Inside the Music | O Brother, Where Art Thou? | Alt. Country & The Bluegrass Revival

The most influential country act of 2001 was a band that didn’t even exist. The Soggy Bottom Boys were the prime attraction on O Brother, Where Art Thou? the soundtrack album that topped the country and pop charts and sold more than four million copies.

The group revived the late 1930s and early 1940s sound when old-time string-band music was morphing into bluegrass, but did so with a modern, whoop-it-up energy. One could hail the band’s popularity as a triumph for tradition and authenticity – except for the fact that The Soggy Bottom Boys were an entirely artificial construct.

Men Of Constant Sorrow

The group was invented by Joel and Ethan Coen who wrote, produced and directed O Brother, Where Art Thou? a movie set in the late 1930s. Ulysses (George Clooney) and his two sidekicks escape from a prison chain gang and wander around Mississippi, evading the law and trying to reach Ulysses’ wife Penelope. The fugitives stumble across a rural radio station where they perform an impromptu version of the old folk song ‘I Am A Man Of Constant Sorrow’, uncannily anticipating The Stanley Brothers’ arrangement of 1949. The song becomes a hit across the South, and the escaped prisoners have to don ridiculous fake beards when they perform in public.

Clooney didn’t even sing the song; the vocals were supplied by Dan Tyminski, who was joined on the track by his fellow members in Alison Krauss And Union Station – Jerry Douglas, Ron Block and Barry Bales – as well as three members of The Nashville Bluegrass Band. On ‘I’m A Man Of Constant Sorrow’ and their version of Jimmie Rodgers’ 1928 song ‘In The Jailhouse Now’, The Soggy Bottom Boys invested these vintage numbers with a jumpy rhythm that sounded suspiciously like proto-rock’n’roll.

Musical Outlaws

Krauss sang ‘Down To The River To Pray’ by herself, ‘I’ll Fly Away’ with Gillian Welch and ‘Didn’t Leave Nobody But The Baby’ with Welch and Emmylou Harris. No one personified the artifice of O Brother, Where Art Thou? better than Welch. Though she was a middle-class daughter of California television writers, she fell in love with The Stanley Brothers and played old mountain instruments in anachronistic arrangements. But the songs she wrote and sang were starkly original and not at all derivative. She wasn’t pretending to be someone she wasn’t; she selectively borrowed from the past to make her own art more effective.

Like so much of the alt.-country movement, these musicians were not so much interested in what really happened in the 1930s as in what should have happened; they created an imaginary past as a template for the future. By pretending that country music was once devoted to working-class geniuses who borrowed liberally from Celtic ballads, blues and swing tunes and turned the results into highly personal stories about work, death and marriage, the musicians and their fans were really proposing what the music could be now. After...

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Source: The Definitive Illustrated Encyclopedia of Country Music, consultant editor Bob Allen


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