Tuesday, July 09, 2002

Roots music climbs its own mountain

'O Brother' turns the music industry on its ear by blending old-timey styles and finding legions of listeners

By Larry Nager, lnager@enquirer.com
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Singer/guitarist Chris Thomas King, who played a fictionalized version of Delta bluesman Tommy Johnson in the film.
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        O Brother is an orphan. It's the multi-platinum blockbuster nobody will claim.

        The soundtrack to the Coen Brothers' 2000 film, O Brother, Where Art Thou?, has sold more than 6 million copies and has won numerous industry awards, including the Grammys' top honor, album of the year. Still going strong, it remains in the Billboard Top 10 and has gone from phenomenon to mini-industry, spawning the hit live album, Down From the Mountain, and a top-grossing summer tour of the same name that tonight comes to U.S. Bank Arena (formerly Firstar Center).

        But the music industry has been slow to capitalize on it or take ownership, say stars of the tour.

        “No one in Nashville has been able to figure it out,” says Ricky Skaggs, one of the tour members who wasn't in the film (although his wife, Sharon, was). “They deny that it even happened, 'cause they didn't have anything to do with it.”

        The same is true of the blues industry, says singer/guitarist Chris Thomas King, who played a fictionalized version of Delta bluesman Tommy Johnson in the film.

        “The blues genre, they've been asleep on this thing,” says Mr. King, a lifelong bluesman whose recent albums mix blues and hip-hop. “They've got an artist who's part of it and who has made eight or nine blues albums. The blues world hasn't really embraced it, hasn't claimed it as part of their success.”

               O Brother is an outlaw.

        The album broke all the rules of how records get made and promoted in the 21st century. Instead of coming from the accepted music centers, the usual producers and promoted to the usual radio stations in the usual ways, it came from Hollywood.

        “The Coen Brothers (O Brother producers/directors/writers Joel and Ethan), they've always had wonderful taste in music in their films,” Emmylou Harris says.

        Whether it was the old cowboy song, “Way Out There,” that ran through Raising Arizona, or Townes Van Zandt singing “Dead Flowers” over the credits in The Big Lebowski, Coen Brothers films always use unexpected music in surprising ways.

        But O Brother upped the ante and broke the rule that Hollywood has followed since the dawn of musicals, when moving pictures first started talking in 1927: Never, ever sing live. All songs in films are lip-synched. But in O Brother, Mr. King's performance of Skip James' “Hard Time Killing Floor Blues,” was filmed as it happened.


It came from Hollywood

    What: “Down From the Mountain” with Emmylou Harris, Ralph Stanley, Ricky Skaggs & Kentucky Thunder, Del McCoury Band, Chris Thomas King, Patty Loveless, Alison Kraus & Union Station featuring Dan Tyminski (the singing voice of George Clooney), Jerry Douglas, Norman and Nancy Blake, the Nashville Bluegrass Band and Rodney Crowell.

    When: 7:30 p.m. today

    Where: U.S. Bank Arena

    Tickets: $29, $39, $49 at the box office

        Mr. King believes there's a real difference in the impact live music makes.

        “Most of the music that people are exposed to is through music videos, where a guy's lip-synching and pantomiming some electronic song. There's not a lot of real emotion there,” he says.

        “But the Coen Brothers, they allowed my character, at the campfire scenes, to actually perform. People in the audience, they're hearing something and feeling something that's so deep and so rich and has such a history to it, in a movie theater in 5.1 surround sound.”

        And in their living rooms on their home entertainment centers. And on PBS stations, where Down From the Mountain, the documentary of a live performance by the O Brother musical cast, has become a staple of fund-raising programming.

        “They sold me. I was needing to make a contribution and that certainly spurred me,” says Grady Kirkpatrick of Independence, who made his annual donation to Kentucky public TV (KET) after seeing Down From the Mountain.

        He spends a lot of time with that music in his day job as program director for WNKU-FM (89.7), Northern Kentucky University's folk/adult contemporary radio station. The songs and artists from O Brother and Down From the Mountain are a staple of WNKU programming. But it's about the only Greater Cincinnati station where the music of the artists from that album — the bluegrass of Ralph Stanley, the gospel of the Fairfield Four, the old-timey music of Norman Blake, the country blues of Chris Thomas King — can be heard.


Eclectic music selection

               That mixture was due to the genius of the album's producer, T Bone Burnett, Mr. King says.

        “It really was America's roots music. You had gospel, you had spirituals, you had pure folk music, you had the blues. That's what T Bone did that was so brilliant. He brought all that music together and said, "This is just one thing. We all come from the same place, we all have love and sadness and joy and hope and dreams.' ”

        But just as Paul Simon's Graceland album is remembered as being his “South African record,” although it also included Los Lobos and zydeco master Rockin' Dopsie, the O Brother phenomenon is tagged as “bluegrass.”

        “In the overall hype of Down From the Mountain and O Brother, Where Art Thou? I think the other elements get lost sometime,” Mr. King says. “You'd be surprised how often I get introduced as a bluegrass artist.”


Roots music alive

               O Brother is just the iceberg's tip.

        Today's roots movement runs deep and wide. July 30, Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Jorma Kaukonen will play the 20th Century Theater. But the former guitarist for Jefferson Airplane won't be doing his old band's Summer of Love hits. Instead, he'll play some real oldies — hillbilly blues songs from the '20s and '30s, from his new album, Blue Country Heart — performed acoustically, backed by mandolin and steel guitar.

        He says he doesn't mind being accused of jumping on the O Brother bandwagon, but he's played acoustic blues since his (brief) college days at Antioch in Yellow Springs. The hillbilly side of the blues, personified by the Delmore Brothers (who recorded for Cincinnati's King Records), is new to him.

        “Some reviews say, "He really pulled out some old chestnuts.' Well they might be old to you, they're not old to me.”

        That's the key to the success of today's roots music movement, says the guitarist, who runs the Fur Peace Ranch guitar center outside Athens, Ohio. It may be as old as the hills, but it's timeless music that, for the young audience listening now, is brand new.

        “I think the O Brother thing took off because the music speaks for itself,” Mr. Kaukonen says. “I'm not a scholar in this, but the key word is American. It's very interesting to find out where it all comes from, but where it goes is right here.”

        A few days after Mr. Kaukonen's show, the “Jam Grass” Tour comes to Riverbend, with a festival's worth of talent, including Sam Bush (who also plays on Blue Country Heart, a disc that features Down From the Mountain's Jerry Douglas), David Grisman and a host of others.

        But it's not being promoted to country fans; this is a concert for the young, jam-band crowd. That's where the new audience for bluegrass is coming from. You can see it locally when the Comet Bluegrass All Stars play hip, alternative nightspots such as the campus area's Mad Frog and the band's namesake in Northside. Mr. Skaggs was happy to see that audience when the tour opened in June in Louisville.

        “I was so pleased to see lots of young boys and young girls there. College students and high school, people that actually bought tickets, that didn't just come with mom and dad.

        “It's just a perfect time for bluegrass to rise to the occasion,” he says. “People are always looking to roots music, they're looking for something that's got substance to it, and this music does. We just played with String Cheese (Incident, one of the biggest bluegrass/jam bands) out in Denver, and their crowd just absolutely ate up what we were doing. And we were doing "Mother's Only Sleeping,' old, old stuff, and they were digging it.”


Now, it'll spread

               O Brother is at a crossroads.

        With predictions of 10 million in sales by year's end, the O Brother phenomenon looks to continue for a while. But where does it go from there?

        “I think you're gonna get continued interest in this type of music, but not at that scale. It seems to have peaked,” says WNKU's Mr. Kirkpatrick. It's very unlikely it'll ever be mass appeal, but it's as close as it's ever been.”

        But if O Brother has peaked, now it's time for it to spread.

        “I think (the revival) is going to go beyond this,” says Ms. Harris. “I think a lot of people are discovering this music for the first time. And they're discovering that there's more than just the people that are involved in O Brother and Down From the Mountain, and that there's a whole amazing network that stretches out, back through the years and currently. We always knew there was an audience for it, but this is kind of beyond anyone's imaginings.”

        Especially the music industry's powers that be. It may be an orphan, but it's one with muscle, states Mr. Skaggs.

        “Nashville's still denying that it really exists,” he says with a chuckle. “But it's the coolest thing and the best thing that has happened to bluegrass and old-time music in maybe forever. I think it's the biggest shot we've ever had for this kind of music.”


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