ROOTS, COOTS AND OFFSHOOTS
Old-time American Music is finding a friendly ear at the boxoffice.
by Gary Glushon
August 21-27, 2001
One of the surprise soundtrack successes of the year was Lost Highway Records’ soundtrack for “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” The album has sold an astonishing 1.2 million copies to date, appealing to both youthful listeners and roots enthusiasts with its blend of old-time bluegrass, gospel and country tunes. “The movie theater is a great radio station,” says T-Bone Burnett, the record’s producer. “This type of music really connects to people’s lives.”
In fact, the music from the Coen brothers’ period film has taken a life of its own, spawning a touring concert, a documentary and now a documentary soundtrack. “It just keeps getting bigger and bigger,” says Kevin Lane, senior director of media relations for Mercury Records, which distributes Lost Highway.
Joel and Ethan Coen’s approach to crafting the film’s music was, in may ways, as unusual as the soundtrack’s success. While most directors have music supervisors lasso a passel of high-profile songs after the film is complete, music for “O Brother” was recorded long before the film went into production. This was necessary, Burnett says, “because the music made the movie”. To find the American roots music that would define the Depression-era film, the Coen brothers enlisted Burnett, who had previously served as music archivist for their film “The Big Lebowski as well as having produced records for artists such as Los Lobos, Elvis Costello and Counting Crows.
The Coens sent Burnett 20 to 30 songs for consideration, and Burnett searched his own archives to find additional tunes. After three months of research, they began recording in Nashville with a roster of artists that included music veterans Emmylou Harris and John Hartford along with a new breed of artists such as Alison Krauss, the Cox Family and the Whites.
During recording, someone had the idea of doing a concert as a promotional tool for the film’s soundtrack. On May 24, 2000, six months before the release of the film and the soundtrack, a concert of the film’s music was held at the legendary Ryman Auditorium in Nashville, Tenn., where famed documentarian D.A. Pennebaker (“Don’t Look Back” and “The War Room”) and partner Chris Hegedus filmed the proceedings for a documentary.
With the film’s success at the boxoffice (at $45 million in domestic gross, it’s the top-grossing Coen pic ever) and the soundtrack entrenched on the album charts, John Vanco and Noah Cowan, co-presidents of Cowboy Booking International, picked up theatrical rights to the documentary, which was released in June in Nashville and New York and will roll out in various cities throughout summer. A soundtrack of the documentary entitled “Down From the Mountain” was released July 24 by Lost Highway.
"There is a groundswell of interest in this music all over the country but not a lot of opportunities for exposure,” Vanco says.
Fueled by current trends, those opportunities are increasing. According to the latest Soundscan tally, the indie Appalachian music-filled soundtrack for “Songcatcher” (jokingly referred to as “O Sister, Where Art Thou?”), sold 20,000 units in 10 weeks on the chart and climbed up the Billboard Independent and Country Music charts.
In addition, PBS Television is set to premiere a four-part series entitled “American Roots Music” beginning Oct. 29 at 10 p.m. (and continuing over three consecutive Mondays). The show features musical masters in the fields of folk, country, blues, gospel, Western swing, bluegrass, Cajun, zydeco, tejano and Native American music. Palm Pictures will concurrently release a four-CD boxed set, “Best of American Roots Music.”
Locally, L.A. based theatrical producer Carol Shild is preparing to mount “The Glory Road,” a play by Anita Garner. The play tells the true story of Southern performer and songwriter Sister Fern and features “white gospel” from the ‘50s and early ‘60s. “This is music of a slightly later era,” says Shild, who will workshop the play at the Century City Playhouse Oct. 25-28. “It’s the forerunner to rockabilly. They brought an acoustic guitar into church and really rocked.”
"Nowadays, machines are playing the musicians. These songs tell us a lot about who we are,” says Burnett, by way of explaining the popularity of these earthly tunes. “These are themes of loneliness, sorrow and death, songs about real life.”