th-anniversary edition came out in 2011, featuring 14 unreleased various recordings of those songs.
But beyond introducing a new audience, the soundtrack led the charge of folk and bluegrass back into the mainstream. Artists like Mumford and Sons, The Avett Brothers and The Lumineers combined the folksy essence of bluegrass with pop to forge radio hits. The O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack and its widespread commercial acceptance were seminal in leading the charge.
And really, it just proves the undeniable — good music, no matter how old, rises to the top when it gets its moment in the spotlight.