When Bill Monroe died in 1996, many feared that bluegrass would be buried with him. With his hawklike features, white sideburns and appropriate attire, Monroe embodied more than bluegrass style, he defined the entire genre in our public consciousness. But in Monroe’s absence, artists as varied as Steve Earle, Dolly Parton, Jim Lauderdale and Patty Loveless have taken successful stabs at bluegrass records. What gets missed in the wake created by these higher-profile projects are the tremors of brilliance that have existed all along among the existing players. Perhaps the biggest head-turner recently within the greater spectrum of mountain music is the fact that the soundtrack to the Coen Brothers’ O Brother Where Art Thou pushed past the 1 million copies sold point this week.
Boasting mountain-minded tunes from the likes of Ralph Stanley, Alison Krauss, Gillian Welch, Norman Blake, John Hartford and others, the soundtrack’s “single” has also drawn some attention to one of the genre’s biggest talents, Dan Tyminski, a thirty-four-year-old Vermont-born whiz on things with strings who possesses a rich tenor that defies the scorn of elitists with regional prejudices. To bluegrass fans, Tyminski’s success pinch hitting for George Clooney on “I Am Man of Constant Sorrow,” a song from the early part of last century definitively arranged by the late great Carter Stanley, is no great surprise. Over the past ten-plus years, he’s played in two of bluegrass’s most accomplished ensembles, the Lonesome River Band and Alison Krauss and Union Station (or, as Tyminski calls the group, “AKUS”). But in the past year, he has been swept into an acoustic whirlpool, as a trio of pursuits (O Brother tour dates, an upcoming AKUS album and his own solo recording, Carry Me Across the Mountain) have made him a household voice, even if he may not be a household name.
“It’s a little freaky just how it goes over,” Tyminski says about playing the song live. “It’s like the movie, the audience immediately freaks out. I’m just now getting used to hear my voice coming out of someone else.” Tyminski landed the role of Ulysses Everett McGill’s singing voice after Clooney gave it his best go. “He really wanted to sing. Especially because some of the other [actors] were doing their own stuff. We actually went into the studio and I played some guitar and he wanted to sing. We did the song a few times, and he actually did a very good job. He can sing, but I don’t think he felt really comfortable with it. When he got out of there, he said, ‘I’ll tell you what, I’ll act, you sing.'”
For Tyminski, the path to that point started with a music-loving family that soaked up any bluegrass show that was within reach. His older brother, Stan, sang and played guitar and upon returning home from a stint in the navy, brought home a bluegrass classic that served as Tyminski’s epiphany. “He picked up J.D. Crowe and the New South somewhere. It was playing in his vehicle when he pulled up in the driveway. I was thrilled to see him, but something about J.D.’s music, that’s the very moment I got the bug.”
After performing with his brother in a group called Green Mountain Bluegrass in the mid-Eighties, Tyminski joined the Lonesome River Band, one of bluegrass’s most awarded and popular ensembles, on vocals and mandolin. After recording three albums with the LRB, a soul-searching series of flip-flops ensued: out of LRB (“Careerwise, the hardest point of my life,” he says. “There were many sleepless nights.”), in with AKUS (which he pronounces ache-us), quick return to LRB, another return to AKUS, where he’s resided since the mid-Nineties as a guitarist and vocalist. In addition to forward-thinking, yet tradition-reverent music that has made Alison Krauss and Union Station one of the most consistently outstanding acoustic ensembles in American music (regardless of genre), the band is a structural marvel, with its namesake the anti-leader in the traditional control-freak sense of the word, as used musically.
“There was so much that drew me to Alison’s band,” Tyminski says. “Just rhythmically, the band impressed me so much, not to mention Alison, herself, is one of the most phenomenal talents I’ve ever seen or heard. I will say, she has the best niche for finding songs.”
After the release and promotion of the pop-colored Forget About It, Krauss and Union Station took a one year hiatus, “a siesta, so to speak.” In addition to his O Brother work, Tyminski called on a collection of friends, who happen to be among bluegrass’s finest pickers, to record Carry Me Across the Mountain, an acoustic gem that traipses through various styles of the form, from the Louvin-esque “I Dreamed of an Old Love Affair” (performed with his brother, Stan) to “Be Assured,” a Skaggsy gospel gem written by AKUS cohort Ron Block with lovely harmony vocals provided by Dwight McCall (of J.D. Crowe’s new New South). The album proved what Tyminski’s turns in front of the mic with AKUS already suggested, that his instrumental chops were second only to a voice that fit the bluegrass bill for high and lonesome like a well-worn boot. “The stars just lined up,” Tyminski says of the album. “They’re all friends and some of them are heroes and we just went in looking to have a good time.”
The siesta is over though, and AKUS are putting the finishing touches on their next album (due in August), which Tyminski likens to one of the band’s most exciting and enduring albums, 1997’s So Long, So Wrong. But before the album’s release there is a possible O Brother tour; a June 13th date has already been booked for New York City’s Carnegie Hall.
And as for the future of bluegrass, Tyminski’s busy schedule is the best barometer. “We’ve seen attendance steadily grow. I look at some of the other festivals that are going on and they’re just thriving,” he says. “I think just the fact that it’s so pure is very appealing to people. There’s no studio magic or tricks, you’re listening to people standing and playing music together, which you don’t hear as much anymore. And I’m seeing a lot of young people playing. From the musician perspective, it’ll thrive for a long time, because there’s so much young talent makings its mark right now. I hope when my kids are my age, its still going strong.”
And the success of O Brother‘s music suggests an audience that has been lying in wait for a bellwether to lead them to that sound. “Since the success of the soundtrack, I’ve seen producer after producer scratching their head and asking, ‘What is it about that record?’ — asking us like we know some secret. Who knows, but everything was right for that one.”
Following whatever sort of tour O Brother may spawn, there will be a Dan Tyminski tour later this year, and soon after that AKUS will hit the road again. And while the time away from home may not be Tyminski’s favorite part of the year’s work, the chance to let studio cabin fever wear off is welcome. “I’m starting to collect some songs now to do a follow-up to my record,” he says, “but, I don’t know when there will be time. I’ve been inside for so long now that I have studio sores. But, this will be a busy year, and it’s already been an exciting one.”