Music

How 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' Made America Fall Back in Love with Bluegrass

Universal Pictures

Would you believe one of the best-selling country music albums since the turn of the millennium is a movie soundtrack? Believe it. The infamous O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack album 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 -- Fargo (1996) and The Big Lebowski (1998). 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. They got George Clooney, Tim Blake Nelson, and John Turturro to play Ulysses Everett McGill, Delmar, and Pete in this unforgettable film. 

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 hymn, "O Death." Don't forget about the incredible rendition of "I'll Fly Away" by the Kossoy Sisters.

So the Coen Brothers decided to compile and record the soundtrack with various artists before shooting the movie. The brilliant musicality of Alison Krauss and right-hand man Dan Tyminski litter the whole album. Krauss's 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 (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 in recent years. For starters, 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 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.

O Brother, Where Art Thou? Soundtrack

1. "Po' Lazarus" by James Carter and the Prisoners

2."Big Rock Candy Mountain" by Harry McClintock, Harry McClintock

3."You Are My Sunshine" by Jimmie Davis, Charles Mitchell, Norman Blake

4." Down to the River to Pray" by Alison Krauss

5."I Am a Man of Constant Sorrow" by Dick Burnett, The Soggy Bottom Boys

6."Hard Time Killing Floor Blues" by Skip James, Chris Thomas King

7."I Am a Man of Constant Sorrow" by Burnett Norman Blake

8."Keep On the Sunny Side" by Ada Blenkhorn, J. Howard Entwisle, The Whites 

9."I'll Fly Away" by Albert E. Brumley, Alison Krauss, Gillian Welch 

10."Didn't Leave Nobody but the Baby" by Emmylou Harris, Alison Krauss, Gillian Welch

11."In the Highways" by Maybelle Carter, The Peasall Sisters

12."I Am Weary (Let Me Rest)" by Pete Roberts (Pete Kuykendall), The Cox Family

13."I Am a Man of Constant Sorrow" by Ed Haley, John Hartford

14."O Death" by Lloyd Chandler, Ralph Stanley

15."In the Jailhouse Now" by Blind Blake, Jimmie Rodgers, The Soggy Bottom Boys

16."I Am a Man of Constant Sorrow" by Burnett, The Soggy Bottom Boys

17."Indian War Whoop" by Hoyt Ming, John Hartford

18."Lonesome Valley" by The Fairfield Four

19."Angel Band" by The Stanley Brothers

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How 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' Made America Fall Back in Love with Bluegrass