With a storyline inspired by Homer’s Odyssey, a title borrowed from the 1941 Preston Sturges screenplay for the film Sullivan’s Travels, and a cast that included George Clooney, John Goodman and John Turturro, the 2000 film O Brother, Where Art Thou? (directed by Joel and Ethan Coen) didn’t exactly need its bluegrass and gospel music-heavy soundtrack to qualify as quirky. But the addition certainly didn’t hurt.
Enlisting producer T Bone Burnett to serve as music supervisor – or, as he preferred to be known, “music archivist” – before their film’s script was even complete, the Coen Brothers and Burnett also relied on singer-songwriter Gillian Welch to gather material that would evoke the Depression-era South. For many, the master stroke was having Alison Krauss and Union Station guitarist Dan Tyminski’s singing voice emanating from the lips of lead actor Clooney as front man for the film’s Soggy Bottom Boys band. With musicians Pat Enright and the late Harley Allen behind him, the Soggy Bottom Boys’ “I Am a Man of Constant Sorrow” turned the soundtrack into a multi-platinum sensation, with its first million copies recognized 16 years ago today, on March 28th, 2001, just four months after the LP’s release. Three months later the album had gone double-platinum and by October 2007, it had sold more than eight million copies.
The film’s soundtrack, which also featured Welch, Krauss, Emmylou Harris, Ralph Stanley, The Cox Family, Norman Blake, The Whites, John Hartford, a handful of vintage tracks and more, also topped both the country chart and the Billboard 200 and was named CMA Album of the Year in 2001. The phenomenon also inspired an O Sister! album, a documentary film called Down From the Mountain, and a soundtrack and companion tour for that film, with special shows at the Ryman Auditorium and New York’s Carnegie Hall. Attesting to the film and music’s wide-ranging influence, the latter concert, which featured Elvis Costello in the role of host (in place of the recently deceased Hartford), was witnessed by an audience which included Lou Reed and Laurie Anderson.
On February 27th, 2002, O Brother, Where Art Thou? became the first soundtrack since 1994’s The Bodyguard to win the Grammy for Album of the Year and only the second country-related LP to do so, after Glen Campbell’s 1969 By the Time I Get to Phoenix. Introduced by Grammys host Jon Stewart, a selection of the album’s material was performed live by several of the participating artists, beginning with the angelic trio of Harris, Welch and Krauss on an a cappella “Didn’t Leave Nobody But the Baby,” followed by 75-year-old Stanley’s chilling “O Death,” also rendered without musical accompaniment. As a giant screen behind them projected images from the film, Harris and Welch then joined Krauss, along with her Union Station band members, Ron Block on banjo, Barry Bales on bass, Jerry Douglas on Dobro, and Tyminski on guitar and lead vocals for “Man of Constant Sorrow,” which also included Nashville Bluegrass Band members Mike Compton on mandolin and Enright on harmony vocals.
As the musical segment ended, to rousing applause, Stewart was seen holding and blowing into a jug of “moonshine” with “XXX” printed on it. “If you don’t have that soundtrack, man, you gotta get it,” he effused, before attempting to “play” it again, then tossing in a joke that may have been a bit too “inside” for TV viewers, saying, “Isn’t it weird that William Morris has the same insignia as moonshine? What does that tell ya? You go with both they make you blind.” He finished the bit with a quip that was less esoteric, noting, as he lifted the jug to his ear, “You can hear the theme to Dukes of Hazzard.”
The O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack also won Grammys in 2002 for Best Compilation Soundtrack album, Best Male Country Performance (“O Death,” Ralph Stanley), Best Country Collaboration With Vocals (“I Am a Man of Constant Sorrow”), with Down From the Mountain winning for Best Traditional Folk Album.