7. O Brother!

What a year it's been for bluegrass.

CONSTANT SORROW sure hasn't been on the mind of fans of old-time, down-home, sitting-in-a-porch-rocker music in 2001.

Unless it's in the form of Dan Tyminski singing "I Am a Man of Constant Sorrow" on the incredibly popular soundtrack album for O Brother, Where Art Thou?. Since the film's December 2000 release, the album has sold more than 3 million copies worldwide. And it's not a passing fancy: The record is still no. 3 in the Amazon.com sales rankings. In October, O Brother won album, song, and gospel recorded performance of the year from the International Bluegrass Music Association. Last month, it picked up both album and single of the year honors at the Country Music Awards.

In an interview last summer, Gillian Welch, who has two songs on the album, talked about the phenomena. "I was surprised at first, and I was really shocked that it continues," she said. Welch also played a bit part in the film and has a key role in the documentary Down From the Mountain, which captured a concert of the film's music in Nashville and is now being shown on PBS. A live soundtrack from that film has already sold 300,000 copies and is being supported by a 25-city tour.

"Down From the Mountain," featuring a variety of musicians including Alison Krauss and Union Station, Emmylou Harris, Ralph Stanley, the Peasall Sisters, and many others, hits the Paramount Feb. 14 and 15. Tickets cost $45 to $75, but the first show sold out in days.

Whatever the explanation for the grand slam of such an obscure collection, O Brother's mix of traditional American classics has brought renewed interest to old-school folk and bluegrass. Welch said, "I think there's a cyclical reaction to a bunch of other stuff going on. It's a reaction to things people are combating in their everyday lives, commercial radio, even commercials. The fact that traffic is getting worse may be increasing O Brother sales," she said.

This interview was done pre-Sept. 11 but if anything, music fans should now have an even stronger longing for traditional American music.

Worrywarts already fear this success could ruin bluegrass, a genre where total sales of 20,000 would previously have been a smash. And how will the slick world of mainstream country and country radio deal with a style of music defined by its lack of perfection, pretension, and polish?

This may end up a story where the public demands, and gets, what it wants. The success of the film Buena Vista Social Club and its related musical records and concerts has led to a renewed and sustained interest in Cuban music. Even the modern artists involved in the O Brother projects, like Welch and Krauss and her band Union Station, have found great separate success. So let mainstream country ignore O Brother. They might end up the ones with constant sorrow.

Audrey Van Buskirk

avanbuskirk@seattleweekly.com

 
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