January 23, 2001
O Brother, Where Art Thou?
Music from the Soundtrack, Various Artists
Produced by T Bone Burnett
The musical genre that includes movie soundtracks has traditionally been the bastard child of popular music. A ready made collection of tunes that helped the record industry stretch its publicity and recording budget by offering fans a new song without the expense of a new record. More recently it has been the bastion of the big summer hit (who could ever forget that boat song even if they tried!) or the latest Disney musical (can anyone say crass commercialism?). So when I received the soundtrack from the latest Coen Brothers' movie O Brother Where Art Thou and saw the video featuring a slick-back George Clooney lip-syncing to the theme music, letís just say I was skeptical. But what I found was a beautifully crafted quilt of old-time, hillbilly, blues, gospel, and mountain music.
From the first song "Po Lazarus," a chain gang chant complete with pick axes, to the 19th tract "Angel Band," a primitive gospel song by the self-proclaimed "king of mountain soul" Ralph Stanley, T-bone Burnett carefully pieces together a portrait of a time filled with hobos, tent revivals and hard time. He has harkened up a time when the south, still reeling from Reconstruction and entering the depths of the Depression. This is so much more than a soundtrack, it is a journey into a world of music few if any of us ever experience. A time when RCA sent one of the first portable recording studios into the mountains of Bristol, Tennessee to capture the sounds that would give birth to country music. A time when Delta Blues began to meld with the gospel and folk sounds of a generation of musicians forced to travel from barn dance to church social all over the south. What resulted is the sound that would spawn almost all of our popular music including Jazz, Bluegrass, Country and Rock-n-Roll. It is a veritable education in music history.
Throughout the CD, the music is traditional but it is the performances by such talents as Emmylou Harris, Gillian Welch, The Whites and the Cox Family that bring it to life. Newcomers Chris Thomas King and the honey voiced Allison Krauss are destined to finally get the public recognition they deserve. Traditional Folk songs such as "Big Rock Candy Mountain" and "You Are My Sunshine" popular these days with the kiddies, take on a whole new meaning when you hear all the verses. The lyric is much like the times in which they were written -- a blend of the bright and hopeful with an underbelly of darkness and despair. The music is wonderfully orchestrated and performed. What results is a veritable education in music history. And like the best lessons, it is wrapped in fun.
This is a CD for the music connoisseur and the casual listener alike. But when you buy it donít stop there. Grab the Bristol Sessions or Oxford American's Southern Music Sampler or anything by Allison Krauss, grab a cup of hot tea and wrap yourself up in this quilt, I guarantee it will feel like home.
-- Thomi Sharpe
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