The Old-Time Herald Volume 8, Number 5

Feature

by Randy Pitts

  As a person who has long been around and made at least part of his living in the traditional music community, and as one who almost exactly five years ago left a relatively thriving traditional music scene in Berkeley, California for a job on Music Row in Nashville (where Webb Pierce is considered a traditional musician), I suppose I have something of an unusual vantage point from which to view the recent phenomenon of the O Br oth er, Where Art Thou? soundtrack recording (six million copies sold and counting as I write). How did this unlikely collection — a couple of old 78s by Mac McClintock and The Stanley Br oth ers, a ‘30s field recording from Alan Lomax, several new recordings of venerable black gospel and blues groups, some old-time ballads, a few country fiddle tunes, and some bluegrass classics, plus a few originals designed to enhance the ambience of the movie performed by contemporary artists—Emmylou Harris, Gillian Welch, Alison Krauss, The Whites, Chris Thomas King, The Fairfield Four, and oth ers—how did such a collection manage to capture the ear and imagination of so many music lovers? Beats me.

            I remember saying, somewhat jokingly, to my boss Keith, after reading an account of the recording of the soundtrack in Billboard, “Wow, Keith, maybe this movie will do for old-time music what Saturday Night Fever did for disco.”

            “Right,” said Keith, and we b oth had a good laugh. Who knew?

            Nobody could have predicted the success of the movie or soundtrack and the subsequent interest in traditional music it spawned, except perhaps producer T-Bone Burnett. The man behind O Br oth er’s   music, Burnett is a highly regarded producer of many successful recordings, as well as a fine musician himself, having been a  guitarist on Bob Dylan’s ’70s Rolling Thunder Revue tour. Burnett reportedly always considered its musical soundtrack to be central to O Br oth er’s success—the true “star” of the movie—despite competition from famous cast members (and lipsynchers) such as George Clooney.

            Burnett’s guiding hand, good taste, musical judgment, and appropriate song choices are all obvious reasons for the success of the soundtrack. He has been a major behind-the-scenes force in the recording industry as a producer for a long time now. Somewhere in my record collection is a killer version of the old Johnny and Jack hit “Poison Love” that he recorded with Billy Swan, and he is a wonderful songwriter and guitarist as well. The Coen Br oth ers certainly picked the right man for the job.

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