Out of Context – What the Folk?
One thing to note when looking at movie soundtracks is that they’re (usually) compiled to fit the mood of the film, which means often they’ll all be one genre, or several that work well together. This week is no exception, as we’re looking at the 2000 Coen Brothers comedy, O Brother, Where Art Thou?, which is brilliantly comprised of folk, bluegrass, country, gospel, and blues tunes.
Loosely based on one of the greatest epics of all time, Homer’s Odyssey, the film tells the story of Ulysses Everett McGill (George Clooney), Pete Hogwallop (John Turturro), and Tim Blake Nelson (Delmar O’Donnell)’s escape from a chain gang in Mississippi in 1937. The trio go on a quest to retrieve the 1.2 million dollars in treasure Everett claims to have stolen and buried before being imprisoned.
The only caveat is that they have only four days to do it, until the valley Everett buried his treasure in is flooded to create a lake. The subplots weave together and introduce a myriad of characters; blind prophets and the KKK are only the tip of this sepia-toned, Clooney-led romp through the countryside.
The soundtrack to the film was conceived not as support to the film but its own entity – so it was recorded and finished before the filming of the movie began. The soundtrack of O Brother, Where Art Thou won 3 Grammies; 1 for Album of the Year in 2001, one for Best Country Collaboration with Vocals for Dan Tyminski’s rendition of “Man of Constant Sorrow” (which overdubbed Clooney’s vocals in the film), and one for Best Male Country Vocal Performance for “O, Death” by Ralph Stanley. In 2009 it was ranked #8 on Rhapsody’s “Country’s Best Albums of the Decade” list and NPR’s All Things Considered included it on their list of “The Decade’s 50 Most Important Recordings” in 2010.
The original 61 minute soundtrack has 19 tracks on it, while the 10th anniversary addition is comprised of 14 new tracks not on the original, 12 of which are said to be previously unreleased cuts. It’s difficult to choose only four artists off of the award-winning album, but necessary. So readers, please meet Alison Krauss, Norman Blake, the Peasall Sisters, and the Stanley Brothers. Shake hands, exchange pleasantries. Everyone settled? Good.
Alison Krauss, known for her fiddle work as well as her stunning vocals, is responsible for three tracks off of the album. “Down to the River to Pray” is a remarkable A Capella track that really lets her bluegrass roots shine through; Krauss and Gillian Welch sing “I’ll Fly Away” over guitar and banjo accompaniment, and the two of them teamed up with Emmylou Harris for “Didn’t Leave Nobody but the Baby”. Krauss has four solo albums, six with her group Union Station, and two collaborative albums – Raising Sand with Robert Plant and I Know Who Holds Tomorrow with The Cox Family. With 36 singles and an album certified double platinum, she’s well known in the sphere of country music but seems to have evaded much notoriety from other sources, and that’s a shame because she’s great at what she does. It certainly works for the Coen brothers, and I’ll take Alison Krauss over most Top 40 hits any day.
Making music since 1954, Norman Blake performs “You Are My Sunshine” and the instrumental version of “I Am a Man of Constant Sorrow” (of which there are 5 versions for the movie). Notably an acoustic guitar flatpicker, Blake sings, writes, and plays guitar, fiddle, mandolin, banjo, viola, and mandocello; a prime example of the multiplexity of the soundtrack, his talents go far and fill the soundtrack nicely, especially on the instrumental portions he plays. Blake has also been a part of the Cold Mountain and Walk the Line soundtracks and to date has released 37 albums, some of which have been collaborations between himself and his wife, Nancy.
Also from Tennessee, The Peasall Sisters – Sarah, Hannah, and Leah – were responsible for “In the Highways” off of the soundtrack, a cheery tune set to offset the traditional dirges used in the movie’s heavier points. The Sisters have two albums out, First Offering (2002) and Home to You (2005), both prime examples of harmonies and what can be done with a guitar, mandolin, and fiddle. If you’re a fan of Nickle Creek, the aforementioned Alison Krauss, or The Wailin’ Jennys, check out The Peasall Sisters. They’re a great addition to the soundtrack and are among the youngest musicians on it to boot.
Carter and Ralph Stanley started making music in 1946 as the Stanley Brothers and the Clinch Mountain Boys. Ralph sang tenor and played banjo while Carter played guitar and sang lead vocals. For twenty years, they filtered bands lineups and went through musicians, staying together until Carter’s death in the end of 1966. Ralph revived the Clinch Mountain Boys and they were still touring about two years ago, aided by his part of the O Brother, Where Art Thou soundtrack. The Brothers’s track “Angel Band” wraps up the soundtrack and Ralph’s A Capella “O Death” makes use of his older voice. It comes in to the movie perfectly, but I’ve promised to keep this column spoiler free so pick up the movie if you haven’t seen it.
With that said, go pick up the soundtrack! Give it a listen. Watch the film. Ask yourself why you never read the Odyssey in high school when they assigned it, given Clooney’s fantastic performance. You’ll appreciate the intricacies between A Cappella and bluegrass all the more for it. The soundtrack is a wonderful collection of traditional-meets-modern, with Ralph Stanley’s vocals offsetting his work with his brother, Krauss’s seasoned fiddle work and vocals offset by the Peasall Sisters (Country’s closest to an ‘Indie Rock’ group), and Blake’s instrumental rendition of the age old “You Are My Sunshine”. Give it a listen this weekend; you’ll be glad you did.