O Brother, What a Party!

It started out with about the same statistical probability as pigs flying. But despite the fact it was old-time acoustic music that most country radio stations wouldn’t play, the soundtrack album to O Brother, Where Art Thou? has become an international hit. To celebrate the achievement, Mercury Records threw a lavish “platinum party” Thursday night (May 3) at The Factory shopping and entertainment complex in Franklin, Tenn., just outside Nashville.

The décor stayed true to the theme of the Coen Brothers film set in the rural South of the 1930s. The buffet menu was meat-and-potatoes and miniature apple pies — all fancied up, to be sure — and liquor bubbled up like there had never been Prohibition. Serving areas were decorated with stringed musical instruments, an antique typewriter and an equally ancient sewing machine. A boxy old touring car stood parked at one side of the party room with a prison-striped dummy sitting in the driver’s seat. Waiters and bartenders were clad in convict costumes and bib overalls, and many of them (including several women) sported the kind of patently false beards actor George Clooney and his fellow fugitives wore in the movie.

Underlining the law-and-order tenor of the evening, Tennessee Gov. Don Sundquist mingled casually among the hundreds of guests. Ricky Skaggs also dropped in to see his wife, father-in-law and sister-in-law — the Whites — awarded a platinum plaque for their contribution to the album.

“We’ve had some proud moments at our record company,” Mercury president Luke Lewis said from the stage prior to handing out the plaques. “We’ve had an artist who’s sold more records than any other woman [Shania Twain], and we’ve won a Grammy [in 1998] for our Hank Williams collection. But I don’t think there’s been a prouder moment in my career than what we’re having tonight.”

Saluting the Coen Brothers, who were not in attendance, Lewis said, “They treated our music with dignity.” He took a crack at the recording technology now used to make artists sound better than they do naturally, pointing out that the tracks on the soundtrack album were created with “no Pro Tools — they used microphones and they recorded live.”

Although most of the artists and musicians who performed on the album were at the party, several of the biggest names were not. The missing included producer T Bone Burnett, John Hartford, Emmylou Harris and Alison Krauss.

Among the dozens of principals and behind-the-scenes folks who were on hand to accept their platinum albums were Denise Stiff, who organized the music for the project, Ralph Stanley, the Peasall Sisters, the Whites, the Nashville Bluegrass Band, Dan Tyminski, the Fairfield Four, Gillian Welch and David Rawlings. “I’d about given up on getting one of these,” the less-than-voluble Stanley said afterward.

“Probably the best thing to come out of this,” Lewis told the crowd, “was recognition [for this type of music] from America and all over the world. Thankfully, the press also recognized the importance of the music.” Although the platinum designation means that 1 million copies of the album have been shipped to record stores, Lewis said that nearly 1.5 million albums have been sold around the world — 70,000 in France alone. “Hopefully,” he concluded, “we’ve sparked the beginnings of a revolution here.”

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