O Brother Soundtrack: A Triumph For Nashville's Professional Musicians
Nashville vs American Roots Music? Not so fast...
The celebrated success of the “O Brother, Where Art Thou” soundtrack has occasioned much comment about the triumph of real, old-fashioned, genuine American Roots music over the evil empire of a super-commercial, corrupt Nashville music industry machine, not to mention its engendering an endless round of NPR features. But as is usually the case with such simplistic oppositions, the truth is much more interesting.
For one, the "O Brother" soundtrack really embodies the triumph of the Nashville musical professional class, the same group that John Sebastian celebrated thirty-five years ago in "Nashville Cats," a hit for the Lovin' Spoonful. These are the musicians (e.g., dobro master Jerry Douglas) who move easily and regularly from a Garth Brooks session to a James Taylor or Paul Simon session to Bluegrass festival to a Hollywood soundtrack to a PBS television special.
One of the central figures in the "O Brother" soundtrack, the late John Hartford, was the composer of the 1967 Glen Campbell hit "Gentle on My Mind," one of the most frequently recorded Pop songs ever, the royalties from which allowed Hartford to retire from hit making and from his role as sidekick on CBS's “Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour” while still in his late 20s, and devote himself to real, old-fashioned, genuine American Roots music for the rest of his life. Another, more prominent figure from the soundtrack is Alison Krauss, whose biggest record was a duet with the dead Keith Whitley - "When You Say Nothing At All" - done with the same studio trickery that allowed Natalie Cole to croon along with her long-deceased father on "Unforgettable."
Incidentally, the breakout hit from the soundtrack, "Man of Constant Sorrow," is in fact performed (George Clooney's face; Dan Tyminski's voice) at a propulsive blues-rock rhythm and with a harmonic structure that is totally alien to Old-Time Country and Bluegrass music: in that sense, it 's a complete fake. But it is fans and critics who are snobs about these things: real musicians have always had a healthy respect for what sells. They understand the relationship between art and commerce because it's their job. That's why 75 year-old Ralph Stanley, the originator of the song, immediately changed his own stage performance of "Man of Constant Sorrow" to match the arrangement from the film.
Another essential element in the "O Brother" phenomenon is the audience. Unlike the Blues, represented by one track on the album and film, Bluegrass has sustained and expanded its commercial appeal well beyond the deaths of its founding figures. The Bluegrass festival and its ancillary cultures represent an irresistible blend of market forces: the ferocious American pursuit of recreation (festival campgrounds, Winnebagoes, etc.), music as hobby (e.g., the proliferation musical camps - Bluegrass camp, banjo academy, videos, and instructional materials); the renaissance of luthiery, producing expensive hand-made guitars and mandolins for a middleclass with significant disposable income), and the desire of the audience to feel morally righteous about it use of that income.
More important, though, is the fact that the raw materials of American music continue to attract young musicians who negotiate their own paths between past and present, between art and the marketplace. A splendid example is the emerging Bluegrass group, Jim and Jennie and the Pine-Tops, whose new album, "One More in the Cabin" (Overcoat Records) elicited an extraordinarily positive review in latest issue of "Bluegrass Unlimited" magazine. Devoid of camp or ironic posing, Jim and Jennie simply sing their hearts and lungs out, with instruments and in songs and harmonies that inhabit the moral universe of the best Old-Time and Bluegrass records of the past, without pretending that it's still 1949.
Much has been made of the failure of commercial Country Radio to play the "O Brother" soundtrack; but in a truly just radio universe, it's Jim and Jennie -and their peers - who really warrant that airplay.
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