O Brother Album Talk of Bluegrass Convention

LOUISVILLE, Ky. — The benign shadow of O Brother, Where Art Thou? loomed over the opening ceremonies of the 2001 World of Bluegrass convention, which began Monday (Oct. 1) at the Galt House Hotel here. Convention-goers heard not one but two “keynote” addresses on the wonders worked for bluegrass music by last year’s popular Coen Brothers film.

T Bone Burnett, producer of the best-selling O Brother soundtrack album, was scheduled to give the opening address but canceled for family reasons. His remarks, however, were read to the gathering by John Grady, senior vice president of sales and marketing for Mercury Records, the label that issued and promoted the soundtrack. Grady supplemented Burnett’s musings about the movie and music with his own observations.

“It’s great to come back where something you said came true,” Grady beamed. “Last year, I came here touting a soundtrack that could possibly do something great for this music. … I was just the flaky guy from Nashville who sold Shania Twain records.”

Grady reported that the soundtrack album has sold more than 3 million copies worldwide and that its recently released spinoff, Down From the Mountain (on Mercury’s Lost Highway label), has sold 300,000. When the soundtrack artists played Carnegie Hall in June, Grady said, the famed venue sold out in less than three days — at $115 a ticket. The movie itself, Grady noted, reaped over $45 million, more than twice the total generated by the Coens’ critically lauded Fargo.

Down From the Mountain, the D. A. Pennebaker/Chris Hegedus documentary about the making of the soundtrack, will debut nationally on PBS Dec. 6, Grady announced. In January, many of the musicians featured on the soundtrack will launch a 25-city package tour to further promote their music.

Burnett’s conclusions about the music ranged from the aesthetic to the technical. “It has been a good year for traditional American music,” the musician/producer wrote. “I have heard this record referred to as bluegrass music, and I suppose that is a good enough catch-phrase for it. But when we were doing it, we thought we were making a rock ’n’ roll record, that is to say, we thought we were making swing music, dance music, love-not-war music. … For me, this record began about five or six years ago when I was in my kitchen with the abstract artist, Larry Poons, talking about Ralph Stanley .”

Burnett said Poons had remarked to him that, “We live in an age of music for people who don’t like music.” This set Burnett to thinking about real versus manufactured music. “What he was saying was this: the record business learned years ago that not that many people like music. Some people can do without it. Some people are annoyed by it … [T]he basic record company philosophy has for some time been that if you remove the aspects of [a particular form of music] that the audience finds challenging, you have a better chance of selling the stuff. I suppose you could find parallels in country music as well.”

Nonetheless, Burnett noted, authentic music can benefit from wide exposure, alluding to the upsurge in jazz record and ticket sales that came from Ken Burns’ PBS series on the music.

While understanding its impulse to compete with flashier forms of music, Burnett lamented the modernization of bluegrass. “As technology began to make incursions into music, bluegrass musicians began attempting to apply it to their craft. Everyone got his own microphone. Everyone had a monitor. People began to put pickups on banjos … I have been fighting plastic drum heads for many years. I would say the same about banjos. They sound better with calfskin heads. All drums do. And the banjo is just about my favorite drum. We have concentrated too long on attack. We must turn our interest back to tone. The attack is the least interesting part of the sound of the drum. The tone and the overtones are the most crucial elements in the alchemy of music.”

As his rallying cry, Burnett proclaimed: “For the past 20 years, the arrow has been pointing toward the artists as they have paraded past the camera pleading for attention. That is no longer appropriate. Now the arrow must point toward the audience as the artists pour out every bit of love and humanity they have in them. Generosity is the hallmark of an artist.”

After he completed reading Burnett’s speech, Grady told the audience that all the bluegrass and traditional albums he has heard since the O Brother soundtrack success have met the high standards Burnett talked about. “I can’t spot in any of these records where anybody sold out,” he said. “You need to keep believing. You need to embrace the music. … The purity of this music is what sold it.”

A panel discussion on “What We Can Learn From O Brother, Where Art Thou?” is scheduled for Tuesday’s sessions.

The 2001 World of Bluegrass will continue through Sunday (Oct. 7). On Thursday, Oct. 4, the International Bluegrass Music Association, which sponsors the convention, will hold its annual awards show at the Kentucky Center for the Arts in Louisville.

Edward Morris is a veteran of country music journalism. He lives in Nashville, Tennessee, and is a frequent contributor to CMT.com.