LOS ANGELES – For the first time in the 44-year history of the Grammy Awards, an album coming out of Nashville -– the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack –- won honors for album of the year, trumping highly touted works by India.Arie, Bob Dylan, Outkast and U2.
“Not even minds as elliptical as the Coen Brothers could have written this ending,” said the album’s producer, T Bone Burnett, as he collected the last of his awards at the Staples Center in Los Angeles. The Coen Brothers’ movie revisited Homer’s Odyssey, placing the story in Depression-era Mississippi.
In all, the soundtrack captured five awards, tying R&B singer Alicia Keys with the most victories. O Brother spawned awards for album of the year, best compilation soundtrack (the award going to producer T Bone Burnett), producer of the year (Burnett), best country collaboration with vocals for the Soggy Bottom Boys’ “I Am a Man of Constant Sorrow” and best male country vocal for Ralph Stanley ’s haunting ballad “O Death.”
“Everybody thought I was insane, but I had produced a Counting Crows record that had sold 8 or so million records and a Wallflowers record that had sold 5 million records or so,” Burnett said backstage. “This seemed like one of those kinds of records. It was those kinds of songs, that general kind of music, American music, except, rather than one good singer, we had 15 or 12 great singers. Ralph Stanley is the most important singer in country music today.”
Burnett explained that music is finding other, non-traditional outlets. “Things have changed, as the man said,” he said, referencing Bob Dylan. “There are a lot of different broadcast media now. Radio doesn’t have the stranglehold that it once had on the distribution of music, to say the least.”
Mainstream country artists could almost be heard to mutter, “O brother,” as they found themselves out of the winners’ circle in every country category.
A Hank Williams tribute album, Timeless, with performances by rock and pop stars like Ryan Adams , Lucinda Williams and Sheryl Crow, and country legends such as Johnny Cash and Emmylou Harris , was named best country album. The project triumphed over titles by Tim McGraw , Diamond Rio and Trisha Yearwood .
Backstage, Luke Lewis, label chief for Lost Highway Records — source for Timeless and O Brother — shrugged off any suggestion that the night’s country victories might send a message to Music Row. “I think it’s the most country album to come out of Nashville all year, in my estimation,” he said of Timeless.
Adding further to the Lost Highway tally was a trophy for best traditional folk album for Down From the Mountain. The O Brother-inspired concert album was recorded in May 2000 in Nashville, before the release of the movie or soundtrack. The success of the live performance gave rise to the recently concluded Down From the Mountain tour.
Given a prominent performance spot during the 3½-hour telecast on CBS, the O Brother cast made the most of their moment. Harris, Gillian Welch and Alison Krauss opened the segment with “Didn’t Leave Nobody but the Baby”; Stanley followed with “O Death” and the cast ended with “I Am a Man of Constant Sorrow.”
Krauss, a major contributor to O Brother and Down From the Mountain, picked up four awards including wins for best bluegrass album and best country performance by a duo or group with vocal, for “The Lucky One,” both with her band, Union Station, album of the year and best traditional folk album.
“The Lucky One” also was named best country song, a win for truck-driving songwriter Robert Lee Castleman. The song was not released as a single and did not have significant radio airplay, a first in the country song category.
Parton picked up her seventh Grammy, best female country vocal performance, for “Shine,” a track from her second bluegrass album, Little Sparrow. Parton did not attend this year’s awards.
Scruggs’ newly recorded version of the Flatt & Scruggs classic “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” was named best country instrumental performance. Scruggs won his first Grammy in 1969 for the same song, which he wrote in the ‘40s. The new version features Scruggs with Glen Duncan, Randy Scruggs, Steve Martin, Vince Gill , Marty Stuart , Gary Scruggs, Albert Lee, Paul Shaffer, Jerry Douglas and Leon Russell.
“To me, it’s almost like a new song every time I get into a group of new pickers,” Scruggs said backstage. “It kinda turned me on, to say the least, to get into the studio with good artists like that, so it was a real blast to do it.”
Randy Scruggs, Earl’s son and producer for the album Earl Scruggs & Friends, said it was important that Scruggs’ first solo album in 17 years be a tribute to the spirit of collaboration that has been a thread throughout his Hall of Fame career.
“We wanted to celebrate that collaborative effort,” Scruggs said backstage. “To re-record ‘Foggy Mountain Breakdown,’ we wanted it to be something [special]. We didn’t want to duplicate what we had done before. It has a new-found energy, but it’s with artists clearly recognized as outstanding instrumentalists.”
Gill’s trophy as part of the “Foggy Mountain” crew brings his career Grammy total to 15 and moves him past Chet Atkins among country artists. With her victories, Krauss’ career total now rests at 14, tying her with Atkins.
Stanley, also a bluegrass legend and Scruggs’ contemporary, picked up his first-ever Grammy not in bluegrass but in a country category. “People think I should sing more old-time, traditional country,” Stanley said backstage. “Actually, I have always thought that I did anyway. I just thought I was an old-time, traditional, mountain country singer.”
The O Brother album and the Down From the Mountain tour helped his cause, Stanley said. “One reason this old time music has hit,” he reasoned backstage, “it was put out where millions of people could hear it. Before, it wasn’t promoted, it wasn’t where people could hear it. Now they’ve heard it.”
Union Station member Douglas, who has worked for years in traditional and acoustic music, said he feels the interest in traditional country music inspired by O Brother is unprecedented. “There’s a cycle,” he observed. “This happens about every eight years or so, but this, to me, is the strongest one I’ve ever seen. A lot of radio programmers are probably holding their breath right now, hoping this is going to pass. Maybe it won’t. They might actually have to put us all in rotation.”
“We don’t consider ourselves the establishment,” said Mary Martin, artists-and-repertoire executive for O Brother label Lost Highway. “Lost Highway Records represents the passion of music.”
Nashville-based banjo specialist Bela Fleck picked up two awards, bringing his career total to seven. In recent years, Fleck has explored classical music after making a name for himself in bluegrass and jazz. His victories came for best classical crossover album, for Perpetual Motion –- a set that also features mandolinist Chris Thile of Nickel Creek -– and for best instrumental arrangement, for an arrangement of Debussy’s “Doctor Gradus Ad Parnassum,” a track from Perpetual Motion.
Alan Jackson ‘s performance of the Sept. 11-inspired “Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning)” received a standing ovation.
Freddy Fender won the Grammy for best Latin pop album, for La Musica de Baldemar Huerta. Jimmy Sturr, a frequent visitor to Nashville, earned a victory for best polka album for Gone Country, a project that pairs him with country stars Brenda Lee and Willie Nelson .
Lucinda Williams, a contributor to Timeless, also took a Grammy for best female rock vocal for “Get Right With God,” a track from her album Essence, on Lost Highway Records. Backstage she summed up her label’s approach: “They’re not trying to follow what’s commonly known as the Music Row machine.”