Congratulations to all who voted for O Brother, Where Art Thou, making it OnRecords’ most favourite soundtrack ever!
Probably my favourite fun fact about this winning soundtrack is that its recording actually began before filming the motion picture. This probably helps explain my decision to place it in the “Musicals” category, even though it was one of the few that haven’t been turned into a Broadway show (it’ll probably happen eventually though, right?).
So much more than a great soundtrack, O Brother has become like a curator, introducing many to early American folk music. I wouldn’t be surprised if the film is credited with the rise in popularity of folk instruments in the past 15 years, as well as successful bands like Mumford & Sons, The Lumineers and The Avett Brothers. But I digress.
When we press play on this album, it begins with a loud crackling noise – the sound of a log being chopped – which becomes the downbeat for “Po’ Lazarus”, the work-song recorded by Mississippi prisoners in 1959. This track accompanies one of the coolest stories behind this album: former inmate James Carter (who is credited as the lead vocal on the song) was presented with a cheque for $20,000 and when the soundtrack was nominated for a few Grammys, he attended the award ceremony in 2002, one year before his death.
The next track, Harry McClintock’s “Big Rock Candy Mountain”, is the only other compiled and pre-recorded song on the album. Since its recording in 1928 this song has been covered by many and even cleaned up for children a few times. But luckily we get the uncensored hobo’s paradise, complete with “lakes of Whiskey” and “cigarette trees”. It really sets the tone, for the rest of this old-timey soundtrack..
The rest of the tracks are a collection of traditional folk tunes brilliantly chosen by T Bone Burnett and re-recorded by a variety of country, bluegrass, and blues musicians. First up is Norman Blake’s rendition of the classic “You Are My Sunshine”, beginning with the saddest verse to temper the mostly light and sweet melody.
“Down to the River to Pray” is the first of a few to feature the crystal clear, angelic voice of Alison Krauss. It also happens to accompany one of my favourite moments in the film, when Delmar gets himself baptized:
Next up is the radio version of the plot-central track, “I Am a Man of Constant Sorrow”, which will show up a few more times before the album is done. This particular version (with lead vocals by Union Station’s own Dan Tyminski) is stripped down to vocals and acoustic guitar, reflecting how the recorded it in the film. The country music is broken up a bit with “Hard Time Killing Floor Blues” by ever-smooth bluesman Chris Thomas King before launching back into “I Am a Man of Constant Sorrow”, this time as an instrumental acoustic guitar solo.
After the perky “Keep on the Sunny Side”, Alison Krauss returns, first with one other female bluegrass legend, and then with two: Gillian Welch joins her on the theologically-problematic but emotion-lifting funeral favourite, “I’ll Fly Away”, before Emmylou Harris joins both women to complete the country vocal trifecta on the dirge-like lullaby, “Didn’t Leave Nobody but the Baby”.
Cutesy and chipmunk-y, “In The Highways”, is followed by what is possibly my favourite track on the album, from the Cox Family, “I Am Weary (Let Me Rest)”. Then, another instrumental of “Man of Constant Sorrow”, this time on violin, sets us up for Ralph Stanley’s haunting a cappella rendition of “O Death”.
The fictional singing group of the film, The Soggy Bottom Boys, return for an encore, and give us “In The Jailhouse Now,” as well as a full band version of our favourite theme song, which has an official music video that acts a bit like a film trailer/summary. Good luck not watching the movie after this.
The album closes out with two traditional folk tunes, first an a cappella and bass-heavy “Lonesome Valley”, and second, the Stanley Brothers’ old-time-country, mandolin accompanied “Angel Band”. There doesn’t seem to be a great way to finish off this throwback to old school American music, so the soundtrack ends there, not with a memorable moment from the film, but with a simple gospel folk tune about preparing for one’s death.
I think O Brother is such a clear favourite because it is not only a great collection of nostalgic tracks or a memorable keepsake from a great film, but because of the way the music transports us to a different time and place, covers a lifetime of emotional highs and lows, and if we’re lucky, we return to our own world with a new perspective. With or without the visuals of the movie.
…But if you haven’t yet, you should probably still see the movie.