This record is a collection of songs from the famous movie “O Brother Where Art Thou?” The movie is set in rural Mississippi during the Great Depression, so the soundtrack was created to reflect the sounds from the Southern United Stated and the Appalachian mountains. This soundtrack features bluegrass, country, gospel, blues, and folk music. I have enjoyed this collection ever since I first saw the movie. I fell in love with the culture and the simplicity of the old Southern lifestyle. I was born and raised in Georgia but I never had listened to traditional Southern music before this soundtrack. My favorite song from the album is “Man of Constant Sorrow” because the vocals are excellent but also because Dan Tyminski conveys the message of a struggling man so effortlessly. I had never considered this album to be tied to Appalachia but since learning about the culture of the region, I came to realize that Appalachian music shares some of the musical flavors of the South.
Each song within this album is unique in it’s own way. This record features cheerful religious songs as well as dirges. I decided to review this album because of the diversity, the impact it has made on so many people who fell in love with the songs, and because it has more than one message. A great album in my opinion is one that has a song for every emotion you are feeling. This album can be historical, biblical, cheerful, and somber.
The album was named the same as the movie. It was released on October 23rd, 2000. Produced by T Bone Burnett, the album exceeded expectations. Burnett is a very accomplished music producer as well as musician, having played guitar for Bob Dylan on tour and over forty years of experience in the music industry. The label on this collection was Lost Highway, a Nashville based country music label, which has seen extensive success in the country music industry. It is worth noting that this label is substantial and it is obvious that a lot of time and money went into this record.
The album received numerous awards both by critics and by the general population. “O Brother Where Art Thou?” became a best seller by the general public and became certified platinum eight times as of October of 2007. The success continued as the album sold 7.9 million copies in the United States by January of 2015. The critics also enjoyed this album immensely. The record was Album of the Year at the 2002 Grammy awards. The same year, the record was awarded the Grammy for the Best Country Collaboration with Vocals. The individual performers also received accolades from the success of the album. Ralph Stanley won the Grammy award for Best Male Country Vocal Performance for his contribution to the album, “Oh Death”. As if all this positive feedback wasn’t enough, the album sustained topping the country chart for twenty full weeks in 2001. “Man of Constant Sorrow” performed by lead vocalist Dan Tyminski became the country music Single of the Year that same year.
You may be wondering how a simple movie soundtrack could command this type of success, but it is clear to see that America was simply falling back in love with old timey country music. The producers of the movie decided that they should create a soundtrack first because it was going to be a main focus of the movie. I certainly think that their effort paid off. The soundtrack reflects the old South and even though these are mostly new recordings, the sound takes you back to what you might hear on the radio in the 1930’s.
Allison Krauss is an excellent country singer who also sings blue grass. She is featured on the album for the songs, “Down to the River to Pray” and “Didn’t Leave Nobody But The Baby”. Krauss’s melodic and gentle tones certainly help her sing the hymn, “Down to the River to Pray”. She then shifts from a biblical sound to the sound of a siren in “Didn’t Leave Nobody But The Baby”. This transition from heavenly to hellish makes Krauss such a compelling singer. Both songs have simple structure but they are free from instrumental interference. These pieces require an excellent musician who can give an outstanding a cappella performance, thus Krauss is the perfect choice for these two songs. They are both simple yet demanding in their own way. The finesse required is exceptional and I believe that Krauss did the album justice. Krauss is just one of the many examples of excellent musicians on this album.
There was one song that remained an original 1928 recording. That song was “Big Rock Candy Mountain”. It is unclear why this was the only song kept in original form, but I can assume it was because of the old timey feel that the song gives. The only difference between this song and the others is that this is a genuine old timey sound. The others may be original songs sang by musicians of today, but “Big Rock Candy Mountain” was barely touched at all to prepare it for the album.
There are two songs in particular that I feel represent the musical roots of the old South. These songs would be “Lonesome Valley” and “Oh Death”. The first is a Negro spiritual; the second is a traditional Appalachian folk song. In the movie, the messages of these two songs are somewhat similar yet they are used for very different purposes in the movie. “Oh Death” is sung by the Ku Klux Klan kleagle (or Grand Dragon, the cast list is not specific) at a Ku Klux Klan meeting as a dirge when attempting to murder an African American, in contrast, some Negro gravediggers sing “Lonesome Valley” as a dirge because our white heroes were about to be hanged by the law. These songs reflect the unpleasant history of the South, and how far we have come. It is important for this generation to hear these songs and understand the culture that came before they were born.
Appalachia is in my opinion helped by this album. Although the movie is very accurate historically, and the racism involved may be uncomfortable, it also shows the old charm of the Appalachian music compared to traditional country music. This album represents Appalachia because the sounds heard from within are of traditional Appalachian songs recently recorded by famous country singers who understand the type of sound that was historically accurate for the time period. I would also say that the success of the album has made Appalachia more popular than it was just a few decades ago. People watched the movie and then fell in love with the music. They fell in love with it so much that they released a ten-year anniversary album, which features the original album, but with added bonus material. The reissued album was released on August 23rd of 2011 and contained 14 new tracks.
The feelings of the album certainly reflect the feelings of the Appalachian region in many ways. The album reflects: the racial tension of the time, the reliance on faith and spirituality, the long suffering of those enduring poverty due to the Great Depression, and those struggling through prohibition. These topics or themes are certainly norms of the time and were everyday topics of discussion. The one place that I feel is most significant in this album is heaven. Everyone is living their life in misery so they can one day reach heaven. There are stories of faith, stories of struggle, and stories of death told in this record. These stories are all told by each character that crosses the main character’s path. They all have their own beliefs and dreams. Just like the Odyssey, of which this movie is based upon, the main characters learn something from every character they pass along their journey.
The people who are buying the album are the people who have either seen the movie and love the music associated with it, or they are true grandchildren of the South or of Appalachia and can’t resist the sound of original blues, country, gospel, folk, and bluegrass music. These are the people who came back to their roots from the big cities. They are perhaps the descendants of the Appalachian migration of the 1930’s. They may feel nostalgic towards these songs and remember their grandparents singing them these songs when they were little children.
This record is a treasure that reflects well upon the Appalachian region as well as the old South. This is the first positive reflection of the Appalachian region in what seems a very long time. People will treasure these songs for decades to come and their children will always be able to know the sound of where they come from or where they grew up. It is an endearing piece of history that will stay a favorite as long as there are people who are restoring the memory of the original Appalachian people. It has become one of my favorite albums because it is unique and special. The movie will be remembered for years to come, but in this case, so will the soundtrack.
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