O Brother, Where Art Thou? (Music from the Film) [Deluxe Edition]

Various Artists
O Brother, Where Art Thou? (Music from the Film) [Deluxe Edition]

“I’ll be real curious to see what happens,” Gillian Welch told the Los Angeles Times in November 2000, a month before the release of the soundtrack she helped produce for the Coen Brothers’ film O Brother, Where Art Thou? “I’m not that much of an optimist when it comes to the masses.” Oh, ye of little faith: This meticulously made mixtape of gospel moans, bluegrass romps, and blues laments didn’t just help make, transform, or resurrect the careers of Welch, Alison Krauss, and Ralph Stanley. It also prompted a wave of broader interest in antediluvian American folk that lasted for at least two decades. Without the success of O Brother, it’s possible that much of the popular music even partially tagged as “folk”—a term that includes everyone from Old Crow Medicine Show to Nickel Creek to even Noah Kahan—would never near the mainstream. The Coens’ dizzying film was an update of the epic tale of Odysseus, turning the wandering war hero into a con man romping through Depression-era Mississippi with his cronies. Even with George Clooney’s star turn and the filmmakers’ esteemed résumé, the movie surpassed expectations, nearly tripling its budget in box office revenues. The film’s music proved key: In semi-retirement, T Bone Burnett had written to the Coens to express his fandom, sparking a relationship that culminated in his role here as music supervisor. Burnett bought 1000 records, searching for songs that fit the era and the story. As time went on, O Brother steadily approached musical status, with its tunes serving as crucial plot points and moments of character development. What’s more, Burnett recruited a sterling cast of the best bluegrass, folk, and gospel players alive, recording their takes on these American standards and obscurities with period-specific technology. Over the course of two years, that work topped the album charts in the US, sold 6 million copies, and, most importantly, sparked a resurgence of interest in American folk. Burnett’s essential role was capturing stirring performances—moments that harnessed a raw feeling. Stanley’s “O Death” is a staggering protest against mortality, a real plea to be let go for a little longer, while Krauss’ “Down to the River to Pray” mines the ineffable essence of the best spiritual music. Taking up the mantle of Tommy Johnson on screen and Skip James on tape, Chris Thomas King sounds disturbed by all he has seen on “Hard Time Killing Floor Blues.” And the assorted versions of “I Am a Man of Constant Sorrow”—whether it’s the boisterous rendition led by Dan Tyminski or the pensive instrumental picked by Norman Blake—gave the film its calling card, and a reminder of folk music’s essential adaptability: These old songs are documents of lives already lived—and steadfast companions for those yet to be finished.

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