O Brother

Down from the mountain and into Wal-Mart

T-Bone Burnett (in sunglasses) and his friend of constant sorrow, Ralph Stanley, at the 2001 CMA awards
T-Bone Burnett (in sunglasses) and his friend of constant sorrow, Ralph Stanley, at the 2001 CMA awards

Question: Besides unnaturally high-pitched singing voices for members of the male sex, what do Axl Rose and Ralph Stanley have in common?

Answer: The Guns N' Roses frontman and bluegrass elder statesman each feature prominently in two of the biggest runaway music business success stories of the past 20 years. Whereas most platinum-plus albums start at the top and immediately begin the long downward spiral, both Appetite for Destruction and the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack began with modest sales and slowly wormed their way into the public consciousness and the upper regions of the pop charts.

As of late June, the O Brother soundtrack was still lodged in Billboard's Top 10 like a pesky bit of birdshot. Considering it's been four months since it won Album of the Year at the Grammys, a year since the movie came out on video and DVD, and over a year and a half since film and album were originally released, it's hard not to wonder: How did the soundtrack to a non-blockbuster turn into a bona fide cultural phenomenon?

The rote explanation is that the album's astronomical sales represent a post-9/11 yearning for a return to simpler values and more substantive entertainment, but alas, that theory got blown out of the water when Jennifer Lopez's J to tha L-O!: the Remixes debuted at No. 1. O Brother mania is more likely the product of shrewd marketing, subtle mass peer pressure (euphemistically called "word of mouth"), and maybe a little fortuitous timing.

Anyone can stroll into any Wal-Mart in America and purchase the O Brother soundtrack, which comes with a sticker touting the album as "The Ultimate American Roots Music Collection." This says two things to the average American consumer: This is the only compilation of field chants, Negro spirituals, and mandolin-fueled melodies you'll ever need to own; and, these 19 songs are a comprehensive overview of U.S. musical history.

While the first statement may be sadly true -- Wal-Mart and Best Buy don't exactly stock a lot of Arhoolie and Folkways releases -- even O Brother producer T-Bone Burnett would be hard-pressed to deny that the latter is an outright fallacy. In fact, he's perfectly up front about it.

"I think it's complete nonsense," he says. "I asked them to take that off from the very beginning, but that was something that was out of my control."

Something else about the sticker is deceptive. Despite all the "old-timey" and "traditional" songs on the album, its predominant style, bluegrass, barely predates rock & roll. This turns out to have been the producer's plan from the beginning.

"To me, it's a very modern record," says the 54-year-old, Fort Worth-raised Burnett, who landed one of his first gigs producing childhood pal Stephen Bruton's Brazos River Ramblers before going on to work with Los Lobos, Elvis Costello, and Counting Crows. "The feel of it is much more rock & roll than old-time North Carolina music. The version we did of 'Man of Constant Sorrow' -- it's almost like a Traffic song."

The soundtrack has certainly been promoted like a rock & roll album. Things have obviously gotten out of hand when you walk into a record store and see a life-size cutout of Ralph Stanley. It's also been nearly impossible to turn on Leno, Letterman, or Conan O'Brien -- let alone CMT -- without seeing Stanley, Emmylou Harris, Alison Krauss, or Mr. "Man of Constant Sorrow," who have turned into bigger camera whores than the Strokes. But the man who probably helped the album get the most exposure never sang a note.

"I think the video of 'Man of Constant Sorrow' was No. 1 on both VH1 and CMT for months," says Burnett, "because that's the only way they would have an opportunity to have George Clooney on their networks."

The press has also been most generous. Major publications from Rolling Stone and Entertainment Weekly to The New York Times have each marveled at the album's improbable success, no doubt helping move another million copies. Even the cover art has become something of a cottage industry, as similar fieldscapes adorn a number of post-O Brother releases, a practice Burnett says "will probably be stopped."

Now comes the tour. Modeled after a traveling version of the Grand Ole Opry circa 1953, it plays more like Ozzfest for the Dickies-overalls and floral-print-dress crowd. Or, if we take into account the way it transforms a proud, rich, defiant tradition into an arena-packing, profit-reaping enterprise, might a more appropriate analogy be this year's Riverdance? How long can it possibly be until we see O Brother on Broadway?

"It's overexposed unless you think of Madonna and Tom Cruise and things like that, you know what I mean?" argues Burnett. "When you think of what real exposure is in this media age, no, I don't think it's overexposed."

Burnett's next project appears custom-fit to test his assertion to the breaking point: He's in charge of the music for Cold Mountain, Charles Frazier's Civil War novel adapted for the screen by Anthony Minghella (The English Patient) and starring Jude Law, Nicole Kidman, Renée Zellweger, Natalie Portman, and Jack White of the White Stripes. Burnett says he plans to place a few of the thousands of songs he considered for O Brother into Cold Mountain.

If the film is even moderately successful, it could spark a wave of Civil War nostalgia to make PBS filmmaker Ken Burns rabid with envy. If nothing else, it seems certain to determine the true depth of the public's fascination with string bands and slave songs.

"I think it's been a fad for 150 years," Burnett maintains. "There was a time in the Fifties and Sixties where this type of music was very popular. And Bob Dylan has always been about this sort of stuff ... He's not any more surreal than most of those old ballads."

There is something surreal about all this. You have to wonder how long an album representing what could be dubbed the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge of music can share chart space with Nelly, Papa Roach, and Pink before some misguided label exec starts to think every bluegrass record should sell 3 million copies.

Things are already on the verge of absurdity as it is. Some genius at the Fox network is this close to putting down his copy of Billboard and commissioning an all-new Hee Haw. If Alison Krauss shows any more cleavage, she'll be a shoo-in for the next Guns N' Roses video (if there ever is one). And just about the last thing rural America needs right now is a bunch of NPR-listening, J. Crew catalog-ordering yuppies clogging its two-lane highways and one-lane county roads looking for barn dances and church picnics. However, their antique money is still welcome. Burnett's reasoning is somewhat more down-to-earth.

"I think the people who performed on the record are really, really good," he says, "and I think we're at a time when there aren't that many good records out there."

Let's hope so. Otherwise, with garage rock already beginning to eclipse bluegrass as the music of the moment, those Soggy Bottom Boys could soon be left high and dry.

Anybody heard from the Buena Vista Social Club lately? end story

The Down From the Mountain Tour, featuring Alison Krauss, Emmylou Harris, Kate & Anna McGarrigle, Ralph Stanley, Flatlanders, Norman & Nancy Blake, Bob Neuwirth, Chris Thomas King, MC Rodney Crowell, and many more, hits the Frank Erwin Center Friday, July 19. Tickets available at all Texas Box Office outlets, including HEB stores, online at www.texasboxoffice.com, or charge-by-phone at 512/477-6060.

Recovering Austin scenester Christopher Gray, who proudly owns a pair of Dickies overalls, is now a reporter/photographer for the Jasper Newsboy in Jasper. His e-mail address is crotalus@hotmail.com.

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O Brother, Where Art Thou?, T-Bone Burnett, Dr. Ralph Stanley, Bluegrass, Down From the Mountain

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