You want to hear something strange?” asks Ethan Coen, whose new film, O Brother, Where Art Thou?, goes into national release this month. ”The movie came out a couple of months ago in France, and the soundtrack album is huge there. Go figure.”
Hillbilly music, tres chic on the Continent? Stranger things have happened, though generally only in Coen brothers movies. The soundtrack to the siblings’ latest soft-gonzo comedy — mostly new renditions of vintage country and blues songs by folks like Alison Krauss, John Hartford, and the Fairfield Four — makes for a fine primer on early-20th-century Southern American music for a generation that’s mostly never heard its pre-MTV, pre-CMT likes before. ”Except on maybe The Beverly Hillbillies, right?” wonders music supervisor T Bone Burnett. ”And maybe Deliverance, but that was about a hundred years ago too. I feel like if this music is gonna be heard for the first time by a lot of people through this, it’s putting a good foot forward.”
Burnett, a legendary artist-producer who has worked with everybody from Bob Dylan to Jakob Dylan, was the first person the Coens sent the script to after writing their road comedy about crooning chain-gang escapees in Depression-era Mississippi. He had a considerably bigger job ahead than on his last assignment for the brothers. ”The Big Lebowski was all just found stuff — it was a DJ job,” he laughs. ”With this, we recorded, gosh, probably 60 or 70 pieces before we shot anything.”
Though no one will mistake it for Oklahoma! or Oh, You Beautiful Doll, O Brother is nearly a musical; as the Coens note, music making was enough a part of everyday existence in the 1930s South to allow for campfire scenes, candidates’ rallies, and Klan meetings all climaxing in song in a way that Ethan says ”is either close to real life or pleasantly close enough.” A few of the soundtrack’s neo-traditionalist artists — family trio the Whites, for instance — also appear briefly on screen. Some key performances were dubbed, though: George Clooney, who in the film accidentally scores a hit as a member of the impromptu Soggy Bottom Boys, turned out not to have the chops of aunt Rosemary. A trio of sirens who lull the heroes to sleep were given sensual voice by Emmylou Harris, Gillian Welch, and Krauss. And Ralph Stanley’s ”O Death” (which Burnett calls ”one of the best pieces of music I’ve ever heard”) was put in the mouth of a Klan grand dragon.
Bluegrass being a notoriously self-protective world, did anyone express fears that the Coens might treat their music — or faith — irreverently? ”I think the practitioners of the music are happy when people display an interest, whatever the interest is,” says Joel Coen. ”And they knew we weren’t trying to send it up in any way.” Adds Burnett: ”Everybody trusted them. If it was irreverent, that’s okay, if it’s good. If something’s irreverent and bad, that’s a drag.”